Once a restaurant hostess and student-athlete, Sonja Diaz is today a practicing civil rights attorney and policy advisor, as well as founding Director of the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Institute (LPPI).
In an interview with UCLA Latino Alumni Association, she says that working in the restaurant and being a student-athlete during high school helped her understand the importance of presentation, the multicultural factors of a team and the strategic mindset of accomplishing tasks. No matter the size.
Diaz, who received her J.D. from UC Berkeley’s School of Law, M.P.P. from UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and B.A. in politics from U.C. Santa Cruz, is also co-founder of the first multi-issue policy think tank focused on Latinos in the University of California system. Diaz is to thank for overseeing all aspects of LPPI, including strategy, research, mobilization and leadership.
In previously held positions, Diaz was policy counsel to then-U.S. Sen. Kamala D. Harris during her first and second terms as California’s attorney general. In the role, Diaz was responsible for managing legal and policy issues of statewide and national importance, including civil rights, consumer protection, criminal justice, immigration, privacy and technology policy.
“Working for an elected official provided a vital perspective about the policy landscape. Also, how politics play into making big, significant changes, the lack of substantive representation, how it perpetuates inequality and the lack of data and facts backing many of our policy decisions,” Diaz said.
Turning specifically to UCLA, its students have the privilege to work with Latino experts in the country and on governmental research policies. It gives the students a sense of what is occurring and the opportunity to build professional connections with elected officials of all levels.
“One of the things I’ve learned through my mom, my tías, and my own experience, is that professional careers are difficult. The same is true for today’s cohort of leaders, who will enter the job market during another recession and at a time when multicultural people will face astronomical rates of unemployment. We all have a stake in ending failed practices that limit shared prosperity,” Diaz said.
By this, she tries to ensure that LPPI’s organizational culture is value-driven and that all team members, faculty, staff and students have a space to collaborate on projects and strengthen partnerships.
“It’s the commitment to leadership development and opening the door to problem-solving that will be the lasting impact of the organization,” Diaz said.