This series interviews Penn alumni working to change some of America’s most intractable social problems to ask them how are they taking care of themselves so that they can sustain their fight on behalf of others. It examines the intellectual, social and contemplative practices that leaders in the arena of social change are embracing to inform their work, offering examples and real world experiences. This series speaks to current Penn undergrads, hoping to better undergird their own social action with integrative and sustaining practices.
Excerpts from edited transcript.
Lia Howard: We are so delighted to host Efrén Olivares for our first episode in this new series. Efrén’s stunning book, “My Son Will Die of Sorrow, a Memoir of Immigration from the Front Lines,” was just released this summer. In it, Efrén weaves together his experience as a human rights lawyer working for the Texas Civil Rights Project in 2018, when the Trump administration instituted the zero tolerance policy and began to separate families at the border with his own story as an immigrant to the U.S.. I enjoyed the book so much, and I’m so glad to have an opportunity to chat about the book on The Park.
Efrén Olivares: Thank you.
Career Journey Towards Social Change
Lia Howard: Could you tell us a bit about your career journey since you left Penn? What work are you currently involved in and what led you to this type of social change?
Efrén Olivares: I graduated from the College in 2005, and when I was in college, I majored in philosophy, politics and economics. And that is when I had, you know, my social justice awakening, learning about so many things that are unjust in our society and the populations of communities that have been marginalized and oppressed and wanting to do something about it.
I thought that getting a law degree would be a good way to try to improve the conditions of so many in our country and other parts of the world. So I went to law school after Penn. I went straight through and always wanted to go into nonprofit public interest law. When I was in law school my father passed away during my second year, so I decided to go to a different job right out of law school and go to law firm instead of the public interest route right away trying to help my mother financially.
I had hoped to do that for three years. I ended up doing it for about four years, three years and 11 months. But who was counting? And then I left the law firm to do a human rights fellowship at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And from there, I took the nonprofit route and went to this organization in Texas called the Texas Civil Rights Project, based in South Texas, and working on civil rights issues related to immigrants, to border communities.
And I was there for almost seven years until I was recruited to direct the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. So I’ve been in this role for almost two years now. Now I’m based in Atlanta directing a team of lawyers and advocates working for justice for immigrants in the South, the Deep South, in particular on issues like immigration, detention, worker’s rights, family separation, and several other issues related to immigrants rights.
Lia Howard: What an incredible journey. Thank you for sharing your your process with us. Could you describe the particular problems you seek to address the specific issue areas you just mentioned them. Talk a little bit more about them and where you’re seeking and working for change.
Efrén Olivares: The issue of immigrants’ rights and immigrant justice could be solved so easily at the at the conceptual level if we simply eliminated discrimination on the basis of immigration status. That would address so many of the issues that immigrants face in this country. You wouldn’t have immigrant detention because nobody would be incarcerated simply because of their immigration status.
You wouldn’t have discrimination against immigrant workers and wage theft in the immigrant justice context because nobody would be discriminated on the basis of immigration status and asylum seekers. Similarly, we’ll be able to find haven and protection. And if one believes in human rights, that every human being, by virtue of being a human being, has the right to certain baseline rights and protections.
Then the place of one’s birth shouldn’t be that determinative of one’s of how one fares in society. Unfortunately, discrimination on the basis of immigration status is legal in the US and that poses a lot of challenges. For example, some states deny driver’s license based on immigration status. You can get one in California and Massachusetts, but you cannot get one in Texas if you are undocumented, for example.
So that that is a challenge. But that is the one issue that the most successful way that I can describe what we’re trying to do, and that is eliminate discrimination on the basis of immigration status.
Motivation for Social Change and Community Work
Lia Howard: Thank you so much. What is your motivation for this work and why do you do the work that you do? What drives you and helps you to continue to do this hard work of social and community change?
Efrén Olivares: It’s hard. It’s hard work and it’s not it’s not getting any easier, unfortunately. I think the more work that you do in the social justice sphere, the more aware you become of how high the mountain that we’re trying to climb up is. But I think what drives me today is largely the same thing that has driven me my entire career, which is this desire to leave the world a slightly better place than we found it, not only for our own children, but for future generations more generally.
Do our share of the work to make this society, this country, this world a more just place where, again, people’s fate is not determined by arbitrary characteristics such as one’s birthplace or the color of one’s skin, but rather by what kind of person you are, how you relate to others. And that conviction continues to drive me today.
As I said, it’s become harder. But but I go back to that every time that that is a worthwhile pursuit, as difficult as it is.
Redefining “Winning” in Social Justice Work
Lia Howard: I love that leaving the world a little bit better. I really appreciate the work you’re doing. And so I want to turn to a whole series of questions now about how you care for yourself. You just mentioned that it’s hard this work, and so how do you care for yourself during the slow, challenging work of social change? How do you integrate personal wellness, work, life balance and self-care with your professional work?
Efrén Olivares: I said earlier that the driving motivation is the same today as it was before, as it has been most of my career. One thing that has changed, and I think the last, I don’t know, seven years or so have have resulted in this is having a different perspective of my role in the fight for social justice. And what I mean by that is that when I was in law school and I don’t think this is unique to me, I think a lot of lawyers, especially those of us who go into public interest or social justice work, we have this vision of what the work will look like and what winning will look like, right?
We think of the big Supreme Court case wins, Brown vs Board of Education, those landmark cases that, you know, you cross the finish line and you have a very concrete and specific victory to point to the last few years and especially this year. And when it comes to the legal work for social justice, I’ve found myself shifting that perspective and seeing my role in the fight not so much as crossing the finish line, but rather just keep the ball moving forward, keep pushing the ball forward so that those who come behind me can keep on pushing.
Just make sure that that ball doesn’t roll backwards too far and keep pushing it because that is more sustainable. If I keep trying to get to that finish line myself, it feels so far away some days and some nights that that it becomes crushing, but just thinking, okay, I don’t have to get it to the finish line. I just need to keep pushing that my job is to keep pushing so that others can push along with me today and especially tomorrow, and that that shifting mindset has been helpful for me because that makes it more sustainable. I consider myself an optimist, so I do think that there are wins to secure, and I look forward to those.
Connecting with Communities Impacted by Social Change Work
But I think seeing that broader perspective has been helpful. And then the other thing that is an ongoing fuel for this work is the direct human connection. It’s so easy to get lost in the kind of policy conversations and, you know, the legal issues and legislation and things like that. But interacting directly with impacted individuals can be such a source of inspiration and fuel because it’s a clear reminder of why this work matters.
And just like hearing somebody is traumatic experience, you know, traveling from Central America and crossing Mexico by foot and by bus and hitchhiking can be can give you some secondary trauma. I feel like that same space in your mind, in your heart, is what then is fueled when you hear the stories of resilience and perseverance from my clients that they have overcome and that keeps me going.
Even if it’s only one person, one family rights or not. The landmark case that I was talking about, the systemic change, but that human connection is also so necessary and so vital to sustain ourselves in this work.
Lia Howard: Efrén, thank you so much. I appreciate that. Both mindset and human connection as practical ways to care for yourself. Can I just deep dive a little bit more. You’ve alluded many times to the discouraging aspects of your job and I just wanted to know if you could tell us a little bit more what is discouraging about the work that you do?
Efrén Olivares: Well, a lot of my work is litigation; winning in court or using the courts to try to effect social change. And given some recent Supreme Court decisions, both in the immigration context, perhaps most notably the Dobbs decision and the reproductive rights context that has created a reality of, well, we might be stuck with the current Supreme Court for 20, 30, 40 years, and it’s unlikely that we will see progressive social change from the courts.
So trying to square that with trying to find a victory and trying to, like I was saying earlier, find the reason to motivate myself and keep going by, if we do X or Y thing, we’re going to win in court. That has made it very, very challenging. So that is when the mindset shift has been helpful. Like, okay, we may not see victories in the Supreme Court very soon, but that’s okay.
This is perhaps not the most challenging court that there has been in the history of this country. There was a time when things were less aligned with progressive values, with what I would describe as social justice. So this is our turn, this is our generation’s task, is to keep pushing so that another generation keeps coming behind us and maybe they will secure the victories in court.
Self-Care Practices for Social Change Work
Lia Howard: Thank you. Excellent. What kinds of things practices keep you centered as you you know, you have this wonderful mindset and you have wonderful connections with people. What other things keep you centered amidst this, this kind of discouraging moment?
Efrén Olivares: I have taken up meditation recently, recently in the last two or three years, and the weeks that I managed to meditate regularly, 10 minutes a day using a meditation app. And there are a ton out there. I see the difference. And keeping perspective when it comes to the work and the challenges that we face. So meditation has been very, very helpful.
Any creative outlet I find also very distressing. I’m terrible at playing the acoustic guitar, but I love it. So whenever I find the time to spend, even if it’s 15, 20 minutes on the guitar, that is just another part of my brain that is engaged. And I find that very helpful as well. I used to play soccer for many years, but then age and injuries and having children have made that more challenging. So I don’t play as often as I would like, but that again, finding activities that you’re just not stuck thinking about the issues of the day and the work and the challenges have been really helpful for me. Yeah, those would be, I think, the three things that I would highlight.
Lia Howard: Efrén, I want to think about how you practically manage the psychological and emotional stress of this work as well. You mentioned having children and as you care for vulnerable populations, how do you continue to maintain your own core emotional strength? In your book, you describe the challenges of being a father yourself and caring for your own children while working with deeply distraught parents unable to locate their children in the harrowing aftermath of zero tolerance.
You could deeply empathize as a father, yet the grief could feel overwhelming. And those parts of your book were so powerful to read and deeply. I could empathize in so many ways. How do you balance these these things?
Efrén Olivares: That is a very difficult part of the work. And to this day, we’re still involved in some of the family separation work. And it’s very difficult, you know, unlike some other parts of my book that frankly, I hadn’t reflected on for many years until I was writing the book. This issue of having my old my own children at the time.
In 2018, we had my wife, Carla, and I only had one. Our son. And seeing the contrast of being able. Being privileged. Being blessed. To have our child with us. Being able to put him to bed every night, hug him tight. And hearing in the morning from the parents that they had no idea where their children were or when or whether they might see them again.
That was so difficult at the time. You know, it didn’t take months or years of reflection to realize that it was in real time as it was happening. And it was very hard because on the one hand, you end up considering yourself privileged in a way, it becomes a privilege. Just being able to put your own son to bed every night becomes a privilege in that context.
And seeing that my clients were as resilient as they were ended up giving me fuel to keep going. But it’s a challenge that I am still struggling to process and working through because, as I was saying earlier, that human connection became the human connection not only of hearing my clients stories and experiences, but also my own as I was contrasting my circumstances and situation with my family with those of my clients.
Concentric Circles of Care
Lia Howard: Thank you so much. We’ve been thinking a lot in the SNF Paideia program about exactly what you’re talking about, these concentric circles of care. How self-care, community care and social activism are connected. We’re trying to better understand how an individual’s ability to be an effective change maker is connected to a wider circle of community wellness. That we are not individuals fully in control of the social structure, but we can draw strength from others as we fight for social change together.
Could you share about how and if you’re able to look at the community you’re advocating for, to provide you with support when your individual efforts to change rigid power structures seem fruitless, as in, can your community contribute to your own personal well-being?
Efrén Olivares: I absolutely think it can, and it does. I think in this and this work and this is something I talk about in the book that I am an immigrant myself. I moved to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 13. So I you know, I see myself as part of the impacted population that I try to represent and serve.
And that to me, you know, making sure that those involved in the fight are part of the impacted community is so key, because then we’re all in this together and that we’re all in this together is what keeps us going. I am convinced that, you know, humans are social creatures and this pandemic has made it very, very challenging because of the isolation.
But we crave that social connection and interaction with family, with friends, neighbors, community members, and that is so key. And when that is missing from the movement, it you know, it makes us detached or simply coworkers or colleagues or, you know, depending on the context co advocates. But we’re members of the same community. We have a common purpose.
And if we have that common purpose, even if we’re not in the same organization or working around the same issue, but if we’re in the same community, we’re part of a community that has a common purpose that can be so sustaining because then we’re just doing it not just as a chore or even just as a job, right, but as a as a life purpose or a professional purpose.
And it is challenging because I see this very often from lawyers and advocates in the social justice space that for a lot of us, our jobs is not just a job. It’s a life, it’s a mission. It’s a life purpose. And that can be problematic, too, right? We’re all human beings way more than whatever job we have, even if our job is in social justice.
But we, and when I say we, I mean those of us in the social justice space tend to, you know, be a on email until late hours in the evening or on weekends, because what we’re doing is so important. We’re trying to leave the world a better place. Right. So I also try to keep remind myself every now and then that actually it’s a job too.
And I am a human being outside my professional context with other hopes and aspirations and interests and desires to be outside of that work. So it’s hard and I think it’s something that is very common in the social justice space, not in the private sector space where, you know, people clock out and that’s the end of the workday.
It’s a challenge. I try to remind myself of that and try to strike that balance. And I have found it helpful really not to put that in perspective, that as much as I care about it and as much as I see it as as a life purpose, it is a job. And I have a family outside of that and other interests.
And that perspective is also helpful. So I know that may sound inconsistent with the first part of my answer, because I do think that viewing it as as a purpose is sustaining and fueling, but it has its limits. I don’t mean to say that, you know, see it as a purpose and therefore it should be everything that you’re doing late into the night and on weekends, because then I am concerned with the excesses that can come from that.
So it’s I think both perspectives are useful and reminding ourselves of both is the key.
Lia Howard: Thank you so much for complicating this for us because these are exactly the kinds of questions we’ve been thinking about with this series. And we appreciate your diving deep into that. I want to also plug your book a million times, because I think your book talks about these things in really important ways, too, and introduces us to members of the community by name.
And we get to do deep dive stories into it, to the folks and to the issues they’re dealing with by name and by circumstance. So thank you for for all of that. And I want to just end. What gives you hope?
Efrén Olivares: I think what gives me the most hope is my clients in this work who, despite the challenges, despite discrimination, despite everything that they have gone through, they keep going for their loved ones, whether it is their family, their children, whoever it is. They find it in themselves to keep pushing. And if they can push, I can certainly push.
So I think that’s what gives me hope. I think another common answer is the young people and the future generations, the Gen Z that you were talking about at the top of the hour. I think that also gives me hope, but I don’t like framing it as hopeless in the future because I find hope in the present and I find it and my clients primarily.
Lia Howard: Efrén Olivares, I cannot thank you enough for joining us, for sharing so well and so deeply with us on The Park, and thank you for the work you do. And we’re so excited to have you come to Penn to visit us soon.
Efrén Olivares: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed the conversation and I look forward to seeing all of you in September.