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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Lover of Music, Travel, and Dance Infusing Art and Creativity Into Public Policy

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Photo: Paulina Sosa)

(Photo: Paulina Sosa)

Paulina Sosa grew up in Brownsville, Texas, a border town that’s one of the poorest cities in the United States. Still, she didn’t learn about extreme poverty until she was 13 and traveled with her church youth group to Matamoros, Mexico, an hour and a half south.

It was Christmastime, and they were bringing small gifts to the children there. When she stepped off the bus holding the present she had brought—a toy car, a piece of candy, and a bag of chips—the stench of landfill hit her. It had stormed the night before, there was mud everywhere, and flies were swarming. Atop a massive heap of trash, children were playing. This was their home.

She zeroed in on a small boy, maybe five years old, and handed him the gift. “His smile will forever remain in my heart,” Sosa says. “He jumped up and hugged me with this huge smile in my face. He was so grateful!” In that moment, Sosa’s life path was set: She became warrior whose enemy, ever since, has been extreme poverty.

“When I saw what children, families, babies, had to endure, my heart was caught,” she says. “My heart was caught to fight for these families and children.”

"We live in a sad and disappointing world full of chaos, greed, and bitterness. But in the midst of such a world, God called us to be the light. So be that light. If MLK, Gandhi, or Nelson Mandela would have given up, where would we be today?"

After high school, Sosa won a Gates Millennium Scholarship, covering her tuition at the University of Texas-Austin, where she majored in philosophy and psychology. During college, she interned for Senator John Cornyn and for Ciaran Lynch in Ireland’s parliament, where she researched proposed laws, and was a legislative aid in Texas’ House of Representatives, where she learned to analyze bills, budgets, and how government agencies work. In 2009, she was a student representative for the Clinton Global Initiative.

Now she’s at George Washington University, finishing up her Master’s degree in global health policy and interning at the World Health Organization, analyzing how influenza spreads. She also works at the Global Health Council, planning events that honor others who are making a difference in public health.

While in grad school, Sosa started a Washington, D.C.-wide art program called Painting Out Poverty, which, she says, “aims to infuse art into the work that’s being done to fight poverty.” Through “POP Art,” as Sosa calls the effort, artists share their work—visual, musical, or literary—to raise awareness of disparities within communities.

“Creativity must always play a role in this field,” Sosa says. “Without it, we become stagnant.” She hopes the project will go national.

In high school and college, Sosa thought she was going to fight poverty by becoming a lawyer. “But God had a different plan for me,” she says. As soon as she started her Master’s program, it felt right. “Sometimes it’s best to listen to the logic in our heads,” she says. “Other times it’s best to listen to the passion in our hearts. I listened to the passion in my heart and am so happy I did.”

In the longer term, Sosa plans to use her policy expertise to analyze and alleviate poverty and improve public health, especially in Latin America. She aspires to hold public office, probably in Texas.

Her colleagues note her grit and determination. Sosa’s life philosophy is “Where there is a will, there is a way,” and when she mentors younger activists—usually other Latinas—she tells them not to give up. “We live in a sad and disappointing world full of chaos, greed, and bitterness,” she says. “But in the midst of such a world, God called us to be the light. So be that light. If MLK, Gandhi, or Nelson Mandela would have given up, where would we be today?”

As for her own mentor, it’s her mother. “She’s my best friend, my biggest supporter. I still call her for advice.”

Sosa’s maternal great-grandmother—“my mom's mom's mom”—was an opera singer in Spain, and Sosa feels that music is in her blood. Anyone who knows her will quickly tell you what Sosa loves most: dancing. Especially to meringue and bachata. Sosa also plays piano, writes poetry, and recently took up photography. She travels a lot: “This world is much too small to not explore.”

When asked what keeps her going, Sosa apologizes for “sounding too cliché,” then says: “Knowing that there are children out there that need to smile again. Until we see a day where no child dies from starvation or lack of clean water, where no family worries about whether they can vaccinate their children, where no girl wonders what it would be like to attend school or to make a family in her own time—call it an inner fire, passion, hope, or faith—all these things keep me moving forward in this fight to end poverty.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).