Representing San Francisco senior citizens in legal matters like racial discrimination and housing, SF State alumnus Carlos Torres began his career as an advocate for underserved communities.
Torres said he developed his passion for labor rights while working at La Raza Centro Legal, a nonprofit legal service in the Mission District.
“It was really working with low-income immigrant communities, helping them as an advocate through the wage claim process,” Torres said. “They’re paid cash, paid under the minimum wage, so it was really gratifying to be a part of the community assistance to this group of people.”
Torres led a workshop at SF State April 3 for students interested in pursuing a career in law and labor rights advocacy. At the event, he shared his personal experiences representing underserved communities in San Francisco and his work as an arbitrator, known in technical terms as a Deputy Labor Commissioner II, for California.
As an arbitrator, Torres said he settles disputes between business owners who have violated labor standards and the employees those laws seek to protect, acting as a judge on behalf of the state to resolve claims.
Torres said parties often get aggravated during the wage claim process but relax when they understand that the law requires him to provide an objective analysis of the issue at hand.
“You’re helping workers and employers essentially by issuing good decisions that are strictly fact-based,” Torres said.
Majoring in international relations, Torres studied at SF State for five years and graduated in 2005. He said he always had a passion for helping people but it wasn’t until he returned from his study abroad that he realized he wanted to work within his immediate community.
Nicky Trasvina, a counselor who works in the Academic Resource Center at SF State, invited Torres to lecture about his decision to go to law school following his time at SF State and his volunteering with various nonprofit legal services in the city.
Trasvina said she advised Torres and introduced him to some of the nonprofit organizations he worked for after graduating. She said she remembers him as a motivated student with a strong work ethic and desire to serve people without a voice in the community.
“I thought that he was a bright, young, ambitious student,” Trasvina said. “To have a young person like Carlos make that (social justice) his career has made me very proud that I’ve had such an influence on him and headed him in that direction.”
Torres’ partner of 10 years Hugh O’Donnell said one of his husband’s only flaws is his total commitment to the work he does.
“He’s not the kind of person to walk away from something, regardless of whether it’s a Saturday afternoon, whereas I think other people would walk away and deal with it Monday morning,” O’Donnell said. “Is that a shortcoming? Who knows? We’d all be guilty of it.”
At the end of the discussion, Torres said he encourages students to pursue graduate school and work that most interests them, even if they are unsure of their career path.
“I didn’t really have any direction other than wanting to be in the community doing public service work,” Torres said. “It just so happened that I got the chance to do community and still be in public service through the government. All these great steps, with a lot of time and hard work, have opened doors for me.”