A Celebration of the Extraordinary Amid once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, UCLA Luskin honors the Class of 2020

By Les Dunseith

It was a UCLA Luskin commencement ceremony unlike any other — delivered remotely by keynote speaker John A. Pérez to honor 281 graduates scattered across the nation and around the world amid a pandemic. 

“Clearly, these are not ordinary times,” Pérez said in his remarks, which remain available online and had been seen by a total of 1,265 new graduates and their loved ones as of midday Monday after the ceremony. The impact of the COVID-19 health crisis was obvious in the virtual setting, but Pérez, chair of the University of California Board of Regents and former speaker of the California Assembly, also took note of the political upheaval that has led hundreds of thousands of protesters worldwide to march for racial justice in recent weeks.

“My message to you today is also going to be somewhat different than usual. It has to be,” Pérez said. “It has to be different for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Stephon Clark and Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. For Sean Monterrosa and Manuel Ellis. And for Emmett Till and James Chaney and countless others — known and unknown — whose lives have been taken by the systemic racism that is the original sin and ongoing shame of our great nation.”

The new social welfare, planning and policy graduates earned their graduate degrees in extraordinary circumstances at a time that UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura views as a pivotal moment in the country’s history. He congratulated the Class of 2020 and also noted the high expectations they carry into their futures.

“This celebration is partly about what you have accomplished, but it is also about what you have yet to do,” said Segura, thanking the new graduates “for all that we expect you to do with all that you’ve learned.”

The virtual platform incorporated several wrinkles that set the 2020 celebration apart from previous UCLA Luskin graduations. In addition to the recorded remarks by Segura and Pérez, video presentations from California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, UC President Janet Napolitano and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block were woven into the online presentation that was made available to all graduates.

Other aspects of the ceremony were able to be customized for each of the three departments that awarded degrees. So, Chair Laura S. Abrams spoke to the Social Welfare graduates, Chair Vinit Mukhija addressed the Urban Planning Class of 2020, and Chair Martin Gilens offered advice and congratulations to the new Public Policy alumni.

Instead of the past tradition in which names of individual graduates were read as they walked across the stage at Royce Hall to be handed a diploma, this year’s graduating students got a few moments of dedicated screen time to themselves. Each graduate’s name appeared on screen as part of the departmental ceremony, often accompanied by a photo and a personal message of thanks or inspiration provided by the graduating student as a text message or a video clip — or both.

The presentations by the student speakers were also unique to each department this year. All three spoke of the memorable circumstances that they and their classmates experienced while wrapping up their graduate degrees during such an extraordinary time in history.

“No one wanted this. No one wants to live in this type of world,” said Social Welfare speaker Akinyi Shapiro, who views her graduation as a time for both celebration and reflection. “Listen to those who are being attacked for nothing other than the color of their skin. Decide who we want to be as social workers, how we’re going to change our communities and commit to anti-oppressive practices that will make this country better.”

Amy Zhou noted that the stay-at-home order in Los Angeles took place just as the winter quarter was winding up at UCLA. “We had no idea that the last time my classmates and I would see each other at the end of the winter quarter would be the last time that we would see each other in person as a graduating class.”

Zhou took advantage of the virtual platform to include a series of video clips that showed her and her classmates pledging solidarity in their dedication to practice planning in a manner that will uplift their communities. “When one falls, we all fall,” they conclude, their voices in unison. “When one rises, we all rise.”

As with any commencement, the virtual ceremony was also an opportunity for the graduating students to acknowledge their mentors — the faculty, friends and, especially, family members who have helped them along their journeys.

Muchisimas gracias,” said Kassandra Hernandez of Public Policy during her commencement remarks. “Thank you, mom and dad, for all that you’ve given me — all the sacrifices you have made for me.”

Hernandez then addressed her peers. “You are ready to take on the world and cause some change because we all know that that’s why we came to Luskin — to cause change.”

In his keynote address, Pérez also spoke of change. He talked about his time as a leader in California’s government, pointing to accomplishments such as health care reform and the creation of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. That financial reserve had grown to about $16 billion by the time of the pandemic, he noted, helping the current Legislature and governor lessen the economic damage from the COVID-19 downturn.

In Pérez’s view, making a meaningful difference to society requires not only a vision, but perseverance. 

“As graduates of one of the nation’s premier schools for progressive planning and policy, you need to be among the leaders. Make ripples. Make waves,” he said. “Push yourself. Push the system. And when you think you’ve pushed enough, take a step, take a pause, and then push some more.”

UC Regent and Former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez Delivers Commencement Address The ‘lifelong advocate for the people of California’ honors UCLA Luskin graduates at a virtual celebration

John A. Pérez, a leader in California politics, labor and higher education, was the keynote speaker for UCLA Luskin’s 2020 virtual Commencement celebration.

Pérez, chair of the University of California Board of Regents and former speaker of the state Assembly, addressed graduates at the June 12 ceremony, moved online in light of health concerns related to COVID-19.

“John Pérez is a lifelong advocate for the people of California,” said Gary Segura, dean of the Luskin School. “From his days as a labor leader fighting for working families to his pathbreaking tenure in Sacramento, he has distinguished himself as a public servant who represents every member of this gloriously diverse state.

“John is now at the helm of the nation’s premier public university system at a time of unprecedented challenge,” Segura said. “I am eager to hear his insights on the path forward for higher education.”

The Luskin School’s virtual celebration invited graduates, families and friends to view Pérez’s address as well as remarks from student speakers, department chairs and Dean Segura.

Each graduate was celebrated individually with a slide, photograph and brief video greeting before the conferral of degrees. A separate “Kudoboard” featured congratulatory messages to the Class of 2020 from families, alumni and the rest of the UCLA Luskin community.

The virtual Commencement ceremony commenced at 9 a.m. and will remain available for viewing through May 2021.

Pérez’s priorities as a UC Regent include providing an elite education without elitist barriers that keep qualified students out, making sure the UC student body better reflects the people of California and keeping the cost of education affordable, equitable and predictable.

A native Angeleno, Pérez has long been active in the labor movement and Democratic politics. Elected to the state Assembly in 2008, he rose to the speaker’s post in 2010, becoming the state legislature’s first openly LGBTQ leader. He held the top post for more than four years.

In the Assembly, Pérez made affordability and accessibility of higher education a statewide priority. Among his legislative achievements was passage of the Middle Class Scholarship Act, which has provided tuition relief for nearly 100,000 UC and California State University students.

He also worked with legislative colleagues and then-Gov. Jerry Brown to end California’s era of chronic budget deficits. During his tenure, the legislature passed back-to-back balanced, on-time budgets that improved the state’s credit rating.

In 2014, Brown appointed Pérez to the UC Board of Regents; his one-year term as chair began in July 2019. In addition to exercising approval of university policies, financial affairs, and tuition and fees, the regents appoint the president of the university. In September 2019, Pérez named a special committee to lead a search for a successor to UC President Janet Napolitano, who plans to step down in August.

Pérez is an advocate for the LGBTQ community and in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In addition to leadership positions with AIDS Project Los Angeles and the Latino Coalition Against AIDS, he served on the President’s Commission on HIV/AIDS under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The longtime member of the Democratic National Committee has also served as political director of the California Labor Federation. In 2012, fellow speakers from across the nation elected him president of the National Speakers Conference.

‘All of This Is Going to Change Us’: Two Deans on the State of COVID-19 Leaders of UCLA's Public Affairs and Public Health schools launch Luskin Summit 2020

By Mary Braswell

The opening session of the 2020 UCLA Luskin Summit drew a far-flung virtual audience seeking authoritative, research-based information about the questions on everyone’s mind: What are the prospects of containing COVID-19? When and how should social distancing restrictions be relaxed? What have we learned from this shared global ordeal?

Two UCLA deans, Gary Segura of the Luskin School of Public Affairs and Ron Brookmeyer of the Fielding School of Public Health, drew on their expertise about the pandemic’s health and policy implications at the April 22 event, the first of at least a dozen online sessions that will be offered by the Luskin School in April, May and June.

“COVID has done us one favor,” Segura said. “It’s allowed us to see things more clearly than we did before the crisis,” including the searing depths of inequality in the United States, the importance of a competent government and the discovery that a simpler life can be rewarding.

In terms of slowing the spread of coronavirus, Brookmeyer said, “The current lockdown has bought ourselves some time. The question is, are we making the best use of this time?”

The insights shared by Segura and Brookmeyer came as UCLA Luskin launched the Summit’s second year, wrapping up the School’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Moving from an on-campus location to an online platform in response to the coronavirus’ spread widened the audience for the opening session. More than 400 people watched via Zoom and Facebook Live, from Southern California to New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Houston and Myanmar.

Viewers were invited to pose questions to the deans, whose conversation was moderated by Adrienne Alpert, host of ABC7’s public affairs program Eyewitness Newsmakers. Some asked about prospects for lifting orders to limit social contact.

Brookmeyer called for caution. “If we don’t have the necessary public health infrastructure in place, this thing will just explode again,” said the dean, who has conducted extensive research into the arc of illness and epidemic around the world.

He explained that different models make starkly different predictions about the virus’ march and described the protracted process of testing, manufacturing and administering an effective vaccine — a process he said is bound to take longer than the 12 to 18 months some are estimating.

“Without a vaccine, we may need intermittent periods of physical distancing to avoid overloading the health care facilities,” he said. “If we suppress this first wave, do we have the public health infrastructure in place to contain future waves?”

The eventual relaxation of social distancing restrictions should be gradual, strategic and nuanced, he said, predicting that wearing masks, sanitizing surfaces and closely monitoring the most vulnerable populations will be necessary for some time.

“All of this is going to change us, and it’s not completely clear how,” Brookmeyer said.

“The challenges, and particularly the inequities, are going to be profound,” Segura concurred.

Latino households are particularly hard hit by the coronavirus’ economic impact, he said, citing a nationwide survey. While proposals to institute relief for those unable to pay their rent or mortgage are promising, the number of homeless is bound to rise by the end of the crisis. And the need for computers and broadband access in homes — where K-12 students are now learning remotely — has turned public education into a “luxury good,” Segura said.

Still, both deans found cause for optimism.

Brookmeyer cited the public’s new appreciation for the people and institutions that guard the nation’s health. “The public health infrastructure had been really underfunded, and I think calling attention to this will help us in preparing for future public health emergencies,” he said.

Segura pointed out that “COVID is changing our lives in a million ways,” and not all of them are bad.

One example: “Has anyone noticed the air in Los Angeles? It’s crystal clear,” he said. “Do we want to go back to sitting on the 405 [freeway] for an hour?”

By necessity, telecommuting has been tested across sectors in the past few months, Segura noted. Some employers have found new ways to measure productivity, and some workers have found valuable uses for time once spent commuting.

“These are things that we’ve become used to and that we’ve internalized into our COVID quarantine lives. And I’m not so sure we’re going to be all that happy to give them up,” he said.

“COVID has actually revealed some things that we can do better to improve our quality of life.”

Visit the UCLA Luskin Summit page for a lineup of upcoming sessions, as well as recordings of past sessions as they become available.

Another Win for the UCLA Voting Rights Project

The UCLA Voting Rights Project, a research, advocacy and clinical program within the Latino Policy & Politics Initiative of the Luskin School of Public Affairs, celebrated its role in defeating a challenge to the California Motor Voter law. The case is the third legal win for the Voting Rights Project this academic year, making it undefeated thus far in the courts. A 2015 state law created California’s motor voter system, designed to make it easier for citizens to register to vote by automatically adding eligible DMV customers to the voter rolls unless they opt out. In September, plaintiffs sued in an attempt to put an end to the law and force motor voter customers to prove citizenship by showing their papers. The Voting Rights Project intervened on behalf of affected individuals and presented strong papers, leading the plaintiffs to dismiss the case, said Chad Dunn, the project’s director of litigation. The project is now assessing cases around the country, including in Kansas, New Mexico and rural Washington, as well as in Orange, Ventura and other California counties.


 

Seeking Unity in a Time of Dissension Panelists discuss issues of class, race and exclusion during a Luskin Lecture event that focuses on the rise of divisiveness in America 

By Les Dunseith

As writer and journalist Jeff Chang sees it, today’s political divisiveness is leading America to revert to a time when society was more starkly divided along intellectual, cultural and racial lines. It’s a social erosion he refers to as resegregation.

“We had a consensus 50 years ago — as fragile as it was — that segregation was an issue that we needed to work on as a nation,” Chang said during a Jan. 15 Luskin Lecture at the James Bridges Theater on the UCLA campus. His remarks followed the screening of a series of short documentary-style videos based on “We Gon’ Be Alright,” Chang’s critically acclaimed collection of essays about the rise and fall of the idea of diversity.

Event attendees also had an opportunity to hear from the filmmakers — producer and director Bao Nguyen and showrunner Kimmie Kim. The evening’s moderator was Dean Gary Segura of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

The docuseries was produced for PBS’ Indie Lens Storycast, and a YouTube collection where the 8-10 minute segments can be viewed describes the docuseries as follows: “From Silicon Valley gentrification and resegregation to new Hollywood attempts to overcome typecasting by diversifying, from college admission debates to the flawed U.S. census’ way of categorizing race, the series asks the questions: How did we become so divided, and what can we do now to be alright?”

Segura asked a tongue-in-cheek but pointed first question of the panelists after the last of the four serious-minded documentaries: “‘We are gonna be all right?’ Are you sure? This is not an optimistic piece.”

Chang acknowledged that the oft-foreboding tone of the videos was a reflection of his book, saying that “if it were up to me, the series would have been really much more depressing.” He credited his collaborators with helping him find a positive perspective where possible.

“Bao was very much like, from the very beginning: ‘We’ve got to be able to find the hope in all of this,’” Chang recalled.

“Culture, art, film and music can help fill a void,” Nguyen said. “That’s how I kind of see my role. Filmmakers make stories that have some sort of inspiration — because we don’t see that on the news or in our public leaders today.”

Kim, a Korean-born filmmaker who has been working in the U.S. entertainment industry for about 20 years, noted that lack of diversity in Hollywood is a longstanding problem. When she first started in New York City, working with MTV, “there were only two Asians in pretty much the entire building.”

Diversity of ethnicity and gender remains an industry shortcoming, she said. “I want to remain optimistic,” she said of her experience as an Asian woman working in the U.S. entertainment industry. “But it is definitely a struggle.”

One positive sign for Kim is the nomination of the South Korean film “Parasite” as a Best Picture contender at this year’s Academy Awards. “It’s the first time,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any other great Korean films — or Japanese or Chinese films — before.”

The intersection of entertainment and political activism has long been important to Nguyen, whose career history includes a stint as a field director and field organizer for Obama for America.

“I think everything’s kind of intertwined,” he said. “Culture doesn’t exist without politics, without learning about history and context, and so I bring that into the work that I do.”

The first segment in the docuseries deals with the issue of displacement by focusing on East Palo Alto, a California Bay Area community where longtime minority residents are being displaced because real estate speculators are buying houses in hopes of future profits. In some cases, the houses are being left vacant until enough well-to-do residents move onto a block to drive up home prices throughout the neighborhood.

“This is the last quote-unquote affordable neighborhood in Silicon Valley,” said Chang, noting that affordability means something very different to someone making more than $170,000 a year than it does to most of the people of modest means who had historically lived and worked in East Palo Alto. “Those people are being displaced, and that’s resegregation in a nutshell.”

Chang noted that the word gentrification is literally derived from the word gentry — the class of rich people just below the nobility in the United Kingdom. Likewise, in places like East Palo Alto, “the wealthy are moving in, and it ‘disappears’ the people who are forced to move out.”

Another segment in the docuseries focuses on inter-ethnic tensions, particularly from the point of view of Asian Americans.

Many Asian Americans are “self-conscious of both our oppression and our privilege,” Chang said.

Chang was studying toward a master’s degree in Asian American Studies at UCLA during the time of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. At the time, there was a notion that Asian American Studies should focus solely on the experiences of Asian Americans, he recalled.

“And I think, for those of us who came of age during that particular period, our reality was much different,” Chang told the audience. “It became a reflection on the position that Asian Americans can take against racial injustice — Asian American empowerment or … empowerment for everyone.”

“To me, it’s like trying to figure out this whole labeling system,” Kim said. “It’s great to embrace who we are. But if the labeling works against who we are and separates people, then that’s where I think we need to have an in-depth conversation to find a better balance and live together.”

As a filmmaker, Nguyen said he looks for opportunities to attack racial problems at the systemic level by helping to bridge communities.

People of all races should be encouraged to tell their stories, he said. “The truest enactment of the American Dream is being able to tell your own story. I think that’s what I’m trying to do as a filmmaker. I think that’s what we’re all trying to do — to tell our own story, because we think once our voices are heard, then we can be seen.”

In addition to the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, the event was co-sponsored by UCLA Asian American Studies and its Center for Ethno Communications. Other co-sponsors were the Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, UCLA Chicana and Chicano Studies, the UCLA Luskin Undergraduate Program and Visual Communications.

View photos from the event on Flickr:

'We Gon' Be Alright' LLS

Watch highlights from the live stream of the event:

Our Year of Anniversaries The Luskin School marks its 25th year poised to expand, innovate and extend its reach into the community, nation and world

By Mary Braswell 

In a landmark year for UCLA, the celebration may be loudest in the northwest corner of campus, home to the Luskin School of Public Affairs.

This year marks both the university’s centennial and the Luskin School’s silver anniversary — a quarter-century dedicated to advancing the public good through teaching, research, advocacy and innovation.

It’s clearly a time to party, and a record 620 students, alumni, faculty, staff and friends answered the call in September, gathering at the annual Block Party to raise a toast to UCLA Luskin. But it’s also a time to reflect on lessons from an initially rocky union and, most importantly, to create a roadmap for the future.

As 2020 dawns, Dean Gary Segura is confident that a collaborative spirit among the three pillars of planning, policymaking and social welfare will invigorate UCLA Luskin and extend its reach into the community, nation and world.

“What ties us together as a School is our focus on human well-being, broadly conceived,” Segura said. “The Luskin faculty have received Ph.D.s from 14 different fields of study. Our disciplines may encourage us to focus on well-being at the individual, family, community, metropolitan, polity or even global levels of analysis. But what we share in common is the conviction that social fabrics and social institutions are best when they facilitate human security, dignity and opportunity.”

In the three years since Segura’s arrival, the School has seen remarkable growth. A signature achievement is the creation of an undergraduate major in public affairs, which melds critical thinking, experiential learning, research methodology and a public service ethos. More than 250 students have already come on board.

The undergraduate curriculum draws in faculty from every UCLA Luskin program, all with the common goal of providing a holistic, transdisciplinary public affairs education. As part of that effort, explorations are underway for an additional degree: the executive master’s in public affairs, designed to equip professionals and public servants to step into leadership positions.

Expanding knowledge is at the core, fueled by the scholarship of faculty and a wide range of research centers. In just over two years, UCLA Luskin has launched several new ventures:

Latino Policy and Politics Initiative combines policy analysis with civic engagement, and recently received $2.5 million in support from the California Legislature.

International Development and Policy Outreach focuses on research aimed at empowering women and children around the world.

Latin American Cities Initiative, commonly known as Ciudades, builds ties among planners and policymakers across the Americas.

This year, they will be joined by the Hub for Health Innovation, Policy and Practice, which conducts research to improve community health, particularly among the LGBTQ population and other marginalized groups. In addition, the School expects to launch a global policy initiative to foster safe and welcoming schools and communities to demonstrate that good science can be used to better the lives of students around the world.

The schools initiative will be directed by Professor Ron Avi Astor, an internationally recognized expert on school safety and violence, who joined the faculty in Social Welfare this academic year. His appointment is part of an effort by Segura to broaden the faculty’s expertise and diversity. Of the 19 faculty appointments Segura has made, 14 are women and 12 are people of color.

“Our School is now one of the most diverse and interdisciplinary units in the University of California system,” Segura said. “We are growing in a way that reflects the state’s diverse and dynamic population, and this makes us profoundly well-positioned to engage, educate and contribute to the world around us.”

That commitment to reach beyond the campus was underscored in April 2019 at the first Luskin Summit, a cross-sector conference bringing public officials, civic leaders, philanthropists and other advocates together with UCLA Luskin’s faculty — all in pursuit of a “Livable L.A.”

The summit, which officially launched the School’s 25th anniversary celebration, will return to campus April 22 under the unifying theme “A Call to Action.” Participants will search for solutions to problems centering on housing, immigration, health, education and — fittingly, as the summit will take place on Earth Day — sustainability.

The legacy of doing good reaches far past the quarter-century mark, of course. Social Welfare’s graduate program dates to 1947. Urban planning at UCLA launched in 1969 in conjunction with architecture. A newly created public policy program was added in 1994, in what many viewed at the time as a shotgun marriage.

The new School of Public Policy and Social Research emerged in an era of reckoning triggered by post-recession budget cutbacks. Among other belt-tightening measures to contend with a loss of tens of millions of dollars in state support, UCLA decided to reconfigure all of its professional schools.

The early years were unsettled, as three disparate entities forged their identity under one roof. Many people believed the merger damaged the stature of respected programs and UCLA overall. Some questioned the motives of university leadership, and others were determined to preserve their departments as singular entities rather than seeking a cohesive whole.

“It wasn’t a happy transition,” said Allan Heskin, an urban planning professor at the time. “They didn’t take a vote and ask us.”

Longtime staff member Marsha Brown B.A. ’70 said that the late professor John Friedmann was the urban planning department chair at the time. He asked Brown to take a walk with him. “And he said, ‘They are going to be splitting urban planning and architecture and forming a new school.’ It was shocking.”

The move was very controversial. “People were really very upset about it and writing letters of protest,” she said.

“Quite frankly, a lot of us were really fairly strongly alienated by the decision,” alumnus Jeffry Carpenter recalled. “There was a superficial presumption on the part of university administration that there was some sort of linkage or relationship there that they imagined should exist. It is not so much of a relationship because the actual practice tends to be very, very different.”

Gerry Laviña, director of social welfare field education at UCLA Luskin, also had a front-row seat for the School’s difficult birth.

“There was a lot of anger among both faculty and students,” recalled Laviña, who earned his master’s in social welfare in 1988, then joined the field faculty in 1993. “What would this mean for our MSW? Would we be seen as lesser than?”

But he added, “What started out as a forced venture became a beautiful outcome.”

Over the years, resentments have faded, faculty from different disciplines have increasingly sought to learn from one another, and students have benefited from a wider array of cross-departmental resources.

“We know relationships, organizations, people need time to grow and come together as one,” Laviña said. “I don’t know if we’re fully there yet, but we’re so much better than we were even five years ago. I look forward to the next five years and beyond.”

Throughout the early years, there was one consensus: Very few cared for the new school’s name or awkward acronym, SPPSR. They lived with it until being rechristened in September 2004 as the UCLA School of Public Affairs. In 2011, the current name — the Meyer and Renee Luskin School of Public Affairs — came along with a transformative gift of $50 million that brought the resources and ambition to launch a period of expansion and innovation.

At the Block Party, benefactor Renee Luskin reflected on the journey.

“I want to express how much it means to Meyer and myself to be connected to such an outstanding school here at UCLA,” she said, thanking the faculty, staff, students and advisors for their unflagging passion and dedication. “As they say,” she concluded, “we’ve come a long way, baby.”

 

Dean’s Message Path-breaking interdisciplinary scholarship and a tradition of public service are the hallmarks of UCLA Luskin at 25 years

25, 50, 75, 100 and 2 …

In 2019, we celebrated two milestones—the centennial of UCLA and the 25th anniversary of the Luskin School.

What does 100 years of UCLA mean? Is it merely a milestone signified by a round number? When the University of California, Los Angeles, was created out of the Southern Branch of the California Normal School, few could have imagined that, today, UCLA would be counted among the finest institutions of higher learning in the world, and the nation’s finest taxpayer-supported institution. In its early years, it was considered the southern “branch” of our older sibling in Berkeley, and more than a few actors in California would have preferred it to stay as such. Today, it is the largest and most comprehensive campus in the system and, in the minds of several ranking agencies and in the hearts of countless Bruins, the finest in the land.

In 1994, the campus formed what would become UCLA Luskin by merging the School of Social Welfare with the program in Urban Planning. Like UCLA, the School we are today has aspects that date to our roots but reflects new, emergent properties of what we have become, including the addition of Public Policy. At 25, Luskin is a mature intellectual community in which dialogue between students and faculty focused on different units of analysis — the individual, the family, the community, the state — helps us learn and grow from the insights of one another and our respective disciplines. More than merely three departments, today Luskin’s core faculty hold doctorates in 14 different disciplinary traditions, representing a nearly endless variety of methodologies, perspectives and research questions about how best to improve the human condition. The School’s mission, defined and refined over these last 25 years, has become clear: to train change agents and generate new knowledge and insight in pursuit of social justice and human well-being.

It would be inaccurate — and do a disservice to our predecessors — if we did not acknowledge that much of the good work of UCLA Luskin started long prior to the School’s formation 25 years ago. In spring 2020, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Urban Planning at UCLA. And in 2021-22, we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Social Welfare at UCLA. Those two units have trained thousands of Bruin alums whose efforts on behalf of a better Los Angeles and a healthier California are long established. You’ll hear more about those celebrations in the near-term, but it is important at moments like these that we pay tribute to those whose hard work came long before us.

And finally… “2”? Yep, we are in the second year of our newest program, the Bachelor of Arts in Public Affairs. At the start of the 2018-19 academic year, no such major was declared by a UCLA undergraduate. Today, we have 270 majors and pre-majors enrolled in 42 courses this academic year, and whose instruction is supported by 89 graduate teaching assistants — Luskin professional and doctoral students — whose education is supported with those resources. And in June 2021, we will graduate our first class.

New programs, pedagogical innovation, path-breaking interdisciplinary scholarship in the interest of the social good and a tradition of public service — these are the hallmarks of UCLA Luskin at 25 years old, these are the values that separate a great public university like UCLA from its competitors, and these are the accomplishments we celebrate at milestones like these.

All the best,
Gary

A Passion for Diversity UCLA Luskin showcases its programs — and its people — who are pushing for all voices to be heard on issues of public concern

By Les Dunseith

The social justice ethos and commitment to diversity that form the backbone of UCLA Luskin’s graduate degree programs were front and center during the fourth annual Diversity Fair.

Dozens of graduate student recruits came to campus in November for a full day of discussions and workshops. Key speakers included Dean Gary Segura and the chairs of each graduate department: JR DeShazo of Public Policy, Laura Abrams of Social Welfare and Vinit Mukhija of Urban Planning, all of whom are professors in their respective fields.

A highlight of the day was a panel discussion during which six alumni talked about why they chose UCLA Luskin and offered insightful advice about how the graduate school experience can help people with a passion for change figure out ways to turn their ideals into action.

“How do governments create safe spaces for immigrants? How do we improve the basic services that government provides so that it actually fits the needs of the people who are using them? All of those things were in my mind as I started the program,” said Estafanía Zavala MPP ’18, who is now project lead, digital engagement, for the city of Long Beach. “I feel like the program really helped me gain a good understanding of what was actually going on in the world and how to process it.”

Taylor Holland MURP ’19, assistant project manager at PATH Ventures, a nonprofit agency that works with the homeless population in Los Angeles, said that she chose UCLA in part because of its vast alumni network in Southern California. She said she met “great alumni by coming to events like this. We have super-active alumni who you can really tell are pushing for change in different systems throughout urban planning.”

Several panelists said that UCLA Luskin helped them to further develop a social justice perspective, and they talked about their own efforts to foster inclusiveness.

Ulises Ramirez MSW ’96 is a clinical social worker and therapist in the Adult Outpatient Psychiatric Clinic at Harbor UCLA Medical Center, and he said that mental health service protocols are too often developed only with English-speaking clients in mind.

“The community that we serve at Harbor UCLA is very diverse. We see a lot of Spanish-speaking clients, and my goal there has been to provide top treatment to monolingual, Spanish-speaking clients,” Ramirez said. “It’s an underserved population, and they have nowhere else to go.”

Christina Hernández MSW ’17, community accompaniment coordinator for Freedom for Immigrants in Santa Monica, said her clients come from immigration detention centers.

“They are asylum-seekers; they’re refugees; they’re immigrants. These are people coming from all over the world,” she said. “Our goal is that the documents that we have for English speakers, we also make available for other languages as well.”

The speakers noted that racial minorities and women have traditionally been underrepresented in some of their fields.

“I think our perspectives as folks of color are so important in transportation planning,” said Carolyn “Caro” Vera MURP ’17, who was born and raised in South Los Angeles and now works as a planning consultant. She makes an extra effort to encourage minorities to pursue planning careers.

“If you ever need anything, hit me up,” Vera told the prospective students of color in attendance at the Diversity Fair. “It’s hard to get into the field. It’s daunting. But we need you in that field.”

Wajenda Chambeshi MPP ’16, a program manager for the city of Los Angeles, noted that a lack of diversity in some professions starts with decisions by young people from minority communities about which courses of study to pursue.

“Some of these professions that we overlook make really, really important decisions about where funds are going to be allocated, how they are going to be allocated and, ultimately, who receives what. That’s why we need diversity,” Chambeshi said, “so when we graduate, we will be able to filter into those positions that are able to divert resources — or even just rethink how we think about planning and public policy.”

As “the housing person on this panel,” Holland talked about the ethnic component of the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles.

“We have 60,000 people on the streets in L.A. on any given night, and it’s largely a black crisis. We have 9 percent of the city that is black; 40 percent of our homeless population is black,” she said.

Holland said her focus is on chronically homeless people, many of whom are people of color.

“They are … people who have been forgotten about in every aspect of their lives and cannot be pulled up by their bootstraps. Looking at social justice and housing — it’s particularly in a crisis in L.A. right now,” she said, directing her attention to the prospective students of color in the audience. “And we need all of you guys to help out as you can.”

The alumni panelists spoke passionately about the advantages of being actively involved as students, and they urged attendees to build expansive personal and professional networks.

Vera said she battled depression during her time as a UCLA student and suffered a panic attack during an exam that threatened her opportunity to graduate. But friends helped her through.

“Always advocate for yourself. Create peer networks and check in on each other,” she said.

Noting that the pressures of academic life can be especially difficult for first-generation college students from disadvantaged populations such as herself, she continued: “You are more prone to having depression and anxiety when you come into a program that just doesn’t look like what you are accustomed to.”

Building a network as a student was important to Ramirez as well. He cited his involvement in the Latinx Caucus as a particularly beneficial connection, “and 23 years later, we still get together.”

Hernandez echoed those experiences.

“I am a first-generation daughter of immigrants, and navigating these spaces was very difficult for me,” she said. “So networks were a lifesaver.”

Hernandez ticked off the names of UCLA faculty and staff members who helped her as a student and remain close. “It was amazing to have people who look like me, Latinos, as advisors and as supervisors, who I could go to and say, ‘Hey, I’m stuck with this issue.’”

She continued: “That is the beauty of joining this school. Even after you graduate, you still have folks who are going to be there to support you regardless of the situation.”

View more images from the event on Flickr:

Diversity Fair 2019

How America Became ‘the World’s Largest Jailer’ James Forman Jr. traces the rise of 'warrior policing' in a UCLA Luskin Lecture centering on his Pulitzer-winning book

By Mary Braswell

For more than three decades, the United States has imprisoned its people at a higher rate than any other nation, so Yale University law professor James Forman Jr. understands how individuals might feel powerless to change that reality.

“When we look at something as awful as the largest prison system in the world, it can be easy to think about it as somebody else’s problem to solve,” Forman said during a Nov. 7 UCLA Luskin Lecture at the California African American Museum. “But we all have to think about what we can do individually and then collectively in response.”

The Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, former public defender and co-founder of an alternative school for incarcerated youth shared insights into the complicated evolution of U.S. criminal justice over the last half-century. Key turning points came in the 1960s and 1980s, when heroin and crack epidemics devastated communities of color and led to an era of “warrior policing,” he said.

Forman urged the audience to take tangible steps to turn the tide. Vote. Don’t skip out on jury duty. Find the time and energy to work for a cause close to your heart.

His appearance as part of the Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture Series wove historical research with stories of his childhood as the son of civil rights pioneers, an interracial couple at a time when such marriages were illegal in much of the country.

“The notion that we would be critical or skeptical of government authority that was purporting to act in the name of public safety but was actually harming people is something that I just grew up on,” Forman said.

He has spent much of his career investigating how the United States “earned the dishonor of being the world’s largest jailer.” Part of the answer, he found, lies in grave missteps by African American leaders with the best of intentions — the subject of his acclaimed 2017 book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

Forman found that African Americans who came to power during the drug wars of decades past did not have adequate resources to protect their communities and became over-reliant on police, prosecutors and aggressive tactics.

“We were passing the same laws, the same stop-and-frisk, the same mandatory minimums, the same school-to-prison pipeline. And we were getting the same results,” he said.

Then and now, actions of officials at the local level have enduring consequences, he said.

“It’s crucial that we look at the small steps, the hidden steps, the often invisible steps, some of them made by well-intentioned people,” he said. “Those individual decisions are the bricks that collectively have built the prison nation that America has become.”

Mass incarceration is fundamentally a local issue, Forman said, noting that 88 percent of prisoners in the country are in state, county and local prisons and jails.

“California and Texas together, just two states, have more people incarcerated than the entire federal government,” he said. “Los Angeles County all by itself is responsible for one-third of the people who are incarcerated in the state of California.

“So where we sit right now, this is ground zero in the fight against mass incarceration because this is one of the most incarcerated counties in one of the most incarcerated states in the most incarcerated country in the world. So we have some work to do right here in Los Angeles.”

Forman called on the audience to turn out for March elections for Los Angeles County district attorney, pointing to a trend he has seen over the last five years: In city after city, a new generation of progressive prosecutors has been voted into office, he said.

And he urged those present to understand their own power to bring about change. “For most of us we need to start where we live, we need to start with what we love,” he said.

For Forman, that means eradicating the “education deserts” found inside the criminal justice system. In 1997, he helped launch the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, which is now housed inside Washington, D.C.,’s juvenile prison. More recently, he has offered a seminar in which 10 law students and 10 Connecticut inmates come together behind prison walls to study criminal justice, part of a program called the Inside-Out Prison Exchange.

His “outside students” from Yale and Quinnipiac universities are exposed to a corrections system they might never otherwise see. The benefits for “inside students” are borne out by research showing that recidivism goes down and employment goes up — and by their own testimonials.

One of Forman’s incarcerated students told him he valued the “feeling of mattering.”

The student, he recounted, said, “I liked the law and the policy that we learned in this class, I did. … But really what I liked most of all was that every week when I came to class and I entered the seminar circle, I knew that I was entering a space where I was treated like I was smart, where I was treated like I had something to say.”  

Forman urged the Luskin Lecture audience to embrace their own ideas for creating “a justice system that deserves to have the word justice in the title.” By doing so, he said, “You will create a system that protects and heals and reforms and mends communities, without all this toxicity and brutality of our current system.”

Forman shared the stage with Michael Lens, assistant professor of public policy and urban planning, who led a conversation after the talk, and Professor Máximo Langer of UCLA Law, who offered closing comments. Langer is faculty director of the UCLA Criminal Justice Program, which co-sponsored the Luskin Lecture along with the university’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura welcomed the evening’s guests, noting that the Exposition Park venue was chosen to “get us out in the community, to address questions, issues, thoughts, ideas that are important considerations in matters of public concern … so that we might learn from one another.”

View photos from Forman’s lecture on Flickr.

UCLA Luskin Lecture Series: James Forman Jr.

A ‘New Day’ for Asian American Women in Arts and Media Luskin Lecture brings together pioneers striving for more authentic portrayals on screen and stage

By Mary Braswell

Four women who have strived to bring more authentic portrayals of Asian Americans onto the screen and stage shared stories of risk-taking, perseverance and the importance of mentorship at the opening event of this year’s UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture Series. 

The pioneers from diverse parts of the arts and media landscape came together for “Dawn of a New Day,” a conversation at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 17.

“Tonight we hear from Asian American women who have risen to shape the narrative rather than be dictated by the gaze of others,” said Karen Umemoto, professor of urban planning and director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, one of the event’s co-sponsors.

The audience heard from Grace Lee, director of documentaries and feature films; writer, actor and satirist Fawzia Mirza; Tess Paras, who blends acting, music, comedy and producing; and comedian and performance artist Kristina Wong.

“One of the reasons I got into storytelling and filmmaking in the first place is that I wanted to tell the story that I wanted see,” said Lee, who co-founded the Asian American Documentary Network to share resources and lift up emerging artists. “I just didn’t see a lot of films or stories out there about Asian Americans, women, people of color.”

Lee says she makes a point of hiring diverse film crews and interns to “develop that pipeline so that they can see models just like I had when I was first making films.”

“It’s living your own values,” she said. “It’s really important for us to question, ‘Who gets to tell this story? We get to tell this story.’ ”

Mirza took an unconventional path into the creative arts. She was in law school when she realized she’d rather be an actor. She finished her degree and worked as a litigator to pay off student loans but realized that “art, for me, is a way of figuring out who I am.”

“Talking about my queer, Muslim, South Asian identity through art is a way for me to survive,” she said, but cautioned, “Just by virtue of claiming your identity, sometimes you’re not trying to be political but you are politicized.”

Paras spoke of the one-dimensional acting roles — like the “white girl’s nerdy friend” — that are often available to Asian American women. After a YouTube video she created to satirize such typecasting went viral, she realized, “Oh, this is what happens when you take a big risk and tell your story.”

There is a hunger for honest portrayals of diverse communities, Paras said, a lesson she learned through a crowdfunding campaign for her film about a young Filipina American who struggles to talk to her family about a sexual assault.

“Folks came out of the woodwork because I was creating something that had not to my knowledge really been told,” Paras said. “There were a bunch of young Filipino women who were like, here’s 15 dollars, here’s 25, here’s 40, because I have never seen a story about this.”

Three of the four panelists — Lee, Paras and Wong — are alumnae of UCLA, as is moderator Ada Tseng, entertainment editor for TimesOC.

“I was convinced that the rest of the world looked like UCLA, … a world where everyone is super-political and talks all the time about politics and identity,” said Wong, whose senior project for her world arts and culture major was a fake mail-order-bride site that skewered stereotypes of Asian women.

“So much of the path I’m on felt quite normal because there were other Asian American queer and non-binary folks who were creating solo work,” Wong said. Not until she left California to go on tour did she find how misunderstood her edgy humor could be.

The event was also the closing program for the multimedia exhibit “At First Light,” organized by the Japanese American National Museum and Visual Communications, a nonprofit media arts group. The UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs co-sponsored the lecture, along with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and its Center for Ethno Communications and the Asian American Studies Department at UCLA.

“The panel tonight is a testament to how far we’ve come, though we all know there’s still so much further to go,” said Umemoto, noting that UCLA’s Asian American studies and urban planning programs are marking 50-year anniversaries this year.

Also celebrating a milestone is the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, which just turned 25, Dean Gary Segura told the crowd. The Luskin Lectures are a key part of the School’s mission to hold a “dialogue with the people of Los Angeles and California on issues of public concern,” Segura said.

View additional photos from the Luskin Lecture on Flickr.

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