With approximately $200,000 in student loan debt bearing down on her like a cheetah gaining on it’s prey, Alida Garcia did the unthinkable. She quit her job. Yes, just two years after donning a baby blue robe to receive her degree from Columbia Law School, the L.A. native turned her back on the firm life and a six-figure pay check.
But why? What was worth incurring more debt, not to mention the scrutiny of family and friends? For Garcia the answer was simple: to make history. The descendant of a long line of migrant farm workers traded the prestige to volunteer for President Obama’s 2008 campaign and hasn’t looked back— shoot, she hasn’t had the time. Now as POTUS eyes life out of the White House, Garcia now feels like that sprinting cheetah. She’s closing in on immigration reform as Coalitions and Policy Director for FWD.us, Mark Zuckerberg’s issues organization.
It’s been seven years of nonstop travel, mobilizing millions and, yes, slowly but surely chipping away at her ever-looming student loan debt. Levo’s Amy Elisa Jackson sat down with Garcia to hear about her journey from attorney to activist. Here’s her story, in her words:
“I have calculated it out and I think I will be done paying off my student loans when I am 46 years old. Yes, 46 years old. And I am now 32. When I left the law firm, I took a 50 percent pay cut. I don’t think my quality of life changed earning that much less money. I simply grinded it out for my next three jobs. Even now, I still make significantly less than I would have been making as a lawyer, but now I feel inspired and I am compensated for my brain, my talents and my passion. It took me five years to get to that point, though. I had to live in places that had cheap rent and I didn’t go on vacation, but these are minor sacrifices when I’m doing things that actually drive me and fill my life with love.
So let me take you back to the beginning. I have always had the heart of an activist and I was a student activist at Stanford, where I went to undergrad. I think that’s why I went to law school because of my heroes like Thurgood Marshall who used the rule of law to create systemic change for millions of people. Once I got into law school, however, I realized that the direction most schools drive you is not a place that creates social change. But I also knew I needed to get out of the debt.
I followed the currant of other students who went to big firms and I became a commercial litigation attorney. Luckily, I ended up in a law firm, K&L Gates, where the managing partner was Paul Sweeney, a politically-minded lawyer who became my mentor. And yet, the casework didn’t tap into my soul. So instead of taking a big trip to celebrate passing the Bar exam like many of my colleagues did, I decided to work on President Obama’s first campaign in Los Angeles. That’s when I was bit by the bug, first as a volunteer.
My ‘ah-ha’ moment, in many ways, was a perfect storm of personal and professional events bringing me to that decision to do something unexpected career-wise. While in college, Mayor Villaraigosa was elected Mayor of Los Angeles and I bought a Newsweek magazine that he was on the cover of that said, “Latino Power: LA’s New Mayor & How Hispanics will Change American Politics.” It kind of felt like a glass ceiling moment for people like me who want to do big things. I kept that magazine with me and it traveled with me everywhere I went, I still have it today. It’s corny, but l feel like when I bought that magazine the universe already knew that five years later I’d get a call to work for the man on that cover and that thereafter I’d work to make that headline true. All of my big career decisions have been quick and instinctual when my brain, heart, and gut align with clarity.
After Obama’s election I decided to leave the law firm life and join LA Mayor Villaragosa’s administration on a fellowship that was designed to bring private sector talent into city government. There I saw that my day-to-day work could really impact the lives of the communities around me. That motivated me to look for projects where I would have a net positive impact on the lives of the people I was working for.
In 2012, I became the National Latino Vote Deputy Director for Obama’s re-election campaign and it solidified my passion for being a political strategist. I was in Chicago and engaging Latinos across America in the battleground states. A motivating factor for me in working for the President was because I wanted to see immigration reform. While we haven’t gotten the whole bill passed, last November we got the Executive Action on Immigration passed which will essentially allow about 5 million undocumented people to come out of the shadows without fear of deportation and have access to employment with a Work Authorization Card. That will ultimately result in more economic stability for families who are essentially living in poverty working two and three jobs.
It’s important to note that immigration is not just a Latino issue. The fastest growing immigrant group in the United States is the AAPI population, that’s the Asian American and Pacific Islander population. About 40 percent of those who are undocumented actually arrived a travel visa but through policy changes or their own lapse, they then became undocumented. So it wasn’t as though they were traveling to the United States as undocumented or illegally. There are undocumented Koreans and Japanese and Nigerians; undocumented people from every country imaginable.
What I do now at FWD.us is to focus on passing comprehensive immigration reform in Congress. We have built a national coalition to organize people in tech to become advocates because so many people in tech are immigrants themselves and deal with the daily frustrations of a broken system.
No matter how swamped I am with work, I’m never too busy to mentor. Because initially I felt like I didn’t have mentors that had the career path that I wanted, I created an organization, INCLUSV, focused on fostering mentoring relationships with people of color so that they realize that politics is a career path that they could take. What I’d say to young women is that there is no secret sauce or perfect plan to get into politics, but it’s all about your relationships and being good to people and working hard. It’s also vital to realize that there are so many different types of jobs in politics, from communications directors who craft the message to community organizers and field organizers who knock on doors. Take the time to learn about all of the opportunities available.
The beauty in being a volunteer is that you get to craft your own path. Think about what it is about the world that you love and what it is about the world that drives you crazy, then think about what you would do to change it. That’s a great jumping off point. Investigate reproductive justice, climate change, gender politics. I think that if you’re driven by what is most passionate to you, that will allow you to seek out politicians and issues. And remember, it’s not just about power and politicians, it’s about a power that translates into a stronger democracy in America.
And I get it, for some young women, sometimes we don’t have all of the time in the world because of family situations or financial obligations. So volunteering 40 or 50 hours a week for free isn’t an option. But if you want it bad enough, are resourceful and you grind it out, the power in politics is here for the taking.”
Photo: Courtesy of Alida Garcia