Nestled in the heart of Los Angeles, an inconspicious building disguises a network that is changing the lives of people across Los Angeles and the rest of the United States. Co-founded by Madeline Janis ’82, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) fights for Los Angeles’ working poor to receive better wages and working conditions, and has been a model for organizations across the country to effectively fight for substantive policy changes for workers. Though it wasn’t a direct path from Amherst to LAANE, Janis has been a passionate advocate for people suffering from injustice around the world and in her backyard throughout her life.
For much of her life, Janis has been able to call the city of Los Angeles home. She grew up near L.A. in San Fernando Valley, and she knew from an early age that she wanted to spend her life as an advocate for Los Angeles’ low-wage workers.
As a member of only the third class of women to be at Amherst, Janis was already a pioneer by the time she reached campus.
“I learned about Amherst when I was young, because they didn’t allow women and was one of the hardest schools to get into,” she said. “So I made a decision at that point that I was going to Amherst, and told my mother about it.”
She focused much of her attention on international issues over the course of her Amherst career, organizing a great deal of student activism against the apartheid regime in South Africa and human rights abuses in Latin America. During her junior year, she studied abroad in Spain, an experience that came at the crucial moment when the regime of the long-time dictator Francisco Franco had just fallen. This experience laid the groundwork for her senior thesis, which explored the anarchist movement during the Spanish Civil War.
Janis’ thesis work proved to be foundational from the presence and advice from her thesis adviser Professor Amrita Basu. Janis said nearly all the Amherst professors during her time were older white men, so at times she struggled to connect with them on a personal level. However, during her junior year, a young professor arrived on campus who was a pioneer in her own right. Just 29 years old when she arrived, Basu was only a few years older than Janis, and “as a woman of color she was truly groundbreaking for the diversity of Amherst,” Janis said. The two grew close, and the friendship continued to develop the years.
Reflecting back on her experiences, Janis cited Amherst as having “a hugely formative impact on my thinking and who I am as a person.” Even after her student activism organization against injustices in the world, her pioneering journey of advocacy had only just begun. It would lead her back to something more local — her home city of Los Angeles.
After graduating from Amherst, Janis continued her education back on the other coast at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. For a long time, she had wanted to do something at the United Nations or in Washington, D.C. with international work, but when she moved back to L.A., she “fell back in love with the city.”
In 1984, she clerked at the Central American Refugee Center and proceeded to work there after receiving her law degree. While there, she became a member of the first full-time legal clinic for disenfranchised refugees, setting a model for the rest of the country to fight for the legal rights of refugees. After working in private law for a short time while continuing to do pro bono work to advocate for vulnerable constituents of Los Angeles, Janis returned to the refugee center in 1989 as its executive director until 1993. While in this position, she successfully campaigned to legalize and regulate the activities of sidewalk vendors and combatted civil rights abuses of Central American immigrants by the L.A. Police Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
It was in the aftermath of the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles that Janis turned from her legal protection of and advocacy for refugees to a new advocacy role of substantively changing policies to assist the broader community of the working poor in the city. She credits the tremendous poverty in the city as one of the main causes of the civil unrest, and she recognized that “major structural changes were needed. For change, we needed to talk about structure and strategy.”
That strategy turned into LAANE, an organization Janis co-founded with two other activists. As the executive director from 1993 to 2012, Janis oversaw remarkable advocacy that reinforced bills and influenced governments to support the fight for better pay, housing and working conditions for workers in the low-wage service economy of Los Angeles. LAANE led the historic campaign in 1999 to pass L.A.’s “living wage” ordinance, a measure that raised wages and improved health benefits for tens of thousands of workers in the L.A. area and provided a model for the rest of the U.S.
Not only have they successfully fought for living wage ordinances around Los Angeles, but they have also gained key victories in improving the general work environment for workers while simultaneously pushing for a healthy environment and stable communities. Janis sees particular connections between her living wage ordinance work in the late 1990s and the hot button minimum wage discussions today.
“People need to earn enough to live a decent life,” Janis said. “Research has shown that around $15 is necessary, for people to survive and for people to not raise their kids in a terrible condition. $15 may be the minimum we work off of or the aspiration for a minimum, but people need to receive a living wage.”
How has LAANE been so successful in fighting for substantive structural changes in the economy of Los Angeles? Janis will be quick to deflect praise, but much of the success involves her guiding hand. She recognized that long-term change wouldn’t come unless communities were involved, so LAANE dedicates much of its focus to grassroots organization and leadership development and communications. “The people affected most have to be a leading part of every change,” Janis said. “A successful model that works is when grassroots workers — workers as well as community leaders — have a main focus and want to change. There’s always a community or worker voice in coalitions and proposals.”
A hallmark of LAANE’s work is its direct involvement with and reliance on workers’ voices and leadership to fight for their legal rights. The organization’s focus on the service economy and rebuilding the economy on a sustainable base that is “focused on creating things” is in Jani’s eyes a key sector to support workers’ rights. From the founding of LAANE when the organization had nothing to its current position with fifty employees and a wealth of experiences with different tactics, Janis has focused on fighting for systemic change. And now in her current role as the national policy director, she plans to refocus her efforts on specific programs and fundraising that can continue the work LAANE carries out.
Outside of Politics
Though LAANE’s advocacy work is directly tied with policy, Janis is very quick to say she has ruled out working as a politician to make structural changes. Rather, she prefers to “build a program and push the envelope on the outside.” More importantly, though she has worked incredibly hard in her career, she has always wanted to maintain a life balance; to her, a crazier life as an elected official would impede the balance of her valued personal and family commitments and would prevent her from some of the grassroots organizing she so enjoys. Moreover, her work outside of politics still involves crucial policy advocacy and enables both local and national efforts. Local efforts becoming national models lead the way at LAANE, while the broader national coalition, called Jobs to Move America, which Janis now directs, works on a national scale to ensure that public funds are spent in environmentally sustainable ways that create better jobs and more opportunities for lower-income people.
Living a Good Life
When she accepted an honorary degree from Amherst in 2013, Janis was asked to give a speech. In a talk that touched upon important moments in her life, successes and challenges in her career and the role of her Amherst experience in her life, she described the five main principles that she knew would help her live a good life.
It’s “not the typical American dream necessarily, but a purposeful life where you feel like you’re making a contribution to the world and you feel happy,” she said. She articulated this creed as: purpose — making the world a better place through the people immediately around you; courage — fighting for social justice when it’s much easier to shut your mouth and not speak out; kindness — being courteous to someone who’s suffering; love — feeling a joy of the world; and integrity — not judging, but believing there’s a right and a wrong.
In following these principles, advocating for people who don’t otherwise have a voice, and living a well-balanced life, Madeline Janis is transforming the world of the people immediately around her and the rest of the nation and the world, one structural change at a time.