By Ruby Bolaria
UCLA Luskin Student Writer
Drug deals, litter, Jack and the Box and freeways were common themes in Elara High School students’ drawings of their East Los Angeles community.
The exercise was part of the first-ever Urban Planning Youth Empowerment Conference at UCLA on Friday, April 12. The students were hosted by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Urban Planning group — the Planners of Color for Social Equity (PCSE) in what everyone is anticipating will be an annual event.
After drawing their community, Urban Planning graduate students from the Planners of Color for Social Equity (PCSE) compared them to special GIS maps of the East Los Angeles community, highlighting rampant liquor stores, gang violence and low income areas. All of these maps showed a concentration of liquor stores, violence and incomes under $36,000 around their high school.
Osvaldo Garcia, PCSE member and second year Urban Planning student, initially organized the conference when he first heard about Elara High school, which is one of only three high schools in the nation focused on Urban Planning.
“I didn’t even know about planning until about two months before applying to the program, so when I found out East LA had a high school that focused on urban planning I wanted to know what connection they had to UCLA," Garcia said. "There was, in fact, no interaction between the two so my goal was to begin that conversation which eventually flourished to getting PSCE involved in organizing this conference."
The all-day conference was held at various parts of UCLA's campus and featured guest speakers, a tour, and breakout groups of Luskin School Urban Planning students and the high schoolers.
Garcia hopes the conference will “inspire and encourage youth to consider college in their futures – specifically within the field of planning and that they, too, envision themselves on campuses like ours.”
Romel Pascual, Deputy Mayor of the Environment at the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office and a UCLA undergraduate degree holder was the keynote speaker.
“As a ninth grader, I didn’t know what I wanted to be – I remember listening to some older guy and I didn’t realize I’d be that older guy speaking to you all," Pascual said. "[As a planner], there are times when you look around in your community at places you think that are good and think 'How can I make that thing better?' Planners think about what they can do to fix things. You are all planners, in a sense, and have the opportunity to look around your community and see what is good and what you want to fix and make better.
"My experience is like your experience. I looked at my community in different lenses and one thing that always resonates as I’ve grown up is what I can do to make things better.”
When asked why he wanted to be at the conference he said “the students are me. I wanted to improve my community but didn’t know how. These events offer insight into different professions that are less understood. I looked around the room and they all looked like me – it hit home.”
The students then broke out into groups for a series of two workshops: one to explain the basics of urban planning and the second to discuss the specific concentrations of the major offered at UCLA.
During the first session students were asked to design what their community looked like and then what theywanted their community to look like.
Although the drugs, graffiti, fast food restaurants and violence were common themes, students also expressed pride and love for the community and what it has to offer. None of the students wanted to leave — rather, they all talked about improving their neighborhood. They were all hopeful and wanted to make a positive impact through planning.
Students were thoughtful and sophisticated in their conception of their ideal neighborhood, drawing metro rail lines to encourage business development, pools and parks for the public, libraries and museums to get people off the streets, more bike and carpool lanes to ease congestion and gardens to “keep it green.”
One student group drew a picture with a large homeless shelter in the center. “There are too many homeless people. Maybe we can build a homeless shelter with a hospital and rehab center together – there are a lot of crack addicts,” said one student.
“That’s planning,” said Garcia.
Many plans acknowledged the need for more gyms, less fast food and more commercial business areas to promote economic development.
An Elara student, Jesus Palalia, said “the exercise is fun compared to what we do at school. I really want to get into design, specifically in aerospace.” He said he was inspired by teacher from eighth grade who brought visitors from NASA to the school.
“I just want to help people and my community,” said another student, Luz Navarrete.
Many facilitators of the program come from similar roots and were excited to be involved.
“I see myself in those kids, so for me it’s like giving back," said Gustavo De Haro, a first year Urban Planning student. "Urban planning is a great way to make a positive change so I’m encouraging that.”
After the workshops students filled out surveys about the event. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Here are some thoughts that were expressed:
“I want to keep our community clean – no graffiti" — 11th grade female
“The statement ‘where we live, influences how we live’ was better defined to me” — 11th grade female
“Made me more motivated to be active in changing my community” — 11th grade female
“It shaped my understanding and now I want to finish High School and probably go to UCLA” — ninth grade female
Below are some photos from the event. All pictures taken by Ramin Rajaii.