Veteran alumnus engages new generation of activists at helm of nonprofit LUCHA

School of Transborder Studies alumnus Tomas Robles is helping young activists find their voice in Arizona

May 7, 2019

In 2010, Tomas Robles found himself in Phoenix with an accounting job he didn’t love and what felt like a troubling political tide he was powerless to impact.

It had been almost a decade since, at 19, the 9/11 attacks prompted him to leave his freshman year at Arizona State University to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. Tomas Robles graduated with a bachelor's degree from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' School of Transborder Studies in 2011. Tomas Robles graduated with a bachelor's degree from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' School of Transborder Studies in 2011. Download Full Image

For Robles, the decision was a visceral reaction that he said changed his life’s trajectory entirely. After five years of military service, returning home to Arizona triggered a similar response.

“There was a lot of fear over the economy, but also a lot of scapegoating, especially toward immigrants,” he said. “Then Gov. Jan Brewer passed SB1070In 2010, Arizona passed a controversial piece of legislature known by its shorthand SB1070 that was seen by many as anti-immigrant. , and it sent that bolt of lightning through my body all over again.”

The son of Mexican immigrants, Robles was born in Tucson and grew up in Phoenix. The new policies stood to affect his own community. And they left him wanting to effect change in ways that didn’t seem possible with the accounting degree he’d earned after the military.

The feeling drove his return to ASU, where the School of Transborder Studies at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences checked many of the boxes he envisioned.

“I wanted to join a program that offered education about our history in the way I needed it, while also enabling me to organize in my community by meeting people with the same passion for social justice,” he said.

Robles graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Chicana/o and Latina/o studies in 2011 and continued to work in local advocacy projects before landing at LUCHA An acronym for the organization's full name, Living United for Change in Arizona, LUCHA is also a nod to Mexico's professional wrestling world known as lucha libre. Fighters, or luchadores, wear colorful masks and costumes during matches.AZ, then a budding network also founded in the wake of SB1070.

Since taking the helm as executive director in 2013, Robles has transformed the organization into a multifaceted advocacy vehicle led by local youth tackling issues around immigration, incarceration and voter access.

Now co-directing the group with fellow ASU alumna Alejandra Gomez, he’s helping a new generation realize their own potential to make an impact.

Today, LUCHA boasts an office in Phoenix and Tucson, 26 employees and some 2,600 dues-paying members whose donations allow them to help decide the public policy stances of the organization and access to immigration support services. Robles estimated they have also registered close to 100,000 new Arizona voters.  

Simply put, he said the group rallies around the causes important to communities sometimes cast into the shadows.

“LUCHA seeks to change the state of Arizona to a place that is more accessible to working families,” he said. “That includes young people, single women, immigrants and people of color — we want to create a state that we feel better represents all of us.”

He answered a few questions about his ASU journey, his time after graduation and how young activists can impact public policy now.

Question: What brought you to LUCHA?

Answer: I came to LUCHA from an organizing position at the Cesar Chavez Foundation in Phoenix after graduation. It was a dream and an honor to work for the foundation that Chavez himself helped build, but the bureaucracy did not allow me the freedom to create new programs or the means to effect change as quickly as I’d hoped.

While LUCHA didn’t have the same name recognition, budget or staff, we did have the ability to dream big and build an organization within the framework of the issues we are facing right now.

My first assignment here was actually what landed me the job. LUCHA’s director at the time asked me to write a campaign plan to win a budget override proposal for Phoenix schools, which usually means property taxes are raised in the local community and the extra money goes directly to the schools. We were expected to lose that campaign, but with the plan I wrote, we ended up winning by just 87 votes. That led to $21 million additional funds going to all nine high schools in the Phoenix Union district.

Q: A lot of LUCHA’s initiatives today are led by high school and college activists. How does that affect the organization?

A: It's totally by design. We believe that youth create, lead and accomplish movements. If we train and engage with high school students, they will in turn have the passion, education, expertise and energy to go out and help change the state. In any given day, you'll see between 10 and 20 students here taking political education classes, creating art for a demonstration or just spending time after school in a place where they feel welcome and comfortable among their peers. Almost every single employee that works for LUCHA today started as a volunteer, so many stay on and continue to develop.

Q: How would you describe your Sun Devil story?

A: Without the School of Transborder Studies, I'd probably still be looking at accounting spreadsheets and looking outside the window wishing I was somewhere else. I think my experience is a perfect example of how finding the right school at ASU can make you feel empowered to impact whatever you think is important in the world.

Because of its size, the school had this sense of family and togetherness that felt very genuine. It also helped me personally that the director at the time was Carlos Velez-Ibanez, who is also a former Marine. We really connected not just about both growing up in the Southwest as Mexican Americans, but also on the experience of joining the military and coming back.

I think those aspects really solidified my passion and helped me see different ways to effect change in my community. 

Q: Are there any other professors that stick out in your mind?

A: So many. Classes taught by Edward Escobar about the history of labor and political movements in the U.S. really impacted me, while Marivel Danielson helped showcase advocacy through a woman of color's perspective. That was the first place I got to be privy to that viewpoint, and I think it’s hugely important when participating in social movements because you have to be able to open your eyes to a lot of different struggles.

Eileen McConnell spoke to the stat and math nerd in me, and Lisa Magana was the first one to discover the work that I was doing outside of the classroom to register voters in south Phoenix and educate people about SB1070. I was doing 60-hour weeks in addition to going to school, and at 28, I was an older student who was a little disconnected from other students. She saw an interview about my work and began talking about it at the school, which really helped me feel more involved.

Q: What advice would you give to new students or what do you wish you had known?

A: Take as many different courses as possible, even if they don’t fit with your major, because that’s how you discover what you love. I took my first course in the School of Transborder Studies when I was a mechanical engineering major and it changed everything.

Secondly, don't take a loan unless you really have to, because you'll need to pay that money back, with interest. Thirdly, get involved and take advantage of your ASU network. College is immensely valuable on its own, but there is nothing more valuable than the people you meet while you're there. So go to as many functions and meet as many people as you can. Get out and engage in different organizations. That will go a long way once you start your career.

Finally, chase a passion, not a paycheck. This is such a cliche, but it really is true. You'll never feel like you’re working a day in your life if what you do and what you love are the same thing.

Q: What are some of your most important milestones since graduation, both personally and for LUCHA?

A: I go back to the young people we are lucky to help here. We have a communications director who is a DACAIntroduced in 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program granted temporary protection to some undocumented individuals brought to the United States as children. student. We have another student who started as an intern and is now an organizing director.  

Not only are these young people still with the organization after internships and volunteering, they have prominent roles and are the ones who will take over once co-executive director Alejandra Gomez and I step away.

We try to have this space feel like family, similar to the School of Transborder Studies actually, so that everyone feels welcome. Growing up, I didn't know about any organization like this and frankly, I don’t think anything existed. These young people are so much further ahead because they have these places.

There is no greater sense of accomplishment for me than seeing them grow and become leaders of their communities, because you know you had a part in their finding that voice. They are the reason this organization is so successful. I really don't know if there's a replacement for that feeling.

Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


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Essential reading: Books to light your path to the future

May 7, 2019

“Think before you speak. Read before you think.” ― Fran Lebowitz, The Fran Lebowitz Reader

Read about the lives of exceptionally accomplished people and you’ll find many were helped along the road to success by some especially edifying or inspiring knowledge or wisdom.

Often those invigorating insights were found in a book and in subject matter far afield of their sphere of professional expertise.

Here, in the eighth annual Essential Reading feature, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering faculty and staff members again recommend books they believe offer valuable lessons students can apply to their career pursuits — as well as their lives outside of work — or simply provide a unique perspective on an intriguing topic.

For more book recommendations, see links at the end of the article to previous Essential Reading features.

'Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,' by Neil Degrasse Tyson

Recommended by Christopher Buneo, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering

Christopher Buneo

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in case you don’t know, is an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History, director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of the radio and TV show "StarTalk." This book, one of several he has written, was given to me by my young nephew as a gift, presumably because it was about science and was a No. 1 New York Times best-seller.

At first, I found the lack of scientific detail to be a bit frustrating. But once I set that aside, I started to really enjoy the book. Its value is not in presenting a complete picture of extremely complex astrophysical phenomena. What I found most valuable is how small it made me feel, or rather how small it made my problems seem. The magnitudes of the distances and forces at play in the universe that are described by Tyson challenge human comprehension. But when one tries to envision these phenomena, one cannot help but view their own day-to-day difficulties in a different light. So, in that way, I found the book to be very grounding, and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a relatively quick read and a bit of cosmic perspective.

'Irresistible,' by Adam Alter

Recommended by Junseok Chae, associate dean for research and professor of electrical engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering

Junseok Chae

Think about how often and for how long many of us use our mobile phones each day. Only about 15 years ago, we were not on our phones anywhere near the amount of time as we are today, and we got along just fine. It seems we are now addicted to this technology. So, how did we get addicted and how do we overcome it? Alter’s book starts by describing when Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s iPad in January 2010. Jobs proudly showed off the new cutting-edge technology. But do you know he kept his own children from using it?

I’m not a behavioral scientist, but the title and a review of the book lured me into reading it. The author clearly delivers his claim about the addiction — presenting a strong argument that many of us are also addicted to the internet (which is true of me, in fact) — and systematically analyzes what characterizes these types of addictions. Alter introduces methods he believes could help us overcome such strong dependencies, which he says can be much more severe than we think — impacting a wide range of our physical behavior as well as our social interaction. Today’s technological advances are a great outcome of beautifully crafted engineering, but this book makes it clear we need the wisdom to avoid the undesirable side effects of using our ever-present gadgets.

'Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,' by Angela Duckworth

Recommended by Nikhilesh Chawla, professor of materials science and engineering in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy

Nik Chawla

Ever wonder what qualities are needed to be successful? Angela Duckworth goes through a compelling analysis, with quantitative data and numerous examples cutting across many areas and disciplines. What she shows is that talent and intelligence are not enough to succeed.

In fact, a better marker for success is grit. Simply defined, it is the ability to persevere and be persistent, working hard combined with a passion for what you do. The ability to get up, dust yourself off and continue to strive to be the best will help you immensely in your pursuits. As you navigate through challenges in life, it is this unique quality — grit — that is most likely to get you through!

'How to Be Here,' by Rob Bell

Recommended by Brooke Coley, assistant professor of engineering in The Polytechnic School 

Brooke coley

This is an amazing story (subtitled “A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living”) that inspires readers with ideas to contemplate as we embark upon our life’s journeys. It helps you think about your passions and dreams and a plan to actualize them. The concept of ikigai — a Japanese word symbolizing “a reason for being” — is introduced as a lens through which to process life. Rob Bell’s anecdotes position the reader to explore the significance of life and living it forwardly and abundantly.

The book resonates as one of few I have read that I wish I had come across earlier in life. Its lessons are timeless, and the perspective it creates is imperative and essential for a life of fulfillment and joy. It inspires an awareness of the importance of every moment. This book helps us to really hear our inner voices, to think about what matters most to us, to pursue those things wholeheartedly and to be present in every moment in the process. Bell helps us see that when it’s all said and done, it’s not the accomplishments that will matter most, but the joy we have experienced in those rare moments.

'The Master and Margarita,' by Mikhail Bulgakov 

Recommended by Anca Delgado, assistant professor of environmental engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment

Anca Delgado

This book is among my favorites because it is funny, strongly satirical, and at the same time presents intriguing perspectives on the concept of evil and topics such as religion and politics. One plot is set in Moscow in the 1930s. Here, the Devil, a mysterious professor and magician, arrives with a posse of creatures who create mayhem for the literary elite. The other takes place in Jerusalem during the time of Pontius Pilate and the trial of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth).

I really appreciate the work of other writers of the same literary era as Bulgakov. Among my favorite books are “Omon Ra,” a novel by Victor Pelevin and “Moscow to the End of the Line,” a humorous story that is also a social commentary, by Venedikt Erofeev. The last book I read was “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings.” Like “The Master and Margarita,” all of these stories tell fantastical tales that are entertaining while also examining politics, time, philosophy, love, human frailties and many of life’s biggest challenges.

'Quicksilver,' 'The Confusion,' 'The System of the World,” by Neal Stephenson 

Recommended by Keith D. Hjelmstad, President’s Professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment

Keith Hjelmstad

I had the opportunity to work with science fiction writer Neal Stephenson a few years ago after he contacted me and asked if it was possible to build a tower 20 kilometers tall. Working with him on this project inspired me to read all of his books (I have read 11 so far). It was really hard to pick from that great list, so I cheated a bit and chose “The Baroque Cycle,” a trilogy that includes the books “Quicksilver,” “The Confusion” and “The System of the World.”

Stephenson is a gifted writer of historical fiction, and these books provide a fun romp through one of the most important periods of history for engineers — the times of Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Christiaan Huygens, Robert Hooke and many other giants of science and mathematics who roamed the Earth in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The echoes of this important period of history still reverberate in the academic lives of today’s engineering students. Stephenson’s novels are full of action, and he invents a set of fictional characters that interact seamlessly with real historical figures. Engineering students should know something about the history of their field, and these well-researched books provide a delightful way to gain insight into that history.

'Becoming,' by Michelle Obama

Recommended by Nadia Kellam, associate professor of engineering in The Polytechnic School

Nadia Kellam

In this engaging, authentic and deeply personal story, Michelle Obama takes the reader back to her childhood as she grew up in a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Her story continues through high school, college, law school, into a legal career and then a pivot to finding a more meaningful job, getting married, having two daughters and becoming the first lady of the United States. Her story illustrates what it was like for her to grow up as a black woman and the many ways that she overcame barriers and exceeded expectations in her path to becoming who she is today.

This book can be especially empowering for students from underrepresented groups, as these students oftentimes overcome significant barriers during their own journeys to reach their dreams and aspirations. Students who are not from underrepresented groups can begin to learn about systemic racism, how it persists throughout our society, and ways of becoming more empathetic and recognizing their own privilege. “Becoming” has something for everyone, as we all work to develop our voice, construct our own stories and reflect on how our story shapes who we are becoming.

'Strengthsfinder 2.0,' by Tom Rath

Recommended by Lauren Levin, manager of academic services in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering

Lauren Levin

Do you spend the majority of your time fixating on overcoming your weaknesses, or do you use your natural talents to move forward in life? Gallup, the international analytics and advice company, has spent decades studying people’s talents as they relate to employee engagement at work and has concluded the vast majority of people do not have the opportunity to focus on what they do best in the workplace.

“From the cradle to the cubicle, we devote more time to our shortcomings than to our strengths,” said author Tom Rath. We spend considerable time trying to add talent where little exists rather than focusing on the things we do best. Rath’s compact book builds on work by the “father of strengths-based psychology” Don Clifton and includes an assessment designed to identify your talents and strengths.  Knowing your top five talent themes provides you with guiding principles to help put a strengths-based action plan to work to align your goals — including career aspirations — with your natural talents. By focusing on what we do best, we are likely to find ourselves in an environment that is much more positive and productive, leading to our own happiness and the happiness of those around us. 

'Outliers: The Story of Success,' by Malcolm Gladwell 

Recommended by Baoxin Li, professor of computer science and engineering and program chair in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering

Baoxin li

We often attribute the tremendous achievements of famous and accomplished people to their extraordinary personal traits. Whether it is an extremely high IQ, an unusual talent for art or sports, or exceptional business acumen, it has to be something far from ordinary — it has to be an “outlier.” In this book, Malcolm Gladwell examines the elements contributing to the success of those high-achieving people from a very refreshing angle: how often-overlooked and seemingly mundane factors like family, cultural background, socioeconomic status, diligence or simply unusual opportunities may have played a critical role in their success.

The author skillfully weaves his arguments into many real-life stories focusing on very diverse events and people, from Canadian hockey games to Korean plane crashes, and from Bill Gates to a Jamaican girl named Joyce (you will learn who she is in the book), making “Outliers” irresistibly entertaining yet intellectually stimulating at the same time. After reading this book, you will likely have some fresh perspectives for understanding success, not only in terms of figuring out how the success of many prominent people came about, but also in terms of appreciating how we — individuals, families or the society at large — could contribute to fostering an environment that will produce successful stories for more people.  

'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,' by Mark Haddon 

Recommended by Jennifer Velez, coordinator senior in the Engineering Student Outreach and Retention Program 

Jennifer Velez

In this fictional story, Mark Haddon reveals the inner mental workings of his protagonist, Christopher, who is autistic. When 15-year-old Christopher finds a neighbor’s dog stabbed with a pitchfork, he embarks on a hunt to find the killer. Throughout his investigation, Christopher meticulously compiles evidence while trying to navigate a world he doesn’t quite understand. 

He reminds me in some ways of the “Star Trek” character Data, painfully awkward in his interactions with other humans and yet sweet and a little bit tragic. Christopher soon finds that logic and keen observations aren’t enough. If he’s going to solve the mystery, he must look beyond simple facts and uncover the nuances of human emotion. This touching — and often funny — story is a lesson in empathy for both Christopher and readers alike.

Check out Essential Reading book recommendations from past years:

2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 20132012

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering