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How to Get Civic Leaders to Think 20 Years Out

Opinion: Moderate successes in developing more diverse labor markets in Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Salt Lake City show why it behooves regions to become more receptive to immigrants, a sociology professor says.

Manuel Pastor is professor of sociology and American studies & ethnicity at the University of Southern California where he also serves as director of USC's Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and co-director of USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
National Journal
Manuel Pastor
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Manuel Pastor
Jan. 23, 2014, midnight

Manuel Pas­tor, 57, is a pro­fess­or of so­ci­ology and Amer­ic­an stud­ies and eth­ni­city at the Uni­versity of South­ern Cali­for­nia. At a 2012 con­fer­ence, he said, “I think my role is to bring in un­com­fort­able top­ics in a way that makes people feel like they can ac­tu­ally talk about them.”

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

Some of the work I’ve done has been ori­ented to­ward re­gion­al equity in labor mar­kets — mak­ing sure [people of col­or, im­mig­rants, and low-in­come in­di­vidu­als are] part of so­ci­ety that is work­ing on be­ing more in­clus­ive.

A re­cent suc­cess we’ve seen in that arena oc­curred just last year in San Ant­o­nio when the city man­aged to pass a sales tax to make in­vest­ments in pre-K edu­ca­tion uni­ver­sal for dis­ad­vant­aged kids. Not only did they bring on board the usu­al sus­pects, like the may­or, but the Cham­ber of Com­merce came on board and cham­pioned in­vest­ment in pre-K as a way to gen­er­ate a labor force that per­forms well 20 years from now.

So how do we get the next gen­er­a­tion of com­munity and civic lead­ers [else­where] to think 20 years out? How do we get them to feel like all of these people are our people?

Here in L.A., we’ve be­come pro­fi­cient with com­munity-be­ne­fits agree­ments, by which de­velopers guar­an­tee hir­ing loc­ally or provid­ing hous­ing or parks [in the area where they are build­ing]. They make those prom­ises and co­di­fy them be­fore they be­gin the de­vel­op­ment. That’s been a pi­on­eer­ing thing here. It began in a pro­ject in Hol­ly­wood and then Los Angeles near the Staples Cen­ter where the Lakers play and then in the ex­pan­sion of the L.A. air­port. Think­ing re­gion­ally has helped oth­er groups to think of how these ma­jor de­vel­op­ments could de­liv­er.

There’s also more thread­ing to­geth­er of is­sues. For ex­ample, L.A. is try­ing to ret­ro­fit mu­ni­cip­al build­ings so they’re green­er and more sus­tain­able. That gets coupled with job train­ing to get youth and low-in­come people in­to the trades. For some of these folks, for the first time they have a steady job that’s uni­on, and they’re able to think about buy­ing a house and mov­ing for­ward. That makes a dif­fer­ence in people’s lives.

Los Angeles also has many un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants who have a lot of as­pir­a­tions. We need to make it pos­sible for the un­doc­u­mented and also people grow­ing up in poor neigh­bor­hoods to have a plat­form of suc­cess.

I think I see my­self in them and they see them­selves in me. My dad was un­doc­u­mented when he came to the U.S. in the ‘30s. We were poor, and he was able to get a uni­on job. And I think it’s more chal­len­ging now. Those of us who grew up in the ‘60s didn’t see as severe a set of in­ter­sect­ing prob­lems in terms of poor neigh­bor­hoods and crime and vi­ol­ence like there is now. I couldn’t com­pare my grow­ing up to what kids face nowadays — and we need to keep that in mind.

One of the most re­ward­ing things that has happened to me as an aca­dem­ic was when I was mak­ing a present­a­tion about low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods in Pa­coima, an in­ner-ring sub­urb here in Los Angeles, and a gen­tle­man from the neigh­bor­hood came up to me and said, “I saw my­self in your stat­ist­ics.” His story was rep­res­en­ted in the way we were provid­ing a pro­file of the neigh­bor­hood and that was very sat­is­fy­ing.

For those of us who have a po­s­i­tion in a uni­versity or a voice in the pub­lic square, we can rep­res­ent and be the voice and help a per­son to feel seen. That’s an in­cred­ibly im­port­ant mis­sion, and it’s one I hold close. That’s been a beacon for me — that the work we do has res­on­ance with com­munity-based or­gan­iz­a­tions and people on the ground.

I also think we need a more com­plex the­ory of change. When you vis­it San Ant­o­nio now, people talk a great deal about high levels of col­lab­or­a­tion, but it comes out of a long peri­od of con­flict. Thirty years ago San Ant­o­nio was a place where it was pretty ex­clus­ively Anglo elite. Many (non-Anglos) were shut out of polit­ics and even ba­sic city in­fra­struc­ture.

COPS [Com­munit­ies Or­gan­ized for Pub­lic Ser­vice] rose up out of those neigh­bor­hood frus­tra­tions and people be­came en­gaged in ad­vocacy to make sure their is­sues got to the table. Trans­ition­al fig­ures like Henry Cis­ner­os got act­ive, and com­munity in­terests and voices were bet­ter heard. And that spir­it has since be­come wide­spread across civic lead­er­ship. It’s no longer in just the poor neigh­bor­hoods but people [from all strata] re­cog­nize it’s im­port­ant for the en­tire city to deal with dis­ad­vant­age.

One of the in­ter­est­ing ini­ti­at­ives is Wel­com­ing Amer­ica, which is about try­ing to make new des­tin­a­tion areas more re­cept­ive to im­mig­rants by work­ing with the ex­ist­ing, older com­munit­ies and help­ing to cre­ate bridges. That’s a prom­ising thing to do.

Take a look at Cali­for­nia’s demo­graph­ic change from 2000 to 2050, and all the bumps we had — big civil un­rest, Prop 187, af­firm­at­ive ac­tion. What’s heart­en­ing is where we are now after all that con­flict. Our demo­graph­ics now are chan­ging very slowly. In Los Angeles in the last 10 years, there’s not been an in­crease in His­pan­ic chil­dren; it’s more settled, with people hav­ing few­er chil­dren. Sure, it was bumpy, but we just passed, one, a bill so that un­doc­u­mented res­id­ents can get drivers’ li­censes and, two, the Trust Act so no longer are po­lice co­ordin­at­ing with ICE to de­port people for a mis­de­mean­or rather than a felony.

It’s not nir­vana, but it’s not the riv­en con­flict of 25 or 30 years ago. Some­times when older Amer­ic­ans see the demo­graph­ic change, they are ima­ging it’s the be­gin­ning of de­cline, but it rather can lead to a dif­fer­ent renais­sance. That’s [the les­son] get­ting out to the Mid­w­est. They’re real­iz­ing their stag­nant demo­graphy is tied to their stag­nant eco­nomy. It’s in­ter­est­ing to see St. Louis mar­ket to at­tract im­mig­rants and en­tre­pren­eurs.

I’m pretty im­pressed by Salt Lake City. They’ve done some in­ter­est­ing stuff with plan­ning. They’ve put in a light-rail sys­tem that runs through the low-in­come His­pan­ic area, see­ing that it can lead to em­ploy­ment — both in terms of con­struc­tion and op­er­a­tion jobs and con­nect­ing people to new work op­por­tun­it­ies. What they see about them­selves is that Salt Lake is slated to be­come ma­jor­ity-minor­ity faster than the coun­try as a whole, and it’s in­ter­est­ing to see them hav­ing such a civil con­ver­sa­tion.

The prob­lem of in­equal­ity and lack of op­por­tun­ity for im­mig­rants are all ex­per­i­enced at a loc­al or re­gion­al level. That’s where they come face to face with the is­sue. It’s one thing for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to deny un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits to 1.3 mil­lion people scattered across the coun­try. It’s an­oth­er thing to see a loc­al pro­gram or pro­ject that’s go­ing to leave your neigh­bor out of a job. But ac­tu­ally, there’s a lot of good stuff hap­pen­ing at a metro level all across the coun­try — it’s more a mat­ter of spread­ing best prac­tices, now.

Part of the reas­on we called it “The Greatest Gen­er­a­tion” is that they made the huge sac­ri­fice by go­ing to war. But one of the reas­ons they were able to be great was when they got back was the GI Bill and all the in­vest­ments in high­ways and the huge set of pub­lic works. That al­lowed them to be great. Then their baby boomers hit a home run without real­iz­ing they star­ted on third base. Now we’re leav­ing out the next gen­er­a­tion by not in­vest­ing in their edu­ca­tion. But we can get ahead by build­ing a plat­form of pub­lic policy and op­por­tun­ity for all.


Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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