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Daily Inspiration: Meet Leana Cortez

Today we’d like to introduce you to Leana Cortez. 

Hi Leana, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today.
There’s the story of Our Time to Act (OTTA) United, and there’s my story. OTTA United was founded in 2018 but has grown in purpose and impact over the years. From humble beginnings, starting as a tutoring nonprofit, we now operate a robust, youth-led organization building and exercising youth power in San Diego and across California. We get youth engaged in guiding our future, including youth voter engagement, housing advocacy, and fighting for justice. 

My story with OTTA United started in 2021 when I joined to develop our new advocacy department. My work as Director of Advocacy helped direct change-making at OTTA United and youth in local politics. I help advocate, mobilize, and organize youth for a greater presence in San Diego. 

In my work, I do a lot of political research. For example, I lead my team in our effort to institute reform to the City of San Diego’s redistricting process. During the most recent round of redistricting, OTTA United pushed for the most equitable map, and now we use data and our experience to reshape the redistricting process for the next ten years and beyond. 

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It has definitely not been a smooth road! The world of advocacy in itself is a very bumpy, inconsistent, and difficult road, but the results are really meaningful to me. 

Mobilizing and organizing are monumental tasks, especially when it comes to youth like us in a world like ours. A lot of us are already burnt out from the pressures of higher education, surviving the cost of living, and trying to find out who we are. Often, youth that do want to be present don’t have the time and resources to advocate for themselves. That’s why it’s a tall order to build youth power in all places. We reach out to our young peers and give them opportunities to show up and speak out and the courage to dig deep and find out who they really are. Finding a balance is difficult. Successfully organizing is difficult. But, when it works out, it’s incredibly impactful for youth and their communities. 

Thanks – so, what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I’m proud that we are acting now. We are creating change for the future in the present. Not a lot of people get to do that, especially youth. We are taking initiative on things that need to be changed and can’t be delayed. It’s incredibly fulfilling and demonstrates OTTA United’s unique stance of creating youth power in the present because we own the future. 

Specifically speaking, I’m very proud of our Get Out to Vote Campaign (GOTV), where we were able to pledge 1,260 voters in North University City to vote in the primary election. Our efforts increased voter turnout from 29% to 41% in precincts that we door-knocked. 

In addition, our redistricting reform research received praise from San Diego City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and City Councilmember Chris Cate. In this project, we worked with many community organizations to gather feedback, share information, and collaborate. 

Is there a quality that you most attribute to your success?
Adaptability is central when working in advocacy. Advocacy is never stagnant—instead, it’s fluid and unpredictable. In order to be successful in this field, it’s necessary to adapt to different situations and outcomes because there won’t be time to carefully plan out every aspect of an advocacy project. This is partly due to the fact that advocacy in nature is very collaborative, and working with many businesses and organizations takes effort and time. I had plans go absolutely wrong, but being adaptable and thinking on my feet has helped. You can keep going towards the same goal, but sometimes you need to have a different way of approaching it. 

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