“Each individual’s civic engagement – big or small – matters as that’s where the power starts.”
Christian Arana, Policy Director at the Latino Community Foundation, talks about his work across the state to galvanize the Latino vote, why the Census is so important for the state’s largest ethnic group, how he defines leadership and who gives him hope.
What is the vision that drives you personally or professionally?
Everything begins at home for me. I learned about the concept of social justice, doing the right thing, stepping up when it requires it from my parents. They left Guatemala at the height of the Civil War. I can only imagine the moment when they looked at each other and said “we have to get out of here”. From that moment, they worked hard to make sure my two brothers and I had every opportunity imaginable. Their grit and sacrifice is why I could go to Georgetown and get my masters at U.C. Berkeley. I am cognizant that opportunities like these for people of color and boys and men of color in particular are few, which is what led me to do the work that I do today. A major focal point of my job is to make sure that people are filling out the 2020 Census so, through that process, they have a voice. Each individual’s civic engagement – big or small – matters as that’s where the power starts.
Tell us about the work that you do with the Latino Community Foundation, and what drew you to this role/organization?
Everyone deserves the opportunity to have good healthcare, a good job and quality education. Yet, for Latinos and boys and men of color, there is a missed connection between what we deserve and the process that needs to get us there. When I came onboard, the Latino Community Foundation was digging deep into the fact that if we get Latinos civically engaged, policies, policymakers and the Capitol will look like us and give us the rights we need. While we are seeing much appreciated rapid response funds left and right in the age of the coronavirus, it is changing structures and systems that will bring real change, and this is exactly why we need the Census. It is because of the Latino community that California is one of the largest economies in the world. If we begin to imagine where we would be if every person of color had the chance to participate, and raise these stories and narratives of who really drives the state, we would see an even more successful California.
What’s your main focus at the moment, personally and professionally, and why is it important to you?
When I see injustices in the world, I want to use my skills and privileges to change them. Currently, my focus is to make sure that every single Latino is counted in the Census. Across the country, we are celebrating people like doctors and nurses. Through accurate Census data, we can make sure that, in the future, they have the funds and resources to do their work.
The second thing that I am heavily focused on is the upcoming election and getting people out to vote. The Latino Community Foundation held the first primary debate that focused on the interests in Latino population. I don’t just want to register Latino voters as passive participants. I want them to be informed and to feel empowered to hold their leaders accountable.
Finally, we are making sure that policies at the state level take into account the Latino community. When Gavin Newsom became governor, we wrote the California Latino Agenda because it is no longer acceptable to leave out Latino people in any line item or policy agenda. You can’t talk about issue areas like prison reform, environmental justice or healthcare without talking about and centering the Latino community.
Why is the Census so important for Latino communities and for California? What do people need to know? How can people get involved in this work?
When you are counted, you get political representation and resources for your community. I always give people the tangible example of when the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010: the Act passed by two votes and, because California was counted accurately in a previous Census, the state essentially defined healthcare once and for all. Our community deserves as many votes as possible so they can shape policy.
How do you define leadership? Could you tell us about a leader you admire.
Jorge Ramos, who moderated the debate in 2018 for having the courage to speak the truth. We have to level with people and say the honest thing. At the end of the day, no one is going to fault any leader for being transparent and open. Our people deserve the truth, especially during a time when we need information to stay healthy and safe, and need information that is accurate. We see leadership fall apart when lies are told and, for me, Jorge is someone who always seeks the truth.
What are some of the challenges or barriers that stand in the way of civic engagement or civic participation for communities of color and boys and men of color?
One of the challenges is funding for the work because everything costs money. There is so much work that needs to happen, and we need to continue funding groups that have an emphasis on boys and men of color. In return, we would see boys and men of color having the confidence to use their voice in a constructive way and participating in our democracy.
Additionally, boys and men of color not having support services is a major barrier – not having a counselor, mentor or hero. When you constantly hear about how schools or organizations don’t have the resources to do their work, it has a ripple effect on how we care about these students. Having resources can have a transformative effect. We can’t wait for money to come down the pipeline. We have to take charge by participating in the Census or voting for people who would be a champion for these communities.
What are some of the solutions that you are working toward or would like to see?
Extension of MediCal to undocumented populations across the state. Back in March, we commissioned a poll in advance of the primaries, and healthcare was the number one issue for Latinos in California. This is now the third poll that we’ve done that has consistently shown the number one issue our community cares about is healthcare. Having healthcare is having peace of mind. We need to move quickly as a state to live up to our values, including extending healthcare to our elderly undocumented population. These are the tangible things that would create stability for families and individuals – because when you don’t need to constantly worry about how you would pay for healthcare, you can focus on living your life.
What inspires you or gives you hope?
Nonprofit leaders, who are some of the most courageous and bravest people I know. One of our grantees, Armando who runs an organization in Fresno, took it upon himself to go buy food to get it to the families that were most in need when the shelter in place was announced. This idea that we don’t have to wait around to start helping people – that we don’t need to write another report or do more research. We know what the problems are in our community, and we have leaders who have been trying to enact the solutions. Even without the adequate resources, they are able to do so much impact.
In my position at LCF, I try everyday to use my voice and position to elevate their stories so they can be invested in. How Armando is supporting his community, particularly farm workers in the Central Valley, will have a profound effect across the state, and it’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic for people to see this.