To achieve their goal, the Advancement Project brought together interdisciplinary teams of experts, including geographers, public health workers, lawyers, economists, community organizers, sociologists, and others to try to define the myriad of problems closely linked to social and racial injustice in Los Angeles — and to develop solutions. It was an experience that Torres says reinforced for him how crucial interdisciplinary work is in achieving solutions and even defining a problem sufficiently.
“That’s one of the many things that excites me about [YSE], you have people working in areas that have to become part of environmental justice scholarship,” Torres says. “Industrial ecology, for example, I’ve been trying to convince people that we need this discipline to help us asses the regulatory framework we have, whether it’s capable of working the way we need it to, and to figuring out how to achieve the goals of the statutes.”
Another way that the Advancement Project differed from many other organizations focused on civil rights and social justice, Torres says, is that group didn’t think of litigation or even legislation as the sole methods of addressing the problems they were identifying. “We tried to look at what would offer the most redress to that set of problems in the community. It might be floating a bond; it might be helping to mount a political campaign or building a community organization so people could advocate for themselves,” he says. “We never assumed there was one solution or that the first solution you worked on would yield the results you wanted.”
When he looks back at those two pivotal times in his career, Torres says, two things come to mind: integrity of purpose — a purpose that was defined by goals that were larger than immediate objectives — and the importance of working in teams.
“I’ve been fortunate to work with many talented and gifted people throughout my career, and I never saw them patting themselves on the back,” he says. “They realized that we rarely accomplish anything by ourselves, and we’re never as smart as we think we are. Those are lessons I always try to pass on to my students — the importance of building teams and making sure that your work stays true to its principles — that and that no defeat or success is ever final.”
Note: Professor Torres uses the term “Indian” (as opposed to Native American) in conversation, explaining that many Native people feel that the term carries their history for the past several hundred years. In addition, many Native people prefer to be called by their specific tribal name whenever possible.