By Srianthi Perera
When Ahmanise Sanati was looking for a career change in 2006, a relative introduced her to a hospital social worker.
The organization’s code of ethics contained the words “challenge social injustice.” It felt like a calling.
“There was no turning back,” recalls Sanati, who currently counsels youth affected by foster care, homelessness, and the juvenile justice systems in LAUSD. “I didn’t know what exactly I would do, but I knew I would have many options, all rooted in the name of values by which I live.”
Today, Sanati’s options have included establishing a family-friendly movement called Westside Activists; working in mental health for over a decade at the LA County’s Twin Towers Correctional Facility, where she is establishing a permanent library; being a Delegate for the California Democratic Party; and being the regional director with the National Association of Social Workers, California.
Politically active, she is the vice president of political affairs in the Westchester/Playa Democratic Club, the assembly district 61 delegate and executive board member to the California Democratic Party.
Many caps to wear as a wife to accountant husband Ken, and mother to two children ages 7 and 10.
“Since I became a mother, I felt an inherent obligation to do everything I can to make this world better,” Sanati says. “I often feel overwhelmed with sadness and anger about the world I chose to bring my children into as tragic events seem to be happening more and more often.
“But I’ve learned that nothing will change on its own; it’s up to us to be the change.”
Born to Iranian Mexican parents (their first names, Ahmad and Denise, were combined for her first name, Ahmanise), Sanati was raised in Southern California. She earned a degree in philosophy from the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and moved to Santa Monica in 2005 “to defrost from Boston.” Since 2013, she has resided in Playa del Rey.
She has also earned a master’s degree in social welfare from UCLA and is now a licensed clinical social worker.
Sanati has always been an activist in one form or another, but the arrival of children dampened things for a time.
Then, the general election of 2016 took place. “I knew that my vote was simply not enough and that I needed to do more, I just didn’t know what that looked like,” she says, realizing that it had to involve her family, with two children under age 5 at the time.
She was further spurred when she heard about the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Going downtown to demonstrate was not an option, so she and a friend held signs on a street corner.
Thus began Westside Activists.
“As we organized more events relating to matters we care about, I remember, at one of our Global Climate Strike demonstrations, people were asking, ‘How can we find out about your events?’ At that moment, I realized we needed a centralized way for people to see what we do,” Sanati says.
“Westside Activists” seemed best to capture the gist of the unofficial group, which incorporates many mothers who live on the Westside and believe action is necessary for change.
So far, Westside Activists has organized events to support race, reproductive rights, immigration, and climate justice, to give a voice to the community as it relates to social justice. It has organized neighborhood cleanups, Pride and Get Out the Vote events. In February, it held the fifth annual Kids’ March for Equality.
“Because we are a group of moms who balance many obligations, we have a mutual understanding that we do what we can within our capacity, which is also why we aim to focus on matters that are relatively local,” Sanati says. “Also, since we have children, we ensure every event is family friendly.”
Sometimes, Sanati must contend with people who drive by and yell an unsavory remark.
“Our children are learning by experience how to literally stand up for the values in which we believe, in the most simple and accessible way possible,” she says.
Sanati is equally passionate about establishing a permanent, sustainable library at the LA County Jail, which was her workplace for a decade. She worked in the mental health sector starting as an intern and rising to the position of a supervisor. During the pandemic, she saw the restrictions with no transfers or court visits and visitors disallowed.
“I knew that this was a time when books really could make a difference because for so many, they literally have nothing else in their cell but a suicide gown, rubber clogs and a blanket on a metal bed,” she recalls.
She had a practice to bring books for the staff, and one day, she came upon empty shelves. It occurred to her that this should not be a volunteer project, but a permanent feature.
“Otherwise, how can we refer to this as ‘rehabilitative’ and ‘mental health treatment’?” she says. “I realized I was in a position to do something, so I did.”
The project has been going on for a few years and book drives are held from time to time.
“It seems to be getting a lot more attention,” she says.
Last year, she moved to a new job counseling troubled youth in LAUSD, which she calls “humbling.”
“It’s been so interesting doing this work with my background, working with students who are most likely to slip through the cracks and sadly, end up in our jail system,” she says. “I’m reminded daily how we have deep-rooted problems in our society, and that is why I do what I can, whenever I can.”