UCLA Spotlight

Saul Sarabia: pursuing social change

  • Published Feb 28, 2007 8:00 AM

Saúl Sarabia returned to UCLA in 2003 with a desire to inspire students to work for social change in much the same manner professors motivated him years ago.

As an undergraduate, Sarabia took an honors collegium course organized by the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. After working with faculty on anti-poverty issues, Sarabia knew he wanted to dedicate his life to helping disenfranchised communities.

"The intensive combination — reading and writing scholarly papers and doing field work in communities like the one I had grown up in — allowed me to see firsthand how experiential knowledge and academics can equip students to effectively carry out social-change work," Sarabia said.

Sarabia, 36, is now administrative director of the School of Law’s Critical Race Studies program, which trains law students in racial justice scholarship and legal practice. He had returned to campus to become director of a transnational community-building project in the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. He used a UCLA Center for Community Partnerships (CCP) grant to train members of Oaxacan (Mexican) hometown association groups to become effective leaders in organizing issues important to their immigrant groups.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the law school program brought together civil rights lawyers and community organizers from the Gulf Coast to UCLA. Students then provided legal assistance to the attorneys, who successfully filed lawsuits to stop the City of New Orleans from bulldozing homes without notice.

With a second CCP grant, Sarabia and law students are now working on a prisoner re-entry initiative in partnership with A New Way of Life Re-entry Project. Students are providing legal research assistance to former prisoners who are working with policymakers to remove the barriers they face in getting jobs due to prior felony convictions. This month, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors will vote on a proposal by the group to remove a question about prior convictions from county job applications.

"The initiative reflects my philosophy that leadership development for future leaders on campus and community leaders is essential to strengthen policy and our democratic institutions," Sarabia said.

The fifth child of immigrant parents from Mexico, Sarabia grew up poor in the Highland Park area of northeast Los Angeles. After earning a law degree from UCLA, he held many community service jobs, including documenting human rights violations for the Central American Human Rights Commission in San José, Costa Rica.

Sarabia has lectured in the Chicano Studies Department and currently teaches a course at the law school. "To be able to come back and serve as a lecturer in a department that students helped create is a real privilege for me," he said.