Angel Padilla MPA ’13 is the policy director for Indivisible, a grassroots movement with a mission to elect progressive leaders and rebuild our democracy.
He previously served as health policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, and legislative assistant for Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), advising on issues related to health care and the Affordable Care Act.
Below he shares his thoughts on today’s pressing policy issues, how to be an effective decisionmaker, and how his time at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) continues to influence his work today.
Q. What are you most passionate about? What current project or initiative are you most excited about?
Padilla: I consider myself lucky that in my current job, I get to work on a number of critically important issues including the Green New Deal, democracy reform, health care, foreign policy, and more. But the issue I’m most passionate about is immigration policy. For advocates, it’s been such a challenging and disappointing issue to work on over the last 20 years, but we may have another opportunity to make a meaningful impact if there’s a political realignment next year.
The project I’m most excited about is the Moving Toward Justice project, a coalition-driven effort to redefine immigration policy proposals. Since the 1986 immigration reform bill, the debate has almost exclusively focused on the comprehensive immigration reform (or “CIR”) model that trades relief for families with expansions to immigration enforcement. Moving Toward Justice is working with policy experts and directly impacted communities to develop policy proposals that would transform our immigration system — and actually solve our immigration problems — but without coupling those changes with counterproductive and harmful enforcement provisions. Think of it as the Green New Deal or Medicare For All, but for immigration policy.
Q. Over the course of your career, what are the most important skills/strategies you’ve learned?
Padilla: I think it’s how to build and work through coalition. One of the hardest things to do is get partners and organizations, each with its own set of priorities, constituencies, internal processes, and capacity constraints, into alignment. It requires patience, compromise, respect, and trust, and usually a significant time commitment. It also often requires coalition members to sacrifice time, resources, and sometimes even one of their priorities in order to advance the interests of the coalition. But if you can do it, you’re much more powerful than trying to go it alone, and I don’t think any organization has “go it alone” power, even if they think they do.
Q. When it comes to decision-making, what are the most effective strategies? How do you make critical decisions and forge a consensus?
Padilla: It certainly depends. At least internally within my department, we end up talking through a lot of the issues before making major decisions or making recommendations to our executive directors. We have some really great, smart people on staff, and we value their opinions. I still feel like I’m fundamentally a staffer, and one of the most important responsibilities for a staffer is to make the best recommendations possible, especially for complicated issues where there isn’t a clear right or wrong answer. But in order for anyone to meet that responsibility, they have to feel like their voice is both valued and respected. It doesn’t mean that their recommendation will always be taken, but it’s counterproductive or even harmful if a person feels they can’t be honest about their recommendation, for whatever reason. That’s the environment I’ve tried to cultivate within my department.
As for decisions within a coalition, that can be a lot tougher. It’s important to set up a clear process for decision-making early, and then practice it. For the Moving Toward Justice project, for example, we strive for consensus but can move ahead with two-thirds member support. That means that most of the coalition members need to support a decision, but that we’re still able to move ahead even if there are some members who aren’t in favor of that decision. If we required consensus, we’d probably be more gridlocked than we are. But again, this requires a lot of trust within the coalition, especially when you find yourself in the minority on a key decision.
Q. In what ways did the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs prepare you for your career?
Padilla: For one, the alumni network has been invaluable. The organization that I helped co-found, Indivisible, wouldn’t have happened without the support of so many SPIA alumni who volunteered their time helping us set up the organization. In fact, Ezra Levin, one of our co-executive directors, and Liz Ramey, our director of operations, both graduated my year. I can’t tell you how often we reach out to other classmates for advice who are experts in their respective fields. There isn’t a corner of domestic or foreign policy where there isn’t someone just a phone call or email away who can help.
There are so many ways that the SPIA program shows up in the work I do. I still use some of the lessons I learned in 501 when looking at new policy proposals. And, I still find myself re-reading sections of John Kingdon’s book, “Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies,” and Mancur Olson’s “The Logic of Collective Action” to help me think through issues I’m working on. Plus, the policy workshop I did with Heather Howard on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) implementation gave me the foundation I needed for the job I got right after graduating, which was focused on ACA implementation and its impact on eligible immigrant populations.
Q. How do you think the School trains students to be policy leaders? What were the tactical skills you gained while at the School that you still employ today?
Padilla: One of the main reasons I went to SPIA is because I felt I needed a deeper quantitative foundation in order to do my job well — at the time, I was on the Hill and felt I had no way of questioning the experts who came into our office every time they had a new report to share. I walked away with that foundation and have used it in my current job. The things I learned in economics, econometrics, and program evaluation have allowed me to better engage in policy debates, and provided me the ability to push back when I need to. I don’t think you can be a policy leader if you’re not able to do that well.
I’m an advocate and one of the most important skills I learned and still use is how to make the distinction between policy and political arguments for the things I’m working on. Early in my career, I remember constantly feeling frustrated at how quickly good policy proposals were often dismissed over political considerations. That obviously still happens, but I’ve become much better at making solid policy and political arguments in my advocacy, much the same way we did in those 501 memos.
Q. What is/are the most important policy issue(s) facing us today?
Padilla: Our organizational priority at Indivisible is reforming our democracy, and we believe that’s a necessary precondition for any other meaningful change. Over the last four years, we’ve seen relentless attacks against core democratic institutions, widespread corruption, attacks against the most vulnerable in our communities, and the further entrenching of conservative power. Our democracy is rigged against us and in favor of the wealthy and corporations, and given the electoral map, we might soon find ourselves permanently shut out from ever obtaining political power again. That means we need to make sure that we unrig our democracy first. Then, and only then, can we expect to realize the transformative policy changes we want to see on climate, immigration, health care, etc.
Q. How can young people entering the workforce be successful?
Padilla: I think it’s always good to have some hustle, whether you’re in a junior or senior position at an organization. It just pays off when you put in the work. For SPIA alumni, I’d encourage them to lean on their classmates — and let them lean on you, too — whenever possible. There’s a depth of knowledge and experience to draw from, and that’s not just in terms of hard policy expertise. Your classmates have a ton of experience with management, budgeting, organizational planning, salary negotiations, and equity and diversity.
And, I’d encourage people to take risks. People tend to do things because it’s the way it’s always been done. That’s true of internal processes and policies within organizations, and in terms of things like legislative strategy. I’ve found that being willing to try new things, even if they involve risk, has made a big difference in my work.
Changemakers: Alumni Making a Difference is a Q&A series featuring alumni of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.