WHEN SONJA DIAZ M.P.P. ’10 became the founding director of the Latino Policy & Politics Initiative (LPPI) in 2017, she said it was like “coming home.” Part of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, LPPI is a comprehensive think tank that focuses on political, social and economic issues that impact Latinos and communities of color. Along with LPPI co-founders Matt Barreto and Gary Segura, Diaz, a civil rights attorney and policy adviser, recognizes the role that social science research can play in developing sound policy.
What sparked the idea for the Latino Policy & Politics Initiative?
When I returned to UCLA in 2017, it was clear that there was a huge gap in the attention to the needs of Latinos, not only in California but also nationally. This was due in large part to a lack of research, data and insights on Latinos, who are not a monolith but a very heterogeneous community. Latinos were rising in political power in the state legislature and at the local and municipal levels, and there was a need to craft policy that really spoke to their constituents.
LPPI started with a really strong mandate, which was to craft policy solutions in line with the needs of elected officials and policy stakeholders. This is a process to get insights that are necessary, so governing bodies can make decisions that are not only more equitable but more effective.
Are there examples of LPPI’s research leading to policy changes?
One of LPPI’s reports found that immigrants in mixed status families were being shortchanged with COVID-19 relief and recovery. In response to our research, elected officials in Sacramento provided an additional buffer so that immigrants who file taxes using an individual taxpayer identification number [ITIN] could be eligible for different types of relief programs that exist around the earned income tax credit. Gov. Newsom just signed the bill into law, providing relief to immigrant Californians who file their taxes with the ITIN. That kind of relief is so necessary when people are facing eviction, are out of work, are juggling kids and school at home, and are dealing with issues in accessing the things they need.
In 2016, you directed a voter protection program for the Democratic Party in Virginia. What has been your role in the 2020 election?
With LPPI’s Voting Rights Project, we train undergraduate students, law students, public policy students and even doctoral students on civil rights litigation. In the area of voting rights, social science matters, and you need to be able to prove statistically that there is racially polarized voting. Now, 2020 has been a fascinating year, because it is so hard for local and state elections officials to carry out any presidential election, let alone one where there are policies and practices in place to ensure it’s safe for people to vote and people can physically distance themselves. California is leading the nation by ensuring there’s universal vote by mail. LPPI’s research has been a forward thinker on that effort.
The Voting Rights Project has made it clear that universal vote by mail is tried and true. It has been battle-tested in a number of states. We also provided evidence that it doesn’t result in fraud. The myth of voter fraud is really threatening the United States Postal Service. And we worked with faculty at the David Geffen School of Medicine to show that vote by mail is safe and won’t impede someone’s health and safety. This is important evidence for policymakers, not only at the state and local level but also in the United States Congress, as they seek to pass COVID-19 relief that appropriates the necessary funds to have a safe election.
“By understanding how to leverage cross-sector partnerships that are rooted in data and facts, you can produce more than if you work in a silo that isn’t able to impart relevant information to drive change.”
From 2014 to 2016, you were a deputy attorney general to then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is now running for vice president. Could you talk about your work with her in the California Department of Justice?
In government offices, there’s the opportunity to be in an executive office or a front office. And that means you’re staffing the principal and working on their affirmative agenda. A White House clerkship under President Obama encouraged me to seek out opportunities in California, especially in Los Angeles, which is where I was born and raised. At that time, then-Attorney General Kamala Harris was headquartered in Los Angeles, and I was lucky enough to be a young attorney in the executive office, working on the affirmative agenda, which was kids, women, civil rights and criminal justice issues.
Whatever happened in the news landed on my desk. And this was true of the unaccompanied minors crisis, whereby so many young kids were crossing borders to flee persecution and violence. Yet, under U.S. law, they did not have a right to counsel, and they were expected to present a successful asylum case in front of our courts without any support. I convened a cross-sector bully pulpit of law firms, experts, legal aid advocates, elected officials and even government officials from major agencies to see what we could do to ensure these kids are safe and protected in the U.S.
That work was really fundamental to my work now at UCLA. By understanding how to leverage cross-sector partnerships that are rooted in data and facts, you can produce more than if you work in a silo that isn’t able to impart relevant information to drive change.
What is the driving force behind your work today?
I’m the eldest daughter of two public servants who were able to attend universities in California because of affirmative action. They met at college and pursued careers in environmental planning and housing access. I was lucky to be a second-generation college student who was going to meetings in city hall or housing projects with my mom, and I was really able to model their type of leadership, where everybody is entitled to dignity and respect. You always have to stand up for what’s right. And it’s on that basis that I very clearly knew what it meant to serve and what career aspirations were out there for me.
It started with the idea that anybody who graduated from high school could go to UCLA, which was a radical idea — for a kid of color to expect access to a UC education. When I was a little girl, my brother and I would come and play in the trees at Perloff, because our father was attending graduate school at UCLA. And I remember being a toddler in the office of [Luskin School associate professor emeritus of urban planning] Leo Estrada and then coming back years later as a graduate student.
Leo was really important to me because he was the thread of the work that I do today. Leo’s scholarship on redistricting and Latino voting rights made it possible for me, as a young Chicana growing up in East Los Angeles, to see what was possible at a young age. I’m trying to continue to carry that legacy so that our students are able to lead, not just with technical skills, but with the values that communities of color matter and are deserving of resources, attention and dignity.