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Wellness Means Empowerment

Manuel Pastor, University of Southern California

An interview with Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California

Who are your heroes?

My parents. My dad was an undocumented immigrant who joined the Army and found a path to citizenship in this country. My mom grew up in Spanish Harlem and was tough as nails. Both were incredibly principled people. Once my Dad got hurt in an industrial accident, and when it came time to go back to work the union was on strike. Dad went straight to the picket line even though the family would be without food.

I am also inspired by the community organizers I work with and get to meet. Mom taught me that small, often unrecognized acts of courage and principle are the everyday province of ordinary people. Too often, we look for big heroes when it’s the small acts of regular folks we should celebrate.

What shores you up? Where do you get your strength?

I spend a lot of time working with numbers and figuring out how data can help people tell their stories. The rigor of doing that provides strength for my mind, just as my interactions with community groups provides strength for my soul.

I recently worked on a project here in Los Angeles. The focus was on low-income neighborhoods with many environmental problems. And one of my proudest moments was watching an immigrant woman get in front of the City Council and talk about how she had done air quality tests and mapped the environmental hazards in her neighborhood. She had the data to show there was problem and she wanted to see a change. When you see your work empower people to act, that gives you real strength.

What gets you down and discouraged? And how do you get past it?

Right now, I am discouraged by the negative political atmosphere in the country and the complete disregard for data and facts being evidenced at the highest levels. That is a real downer, but I find it also reinvigorates me to do the work I do.

How would you describe your current state of mind?

Determined. With a view to the long haul. And confident that human dignity and solidarity will eventually win.

What are you reading?

A recent book I read is The Penguin and the Leviathan by Yochai Benkler. What he writes about is that economists and social scientists essentially adopt a Hobbesian version of human nature. They say that life is nasty and brutish and short, and that our destiny is to pursue self-interest in intense competition with one another. But Benkler says that people have both selfish impulses and impulses of solidarity, and that we need to move to different rules to encourage connections to one another. It’s really a beautiful and actually pragmatic vision.

A guilty pleasure?

I’m a sucker for bad TV. I love Scandal. It’s deliciously wonderful.

What is your greatest achievement?

Gaining the trust of movement activists and community organizers who know that we do our work in solidarity with them.

Any failures or regrets you want to talk about?

I often think less about failures than about places where further growth is necessary. I think I haven’t done a good enough job transforming the universities of which I gave been a part. I have been able to create pieces of the academy that are more public and engaged and relevant, but dragging whole institutions in that direction is a tough job.

What does “wellness” mean to you?

For me it means empowerment. I think that when someone feels a sense of their own power, they’re better able to take care of their health, and that sense of empowerment affects community health. When people are stronger and more confident about the power they have to change things, that feels to me like wellness.

Finish the following statement: “Advancing and defending wellness means [blank].”

Advancing and defending wellness means helping people realize that wellness is a community concept and not just an individual concept. It means challenging structures of inequality and building civic engagement to do that.

What can people do in their daily lives to help find solutions on the issues you work on?

We need to move away from a frame of “beating the odds” to a frame of “changing the odds.” It’s wonderful to help one young person in a challenging environment to be able to learn more and graduate on time and get ahead. But it’s even better to create school systems that do that on a regular basis. So that means lobbying school boards and making sure money gets to the schools so they can hire and keep the best teachers and help all kids succeed.

Or think about a child with asthma. It’s vital to make sure that child has the right kind of medicine and treatment. But we also need to look at whether there are environmental causes contributing to asthma throughout the community and then take steps to reduce pollution.

It’s really about waking up to what’s going on in our communities and then working with other people to get our voices heard. Politicians respond to the calculus of votes and power around them, so it’s our job to change the calculus.

How do you defend your own wellness and stay healthy?

I go to the gym a lot, so that helps. I also laugh a lot because that lightens things for me and the people around me. Even if we are talking about a hard thing, bringing some humor to the conversation makes it a little easier for everyone.

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