How a lifetime of advocacy has led to achievement at the highest level
Throughout her decades-long career, Sara Manzano-Diaz has made it clear how much she is driven to serve others.
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Sara Manzano-Diaz grew up in Harlem, New York, to two “incredibly brilliant parents” from Puerto Rico.
Due to unfortunate circumstances, however, neither of her parents had the opportunity to get an education or learn to read or write.
When her parents first moved to the U.S., Manzano-Diaz and her oldest siblings lived in a single-room occupancy with other families.
“Because my parents couldn’t read or write, there was a priest who helped them fill out an application and we were selected to move into a grant housing project,” said Manzano-Diaz during an interview.
She admits that her upbringing was quite challenging.
“My father left Puerto Rico because there were really no jobs and he came [to the States] to support his family and he worked but he just didn’t earn enough money to support all of us,” said Manzano-Diaz.
Subsequently, the family often relied on welfare and other government aid as their safety net.
Despite the difficulties; however, they always remained positive.
“Even though we were poor financially, we weren’t poor in spirit,” said Manzano-Diaz.
An Early Advocate
Manzano-Diaz credits her parents for always lifting her and her siblings up despite the many challenges.
“I learned early on that institutions like welfare, housing, schools, and hospitals, had an incredible impact on the quality of my family’s life,” she said.
At a young age, Manzano-Diaz often served as her parents’ translator, which had a profound impact on her.
Being a translator helped develop her as an advocate and was the catalyst for helping her discover the career path she wanted to pursue.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in communications and public relations from Boston University, Manzano-Diaz decided to go to law school.
However, the notion didn’t always receive positive feedback from others.
“I remember telling people I want to be a lawyer and they’d all laugh because back in those days, there were very few women lawyers and certainly Latina lawyers,” said Manzano-Diaz.
However, her parents believed in her and due to the fact that they weren’t able to get an education, they always instilled the notion that education is something no one can take away from you.
“When I look back on it now, I think that my siblings and I were really my parents’ life work, and I think that through me, they achieved their greatest successes,” said Manzano-Diaz.
Tackling Law School and Launching a Career
Manzano-Diaz pursued her law degree at Rutgers University Law School.
Going through law school was tough for her, “and the reason why I saw that is because representation really matters,” she said.
Given the lack of representation in the legal profession for women and Latinas, she was able to navigate the challenges of law school on the back of her strong belief in herself.
“As a poor kid from public housing, nobody expected anything of me,” she said.
That notion is what drove her toward advocating for others whose background mirrored hers.
“What I did was, I dedicated my career to public service and advocating on behalf of minorities, women and girls, and the most vulnerable,” said Manzano-Diaz.
Her first job out of law school was at the New York State Judiciary as one of the first Latina lawyers working in the courthouse.
After a while, she was recruited to work at the New York State Attorney General’s Office. While the offer was to work downtown, she asked to instead work at the Harlem regional office.
“Because that’s where I was from and I wanted to give back to my community,” said Manzano-Diaz.
From her office window, Manzano-Diaz was able to see the very project that she grew up in. It was a daily reminder of just how far she had come. There, she conducted investigations and prosecuted allegations of consumer fraud.
“The ability to use my legal skills to protect my community from consumer fraud was awesome,” she reflected.
Manzano-Diaz has had the opportunity to work for two U.S. Presidents; the first being President Bill Clinton.
Under the Clinton Administration, she served as deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the New York and New Jersey region.
In the role, she worked to enforce fair housing, civil rights, and anti-discriminational laws. expand housing opportunities for families like her own all across the country.
Among her biggest accomplishments was implementing a compliance agreement against the largest public housing authority in the country, resulting in the creation of 9,000 disabled housing units in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Throughout her career, Manzano-Diaz has remained consistent in her goals.
“What I have tried to do has been to find a way to make a positive impact and find a way to open up doors for people,” she highlighted.
A True Woman of Merit
Other roles throughout Manzano-Diaz’s illustrious career include managing director of the Camden Department of Treasury, Deputy Secretary of State for Pennsylvania, Director of the Women’s Bureau — appointed by President Barack Obama — and many others.
In the latter role, Manzano-Diaz advocated for working women nationwide helping them achieve economic security.
More recently in 2021, she was named the Commissioner of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which regulates the integrity of the legalized gaming industry.
In many of her roles, Manzano-Diaz has been the first or among the first Latinas to be appointed. She has also been among the highest-ranking Latinas in state government.
Holding those distinctions has never been something she has taken lightly. On the contrary, it’s something she takes pride in and works to ensure more women and Latinas can have the opportunity to fill similar roles.
“We all have different journeys, we all have different challenges, and we have different voices,” Manzano-Diaz. “All of that around the table make whatever your enterprise is a better place because you’re bringing in new and fresh ideas.”
As someone who has had to navigate rooms where she was the only woman — and often the only women of color — Manzano-Diaz has had to be doubly committed to opening doors for more women of color.
“And keeping the doors open,” she underscored.
“Once the door is open, we have to keep them open not only for the next generation, but to keep providing those great ideas, to keep providing great voices that help contribute to the bottom line,” Manzano-Diaz added.
As a strong woman who comes from a family of strong women, Manzano-Diaz has sought to serve as an example for other women.
Reflections On a Career of Public Service
On May 19, Manzano-Diaz will be the recipient of the 2023 AL DÍA Women of Merit Lifetime Achievement Award.
It’s a recognition that she is both humbled and honored to receive.
“It means a lot to me because you’re being recognized by your own community,” she noted.
However, it goes far beyond that.
“I spent my life in public service and in different capacities try to advocate on behalf of those who didn’t have a voice,” Manzano-Diaz.
At each stop, she tried to help more and more individuals — starting with her family and community, and expanding it to the region and country, and then globally.
As she reflects on the work she has done and the impact she’s been able to make, Manzano-Diaz had some key pieces of advice for other women and Latinas who are finding their own paths.
It starts with love.
“When you look in the mirror, you have to love that person that you see,” she said, which leads to her next piece of advice.
That is, having a strong belief in yourself.
When Manzano-Diaz first told people she wanted to become a lawyer and people laughed at the idea, what allowed her to keep pushing was her belief that she had it in her to do it despite doubts or fears.
In addition, it’s always important to stay grounded and proud of who you are and where you came from.
“What that provides you is a solid foundation because it empowers you to know that you belong and that your voice matters,” she noted.
To Manzano-Diaz, you are either at the table or you aren’t. For those who are at the table, advocating for others is critically important.
“Diversity is important because it allows us to see ourselves, but also allows our children to dream and not have to do it the hard way like I did,” she concluded.
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