When Alexis Atsilvgi Zaragoza started her new job at the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR), it was a natural fit for the Indigenous and Chicana activist from rural Central California. She established herself as a young leader as her activism started early as did her concern for the economic prosperity for those living in areas like her hometown of Patterson.
“My dad was a field worker and he came here from Mexico when he was 12, so it was a really rich history of agriculture,” she recalled. But when Amazon opened a fulfillment center in Patterson, she began to think about what that meant to her town and residents. “We had an Amazon warehouse on [the high school] campus and they were doing all this training, pulling students as early as freshman year, which kind of gave them no chance to really explore their interests.”
Her path through high school and college shaped her activism. “I was always very big about trying to take on these issues and solve them,” she said. She was a leader in high school as the ASB president, an athlete and active in clubs, but academically wasn’t able to complete her A-G requirements needed to enroll in a four-year university.
She started at Modesto Junior College (MJC) with the intent of transferring after one year but kept hearing from friends that it could take up to seven years or more to graduate. “It just freaked me out personally and was like, ‘am I going to be stuck here forever?’” Not one to sit still, she found her way onto the California Community College Board of Governors, where she learned this was a system-wide issue.
Zaragoza transferred to the University of California Berkeley upon graduation from MJC. She joined the University of California Board of Regents as the first undergraduate transfer student to sit as a Regent. It was there that she first met Glenda Humiston, University of California vice president for agriculture and natural resources and a partner in CA FWD’s California Stewardship Network (CSN). Zaragoza and Humiston began having conversations about economic development in rural communities.
In 2021, she joined CA FWD’s Young Leaders Advisory Council (YLAC), young Californians committed to affecting the policy-making process by engaging underrepresented communities through intergenerational collaboration. “We are the new changemakers, the future and current politicians, and we are actively building our future one bold move at a time,” said Zaragoza. “Having YLAC and other youth leaders in the room is necessary not just for diversity’s sake, it’s necessary because we are visionaries in every space we occupy.”
She also recommends organizations follow CA FWD’s lead and have young people involved, including on their boards, councils and advisory committees. “We have so many ideas and we have so much energy and motivation.” She added, “The future is literally the only thing we have and we’re basing everything off of it.”
It was at the 2022 California Economic Summit — produced by CAFWD and the CSN — in Bakersfield where she reconnected with Humiston. Zaragoza was speaking on a YLAC panel about how young leaders can benefit organizations, when Humiston told her about a job at UCANR that would be perfect for her.
Zaragoza, now the UCANR’s Community Economic Development Coordinator and Policy Analyst, is creating a new database that will connect ANR advisors, statewide partners and communities such as Tribal nations across California in natural resources and economic development work. “I have been tasked to basically create that database and create the in-person network that currently exists, digitally,” she explained. “We will hopefully visualize that puzzle so other people can, with a couple clicks of a button, find the people they’re looking for so we can accelerate this work.”
Her work at UCANR fits perfectly with her desire to focus on economic development in rural California. “I am very passionate about looking at this prospect of hope in California, primarily in rural regions,” she said. Zaragoza wants students in those regions to have choices on whether to go to college and, if they choose not to, have access to good, stable jobs. She added, “How can we make sure that California even has a heartland in the future through agriculture?”
Zaragoza sees law school in her future. “All across California there are these rural towns and places and councils that don’t exactly know what is good for everyone,” she said. “I really want to be able to provide the help to the communities that I come from, while also being mindful of how we can make sure that this is good for the town, the community and also good for the individuals.”
For young California leaders, Zaragoza shared her advice, saying, “When you want to be in the room where things are being talked about, make your way into it.”