Beyond the Bio: Manuel Pastor

You can find the degrees and bullet points of the career accomplishments of the keynote speakers who will appear at the 2015 Funders’ Network conference. But there's more to the stories of these diverse, complex, and nuanced individuals. The Network is pleased to share another its series of in-depth profiles of our conference keynote speakers with our profile of Dr. Manuel Pastor, Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Click here to download the pdf.


During his school years, Manuel Pastor’s teachers neither expected nor encouraged him to go to college. The son of a janitor who eventually became an air conditioning repairman, Pastor grew up in working class communities in southern California, where students, especially students of color, were not generally considered college material. His rise to becoming a nationally renowned academic and thought-leader is a classic American “beat-the-odds” story. But Pastor doesn’t think anyone should have to beat the odds just to get an education, and he’s devoted his career to making sure that opportunity isn’t reduced to a game of chance.

Pastor’s father had only a sixth grade education, but he was able to fix almost anything and was conversant in public affairs and a variety of other subjects. He set an early and lasting example for his son about the realities of equity. “He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known,” Pastor says, “and it became clear to me that not everybody who is educated is intelligent and not everybody who is intelligent is educated.”

In high school, Pastor moved from El Puente, Calif., to Whittier. “The Whittier high school was actually quite upper middle class,” Pastor says, “but we were living in the working class section of town. It was assumed that people from our side of the boulevard weren’t going to college. So I was in all the remedial courses, except for algebra, which I loved, and was basically on the same academic track as a wide array of troublemakers. You can imagine it was something of surprise when I received the highest SAT scores for the school.”

His SAT scores notwithstanding, Pastor applied to only one college, the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), home of the Banana Slugs. “I wasn’t being tracked for college,” he says, “so I didn’t realize you were supposed to apply to more than one place. Also, we did some anti-war protests that wound up getting myself and couple of other people tossed out of the sessions when colleges came to visit and so no college advising came my way.”

Pastor chose University of California, Santa Cruz based on a photo he once saw in Life magazine. “Since it was assumed I wasn’t going to college, I wasn’t getting any advice. I applied to UC Santa Cruz primarily because when I was young, I had seen a picture of the school—it was of a professor with a gigantic beard and hair sitting on a grassy knoll talking to students. It looked so much like Socrates and I thought, ‘That must be what college is like.’ So that’s really where I wanted to go and that’s where I went.”

In college, Pastor double-majored in Economics and Creative Writing. “I was really into writing and short stories. I still remember getting the double major declaration form signed. The Creative Writing department didn’t think it was such a big deal, but the Econ. chair looked at the form, looked at me, looked at the form, looked at me, and then burst out laughing. He thought it was a really odd combination of majors, but he signed it.”

Pastor likes to think that all the writing he does is creative, but his double major has served him well in another way. “When you’re a creative writer, you have to take the most personal thing—your life—put it in a story and then put that story out there to be made better through public showing and criticism. I think that has helped me be less thin-skinned as an academic. I’m quite comfortable putting out an idea or a paper or a thought and having it be the subject of criticism to improve it, rather than thinking that criticism is a personal attack. I think for a lot of academics, it’s difficult for them to separate themselves from their work because they think their work is them. What I learned as a creative writer is that my work is my work, it’s not me.”

The Fight for a Seat at the Table

After graduating from UCSC, Pastor received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Massachusetts. He is currently Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC) where he also serves as Director of USC's Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) and co-Director of USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII). He is also the founding director of the Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


His first academic position after earning his Ph.D. was at Occidental College, which he credits with giving him the opportunity to explore his interests in social inequality and environmental justice and where he began to use his work to inform activism, especially around issues of equity and access.

Pastor likes to tell a story about his friend David Ayón, a Latino political scientist, who was participating in a seminar about racial justice with a mostly white audience. “During the session, David recalled that old film with Sidney Poitier, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which a young white woman brings home Sidney’s character, a black doctor. What David said to the students was, ‘I don’t care whether you invite me over to your house for dinner--I want to own a house.' That’s the fundamental difference between diversity and equity—diversity is about changing the faces at the table; equity is about making sure people can get to the table in the first place.”

Indeed, Pastor’s own university experience illustrates the difference. Despite being a student who arguably represented diversity on campus, Pastor still had to battle assumptions and fight for his seat at the table. Initially alienated and isolated, he dropped out twice. And as he was approaching graduation at UC Santa Cruz, he asked to be nominated for a Danforth Fellowship for graduate school and was denied. His response: “I told the school that perhaps they had made a mistake and I think they took me for something of a whiner. But they checked my record and changed their minds. I was nominated for the fellowship, became one of the official UC Santa Cruz nominees and went on to win the Danforth at the national level.”

From his current perch 30 years later as a full professor at a leading research university, Pastor notes that, “I was of a generation that didn’t pay much attention to negative signals sent our way.” But he also argues that those signals and expectations often limit ambitions and short-circuit promising young people. At the same time, Pastor notes that getting an education means overcoming more than low expectations. “One of the things that low-income kids of color face as a barrier to education,” he says, “is something many people can’t fully appreciate—they are afraid to walk to school because of criminal activity in their neighborhoods. It’s a frightening experience. And often they don’t have access to safe places outside—parks and playgrounds. Place has become such a marker for how well people will do in school and life."

While equity and diversity are intertwined, Pastor sees diversity as horizontal and equity as vertical. “Diversity really is very important. More diverse work teams bring superior quality in terms of skill balance and understanding different sectors of the population. In fact, the main justification for the Supreme Court ruling on keeping affirmative action at the University of Michigan was around the issue of diversity—so that people would understand many different experiences,” he said.

Equity, though, is a tougher issue and Pastor sometimes feels that people end up talking about diversity rather than dealing with the tougher issues of equity. “Equity is about really difficult questions—the neighborhoods people grow up in, the schools they attend, the differences in the life chances of people who grow up ten miles and a world away from each other. Just like people talk about common issues as an excuse to not talk about race, they will talk about how we all have a common interest in the environment rather than talking about environmental justice, talk about growing the economy rather than identify the one percent of the population that has run away with the spoils. I think my role is as a person who tries to bring in uncomfortable topics in a way that makes people feel like they can actually have some degree of comfort in talking about them.”

That people are becoming more comfortable with the idea of talking about equity is good news for the smart growth field. “People concerned with equity are attracted to the framework of smart growth. Smart growth potentially promises to make revitalization possible in all neighborhoods by creating access to safe parks, safe spaces, good schools—things that should be a matter of universal access anyway.”


The Economic Disconnect

In the aftermath of the recession and real estate collapse, the issue of equity has crystallized in the “We are the 99 percent” movement. “I find it hard to believe that we haven’t really reformed the financial system yet,” Pastor says. “The fact that it took a group of young people occupying a park in New York to bring this to people’s attention and really capture the national imagination speaks to how bereft we’ve been of good ideas and good politics.”


The real estate collapse has also been a tremendous set-back to David Ayón’s vision, “I want to own a house.” African-American and Latino homeowners were the hardest hit, according to Pastor. “They were harder hit because they were the last into the housing markets, they were more likely to get sub-prime loans even when they had good credit ratings, they were more likely to buy in far-flung areas. For African-Americans especially, the vast majority of their net wealth is tied up in home equity. If you look at the data from the Pew Research Center, the destruction of African-American wealth has been just devastating.”

Pastor’s recent work with PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity, centers on the idea that equity is a superior growth model. “Our economic system today is disconnected, deregulated, and unequal. We really have to work now on all three fronts: we have to reconnect, we have to have some sensible regulations, and we have to deal with this level of inequality that was one of the fundamental drivers of this crisis. We have a system were one group got so wealthy they ended up speculating in increasingly risky investments, and another group was so strapped they were forced to borrow to stay alive or to feel they had to buy that one last house before the American dream disappeared. Often that house was miles and miles and miles away from jobs, which was known as drive ‘til you qualify [for a mortgage].”


The Role of Community

Pastor believes that community, in particular community organizing, is crucial to navigating the new economic reality and lifting up and advancing the issue of equity. “People are very disconnected from each other. Suburban residents think they are shielded from urban problems. Baby boomers don’t want any tax increases to shore up the educational system, somehow believing there are going to receive Social Security and get through old age without the next generation being educated and able to be productive. A whole element of our society wants to insist that a gay or lesbian person doesn’t have the same right to form a family that they do. This disconnect between people—the ‘othering’ of groups by place, race, age, geography, economic status, sexual orientation, etc.—is how we’ve wound up with two parties at the Capitol that can’t figure out a way to talk together about the national good. And it leads people to make decisions that hurt other people and, in the long run, hurt themselves.”


The solution, he says, is to build access and entry points to the system into the process and bring the community together. “When you involve all people, something really interesting happens. I worked on the revision of the general plan for Pasadena. We did a lot of community outreach to ensure people who aren’t usually part of the process became part of the process. I think we improved minority participation from 10 to 40 percent. We had people sitting at the table with folks they normally didn’t work with or who weren’t part of their communities, and a really interesting thing happened. When people would make decisions about protecting something, they would realize, ‘If we try to downscale this, we’re actually going to unemploy some of the people in this room. Okay, let’s figure out if we can compromise.’”

This, he says, is what smart growth should be about. “Smart growth isn’t a set of technical principles, it’s a way of trying to recreate the idea that when you make decisions about urban form, they have impacts on people—people who are your neighbors or potential neighbors. When you bring people together face-to-face through organizing and community participation and civic engagement, that’s what really generates smart growth. You know, the un-smart growth we have now is fragmented, sprawling growth that’s about people trying to separate—by class, by race, by politics. Fundamentally, smart growth is about connection.”


—by Amy Rutledge
Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities

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