Alumni Accolades Career changes and other updates from the alumni of UCLA Luskin

Svetha Ambati MURP ’17 is now the senior planner for the city and county of San Francisco, working on the Land Use and Community Planning team.

Jonathan S. Bell Ph.D. UP ’14 assumed the role of vice president of programs at World Monuments Fund in Washington, D.C. Formerly, he was the director of the
Human Journey Initiative at National Geographic.

Karen Diaz MURP ’19, MPH ’19 is the associate relationship manager at NeighborWorks America in Los Angeles. Diaz is an advocate for issues of poverty and racial equity.

Jasdeep Chahal MSW ’18 brings a strong background in working with diverse populations to her new position
as associate clinical social worker at the Elizabeth Hospice in Escondido.

Janine (Berridge) N’jie David MPP ’14 is back on campus as the deputy director for the Luskin School’s new Global Lab for Research in Action. The Global Lab pursues evidence-based solutions to critical health, education and economic challenges faced by children, adolescents and women around the world.

Jacklyn Oh MURP ’17 was promoted to project manager from associate project manager at Community HousingWorks, and she is working in the development of affordable housing.

Erica Ontiveros MSW ’18 is now deputy probation officer for Santa Barbara County. Working in juvenile services, she facilitates treatment opportunities for youth and their families while monitoring their progress.

While Tony Rodriguez MPP ’16 is studying for his MBA at Cambridge Judge Business School, he began a new position as MBA consultant at Citi Ventures at Citi in the London office.

Sam Stalls MPP ’19 is based in Washington, D.C., as a researcher for Collaborating for Resilience (CoRe), where he reviews field guides for practitioners building stakeholder platforms.

Jennifer Vallejo BA ’07, MSW ’12 was appointed as the mental health deputy for Hilda Solis, the Los Angeles County supervisor for the 1st District.

Taylor Liebolt Varner MURP ’15, in addition to holding the roles of planning commissioner for La Quinta and board member of the Desert Valleys Builders Association, has started a new position as regional affordable housing planner at Lift to Rise in California’s Coachella Valley.

Sara Estes (Cohen) White MPP ’08 is currently the worldwide industry lead – government at Apple. Emergency response/management and technology have been a focus of her career, particularly as it relates to innovative use of social media in disaster relief.

 

In Support Fellowships, memorial funds and other support for UCLA Luskin students, faculty and research

PRITZKER FAMILY FOUNDATION SUPPORTS FELLOWSHIP IN OFFICE OF CHILD PROTECTION

For the past four years, UCLA Luskin has awarded a full-year fellowship to a hardworking student seeking to measurably improve child safety in Los Angeles County. Thanks to the generous support of the Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation, the Luskin School will offer this prestigious award again for the upcoming 2020-21 academic year.

“I leveraged the knowledge and skills gained at [the Office of Child Protection] to apply for doctoral programs in social welfare and have received three offers of admission — from UCLA, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington — to continue my studies and conduct research in child welfare,” said Anthony Gomez MSW ’20, who received the fellowship in the most recent year. “I would like to thank the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative for providing a fellowship that has served as the launching pad for the next chapter of my career.”Each year’s fellowship recipient is chosen through a competitive process. A staff and faculty committee evaluates applicants and coordinates interviews with staff from the Office of Child Protection to select the student who is best-qualified for the needs of the position.

BANK OF AMERICA SUPPORTS LATINO ECONOMIC MOBILITY

The Luskin School has received a $125,000 gift from Bank of America to support a social mobility and economic opportunity agenda for Latinos in California.

At nearly 18.5% of the national population, Latinos are a central engine in the growth of the American economy. Despite high rates of employment and entrepreneurial activity, Latinos own fewer homes and have smaller savings and significantly fewer investments than other ethnic groups in the United States.

The gift will be used by the Latino Policy & Politics Initiative (LPPI) to evaluate and identify scalable interventions and best practices across California. It will help expand mobility and opportunity through applied research under the direction of
LPPI faculty experts.

Award recipient Amy Zhou, left, with Astrid Beigel.

SUSTAINING DONOR HONORS FRIEND’S MEMORY

Astrid Beigel MA ’67, Ph.D. ’69 is a sustaining donor of the Julie Roque Award for Environmental Justice, a memorial fund that honors her longtime friend and former professor of urban planning, Julie Roque.

For over two decades, Beigel, who is an established leader in mental health services in Los Angeles, has been supporting the fund annually to keep Roque’s memory alive. The award provides funds to students whose research and community activities demonstrate an awareness of and commitment to environmental justice and pollution prevention, with an emphasis on social issues pertaining to communities of color, particularly Filipinos and Asian Americans.

This year’s recipient, urban planning student Amy Zhou, met with Beigel over lunch on campus prior to the “Safer at Home” order in Los Angeles and personally thanked her for giving back.

Jim and Judy Bergman are UCLA alumni who fund a mental health fellowship at UCLA Luskin.

GIFT FROM BERGMAN FAMILY CLOSES OUT CENTENNIAL CAMPAIGN

Jim and Judy Bergman, UCLA alumni and longtime supporters of the Luskin School, have made a generous gift to augment their existing Bergman Family Mental Health Fellowship in Social Welfare by utilizing the UCLA Chancellor’s Centennial Scholars Match Initiative.

Their endowed gift, which was matched at 50%, supports graduate students whose field of study is directed toward the improvement and advancement of programs and services for the mentally ill.

Approximately one in five adults in the United States suffers with mental health issues in any given year, with some of the Bergmans’ loved ones among them. In Los Angeles, concerns are growing around issues of homelessness, incarceration and use of emergency services among people with severe mental illnesses.

The Bergmans’ meaningful gift to UCLA Luskin closed out the Centennial Campaign for UCLA, one of the most ambitious fundraising campaigns ever by a public university. When it ended on Dec. 31, the university had raised a total of $5.49 billion and the Luskin School had exceeded its goal, raising over $74 million in gifts during the course of the campaign.

Barbara Yaroslavsky

BARBARA YAROSLAVSKY MEMORIAL FUND: AN UPDATE

When the Barbara Yaroslavsky Memorial Fund was established by Zev Yaroslavsky, it was an unprecedented campaign for the Luskin School. It has also turned out to be one of the most successful.

The campaign included additional support from friends and family to honor the legacy of advocacy and commitment to health care for all by Yaroslavsky’s late wife. The fund will support fellowships and internships for graduate students focusing on health and public health policy at UCLA Luskin.

“Barbara dedicated her life to the core belief that health care should be a right, not a privilege. She served on multiple state,
city and nonprofit boards in that quest,” Yaroslavsky said. “We believe that the most appropriate way to honor her memory is to support a new generation of students who will tirelessly pursue the goals and policies to which Barbara committed herself until
the very end of her life.”

So far, the Barbara Yaroslavsky campaign has raised more than $811,000 from individual donors and received an additional match of more than $400,000 from the university through the UCLA Chancellor’s Centennial Scholars Match Initiative.

Alumni Offer Advice on an Uncertain Job Market Class of 2020 hears words of encouragement from two who graduated during the Great Recession

By Mary Braswell

Joey Shanley and Andy Sywak know what it’s like to look for a job in an economy shaken by uncertainty. The two UCLA Luskin alumni graduated in 2009 as the nation struggled to emerge from the Great Recession.

Each embarked on career paths that took surprising-but-welcome turns, and each emerged with insights about job strategies that work, including adjusting your mindset to weather unpredictable times.

At an online panel hosted by UCLA Luskin Career Services, Shanley and Sywak shared their wisdom with graduates entering the workforce during a downturn that has eclipsed the recession of a decade ago. Their words of advice to the Class of 2020 were both practical and encouraging.

“You have a master’s degree from one of the top top-tier universities in the world. I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t tell you when you will find a job, but I will tell you that you will find a job,” said Shanley, who earned his master’s in social welfare and now manages transgender care programs at Kaiser Permanente Southern California.

Before and after he earned his master’s in public policy, Sywak worked in journalism, government, nonprofits and the private sector. He now uses policy and planning skills as a compliance manager for the West Hollywood startup AvantStay, which specializes in high-end short-term rental properties.

In each position he has held, Sywak pursued his longstanding interest in local government, and he encouraged students to “find that common thread” when presenting resumes with a wide range of experiences.

‘The thing that we always look for is people who can create solutions.’ — Andy Sywak MPP ’09

Shanley pursued politics and film before dedicating his life to social work, and even then a few unexpected turns awaited him.

“If you pulled me aside five years ago and said, you know, Joey, you’re going to be neck-deep in transgender health, I would have said that sounds great but that’s not my career path,” said Shanley, who manages Kaiser’s gender-affirming surgery program and is helping to launch a pediatric transgender care clinic.

“This is where my career has gone, and it’s been beyond even my wildest hopes.”

The May 29 panel launched a series of Career Services activities aimed at supporting students and alumni throughout the summer. At the next event, a Zoom conversation on July 7, Marcia Choo, vice president of community development at Wells Fargo Bank, will discuss how to align career decisions with equity and social justice.

Shanley and Sywak invited freshly minted policy, planning and social welfare graduates to remain in touch, to seek career advice or simply to strengthen the UCLA Luskin alumni connection.

The power of networking can be tapped well before graduation, Shanley noted. He recalled poring over the entire list of MSW field placements, then scouring websites of employers that piqued his interest. Whether or not they had active job listings, he reached out to set up introductory meetings and always followed up with both an email and a written note.

“I’m still old school,” he said, and hiring managers may be, too. “When all the candidates look equal but there’s a nice, handwritten thank-you card from you, that’s going to actually help elevate your position in the rankings.”

Both in interviews and on the job, the ability to communicate clearly and think creatively are key, Sywak added.

“When you work at a startup, people are given pretty big responsibilities pretty easily. … The thing that we always look for is people who can create solutions,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made certain skill sets essential on the job, the alumni added. Employees who have transitioned to a virtual environment, with clients or with colleagues, should master new technologies, design skills and ways of communicating to remain relevant, they said.

Both Shanley and Sywak counseled the graduates to view their hard-won master’s degrees as the beginning, not the end, of their education.

“There’s a lot that we can learn in those first few years out of grad school,” Shanley said. “Make sure that you’re listening, make sure you continue to have curiosity. …

“Especially now, life is hard for everybody. Make sure that you can funnel that into a place that’s effective in the workplace. Help find the solutions.”

 

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. And an online “Kudobard” allowed family and friends to offer messages of congratulations to the Class of 2020.

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.”

UCLA Study Finds Strong Support for LAPD’s Community Policing Program Researchers say crime declines and trust increases when officers work alongside residents to build relationships

By Les Dunseith

Families living in public housing developments with a history of gang violence and troubled relationships with law enforcement are seeing less crime and feeling safer because of a policing program launched in 2011 by the Los Angeles Police Department, according to a comprehensive analysis led by Jorja Leap, an adjunct professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

The Community Safety Partnership, or CSP, began in the Jordan Downs public housing development and later expanded to two other Watts locations, Nickerson Gardens and Imperial Courts, as well as Ramona Gardens in Boyle Heights. The program assigns specially trained LAPD officers to work alongside residents to reduce crime by developing youth outreach, sports, recreational and other programs tailored specifically to their communities.

The yearlong UCLA-led evaluation compared crime rates in Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens with computer-generated, synthetic models of demographically similar neighborhoods that did not receive CSP services. The research team also conducted community-based research with officers and residents, logging 425 hours of observation, conducting 110 interviews and 28 focus groups, and completing close to 800 surveys as part of a mixed-methods research effort at Nickerson Gardens and Ramona Gardens. Clear majorities at both sites expressed support for this innovative program.

“Their lives were literally changed by CSP,” Leap said during a May 12 online meeting of the Los Angeles Police Commission at which the study was publicly unveiled.

Leap is an expert on gangs whose academic research and community engagement in Watts spans four decades, including the Watts Leadership Institute, a 10-year initiative based at UCLA Luskin. She told the five members of the civilian commission that people interviewed by the UCLA team “felt it was safer to go outside, mingle with people, use green spaces.”

As part of the LAPD program, extra effort is made to bridge communication between officers and residents, many of whom have deep-seated distrust of the police. Leap said a critical component involves officers apologizing to community residents for past mistakes and incidents of brutality.

“We were the enemy — pure and simple — if you had the LAPD uniform on, it was as if you had a target on your back. If there were reports of a shooting, officers were not supposed to come in without back-up,” said one officer interviewed for the report. “That’s all changed. The residents of this community want CSP here, they want this community to be safe. They welcome us.”

The impact on crime is significant. According to the analysis, in a one-year period, CSP has led to seven fewer homicides, 93 fewer aggravated assaults and 122 fewer robberies than would otherwise have been expected at Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens.

Statistics like those, plus the high level of resident support found by researchers, encouraged Leap to recommend to the commission that CSP serve as a model for department-wide LAPD policing efforts. The relationship-based focus could also be helpful in other crisis situations, including public health problems such as opioid abuse or the current coronavirus pandemic, she said.

“It could be extremely useful for epidemic crises, including homelessness and the pandemic,” Leap told the commission. “This is the type of approach that represents a new and important paradigm in law enforcement.”

The program has already expanded beyond Watts and Boyle Heights to housing developments in South Park and San Fernando Gardens, as well as the neighborhood surrounding Harvard Park. That expansion was funded by the Ballmer Group, co-founded by Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, and the Weingart Foundation, which, along with The California Endowment and several private donors, were among the seven funders of the $500,000 UCLA study.

The report describes many positive outcomes related to CSP, but it also identified several shortcomings.

“It is not all sunshine and roses,” Leap warned the commission, adding that the community was skeptical regarding the department’s commitment. “This must become part of the DNA of the LAPD and not a hit-and-run program that is gone in a few months.”

Some respondents questioned the level of community involvement in CSP activities, for example, saying that the officers implemented some programs without first seeking resident participation. Many residents — and even some of the officers — also expressed confusion about the specifics of the program.

“Everyone understood it was about relationships. Pretty much everyone understood it was about building trust,” Leap said. “Nevertheless, there was tremendous confusion” about the CSP model and a strong desire from all parties for better documentation of the program’s components.

Leap said the level of support for CSP in the study differed according to demographic characteristics.

Overall, she said, women were the leaders in both of the housing developments that were studied, and women were slightly more supportive of CSP than men. On the other hand, she noted, there were major differences in terms of ethnicity.

Latino residents predominantly supported CSP, Leap said. “Where we got push-back and mixed results,” particularly on community surveys, was among African Americans. The researchers were able to delve into the underlying reasons for this response during their interviews and focus groups.

“It should come as no surprise — African Americans have had the most tumultuous history” with law enforcement in Los Angeles, said Leap, who noted that incidents of police violence against blacks in other parts of the country in recent years have only added to longstanding tensions between the community and the LAPD. “There are many individuals who carry this history and this mistrust.”

In the report, one interviewee said: “Don’t say everyone loves CSP because not everyone loves CSP. There’s some people who think it’s a bunch of bull. There’s some people who are never gonna trust the police. And there’s some people who are waiting to be convinced. They’re waiting to see if the CSP sticks around or — if once all the publicity goes away — then [the CSP officers] go away.”

That concern was echoed in the report, which included a recommendation to increase funding for CSP and a designation of the program as a permanent part of the LAPD’s law enforcement strategy.

Staying the course over time is important to Leap. She pledged that this study will be just one part of an ongoing effort by her research team, which included UCLA Luskin social welfare professor Todd Franke, a methodological and systems expert, and UCLA anthropology professor P. Jeffrey Brantingham, who is a lead researcher for the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office Gang Reduction and Youth Development program. Also on the research team were UCLA research associate Susana Bonis and UCLA Luskin alumna Karrah Lompa, who served as the project manager. Several students, some of whom grew up in Watts and Boyle Heights, joined project staff in conducting field research and data analysis. A multicultural advisory board helped guide the study and will contribute to follow-up efforts.

The key to the program’s success is cooperation. Leap told the commissioners something she has repeated in public meetings: “The community truly partners with the police — this is not rhetoric but a meaningful model.”

Seeking Public Housing Solutions for Japan in Los Angeles Urban planning alumna Kimiko Shiki returns to UCLA Luskin as a visiting scholar

By Lauren Hiller

Housing choice vouchers in the United States allow low-income families to move into neighborhoods with greater opportunities and resources. But these vouchers may provide opportunities beyond housing — access to employment, transportation and welfare programs that can improve general economic conditions.

As a visiting scholar this year at the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, UCLA Luskin alumna Kimiko Shiki MA UP ’01, Ph.D. ’08 will investigate the relationship between housing choice vouchers, residential mobility and opportunities in Los Angeles. The associate professor of policy science at Ritsumeikan University in Osaka, Japan, specializes in the housing-location decisions of low-income households and their spatial access to employment opportunities, transportation and welfare services.

Shiki’s doctoral research at UCLA focused on why low-income households are concentrated in dense communities in U.S. cities. At the Lewis Center, Shiki said she plans to use Department of Housing and Urban Development administrative data to analyze low-income residential mobility in Los Angeles from housing choice voucher recipients.

Unlike in the United States, public housing in Japan is often located in the suburbs because of the scale and cost of construction, but transportation access and employment opportunities are more limited outside an urban core.

“Suburban locations can be good for housing quality,” Shiki said. “But if you want to try out other jobs or use other childcare services, it may not work in the suburbs.”

According to her study in Kyoto, Japan, low-income families tend to apply for public housing near their residences in order to maintain their current jobs and local social support systems, Shiki said. Because public housing supply is highly limited geographically, as well as numerically, this means that many low-income families cannot choose to live in public housing.

Without a rental subsidy program, like housing choice vouchers, these households instead turn to a private market that has little economic support, Shiki said. Her research seeks to show policymakers that affordability is not the only consideration that low-income households must weigh when searching for housing.

“Urban poor often experience a lot of migration and mobility, and their needs for residential location change. They often have to move to other areas to find better opportunities,” Shiki said. Public housing doesn’t provide resources for various needs, she said, “but the private market might give them more options for residential location.”

Shiki said she understands the benefits of public housing and hopes her research will show how Japan can augment its services.

Alumni Accolades Career changes and other updates from the alumni of UCLA Luskin

Lande Ajose MA UP ’95 of Oakland has been appointed to the Advisory Selection Committee for the Regents of the University of California by Gov. Gavin Newsom. This year, she also was named a senior advisor on higher education in the Office of the Governor.

Christopher Ayala ’15, MSW ’18 now holds the position of medical social worker at Harborview Medical Center in Washington state.

Megan Ebor ’04, MSW ’12, an instructor at CSU Dominguez Hills and UCLA, is an affiliate researcher at the Center for Culture, Trauma and Mental Health Disparities at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

Dora Epstein Jones MA UP ’96, Ph.D. ’04, an architecture educator, theorist and scholar, was appointed chair of architecture at the Texas Tech University College of Architecture.

Margaret Gross MSW ’18 relocated from California to the East Coast and is now working as a crisis clinician at First Call for Chittenden County at the Howard Center in Burlington, Vermont.

Dylan Jouliot MURP ’18 was promoted from transportation specialist to senior transportation specialist at Commute Seattle in Seattle, Washington.

Ramon Quintero MURP ’16, after working in the Bay Area, is now a community urban regional planner for the state of Florida, based out of Sarasota.

Vicente Romero De Avila Serrano MURP ’14 worked in Spain before relocating to San Francisco. He is assistant transportation planner at the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Ben Russak MURP ’14, a leader at the Liberty Hill Foundation, recently took on the role of acting director of environmental health and justice.

Elsie Silva, MSW ’16 is a medical social worker at the Elizabeth Hospice in San Diego.

Jenn Tolentino MPP ’11 is now a senior project manager at the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office Innovation Team after working as vice president of impact and innovation at Rock the Vote.

Darryl Yip MURP ’15 returned to the Bay Area and was recently promoted to transportation planner for policy and long-range planning for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Perseverance Amid the Pandemic UCLA Luskin alumni social workers reveal some fear and frustration and a whole lot of dedication

By Les Dunseith

Social workers. They are still out there.

They still walk Skid Row despite the COVID-19 pandemic. They still go to homes where children are in need. They still report to work at hospitals where patients die alone and families need to be located and told. It’s their job — their essential job — and they’re still doing it despite extraordinary circumstances that are making already difficult roles even more challenging.

“On a personal level, these social workers are making sacrifices of their own health, and potentially the health of their families, in order to continue to serve,” said Laura Abrams, professor of social welfare. “They know that they’re taking that risk, but they feel like it’s important to them. It’s their responsibility.”

Founded in 1947, the UCLA program is widely known and highly respected, particularly in California, where most of the 90 to 100 graduates each year go to work for city, county or state social services agencies.

Abrams, who is chair of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, knows this because she’s been talking to some of them, connecting with alumni of her program for Zoom calls to find out how they are doing.

What is it like for social workers right now?

Lavit Maas in her personal protective gear.

Lavit Maas, who graduated in 2010 with her master’s in social welfare, works for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s Homeless Outreach and Mobility Engagement team, which provides care on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles for homeless people with severe mental illness. Maas works with people who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of elderly on Skid Row,” she told Abrams. “There’s a lot of people with medical conditions. It’s terrifying because we don’t know what to do [for them]. It makes me sad.”

Gabby Peraza, a 2019 master’s in social welfare graduate, works with foster youth as part of her job with the county department of children and family services. Soon after the safer at home order was issued, she encountered a young girl who needed to be transferred to a new placement but was frightened by Peraza’s protective gear. The child cowered in fear, hiding behind a foster parent.

“I had to make the decision. I’m either going to have a kid crying with me — and forcing that kid into a car with me,” Peraza recalled. “I said, ‘All right, I’m going to take this mask off, take these gloves off, and just engage with this kid.’ ”

Abrams has been recording her video interviews, and they are being edited for privacy and clarity before being posted for educational purposes on a showcase page maintained by the Luskin School. [Or scroll to the bottom to view.] So far, eight interviews have been completed and three have been posted publicly. In all, Abrams expects to do at least eight, with interviewees who reflect the broad swath of roles in which social workers are employed.

The idea came to Abrams soon after she and her family moved inside to comply with the social distancing order that was issued March 19 in Los Angeles County.

“I felt very disconnected from what was happening out in the real world,” Abrams said.

A conversation about the impact that the coronavirus pandemic was having on a close friend in a medical career led Abrams to realize that few people were thinking about her former and current students in UCLA’s social welfare program. She knew they were being affected too, but how? So she reached out on Facebook to see if anyone wanted to talk.

“Social workers, they’re playing a vital role in this pandemic,” said Abrams, noting that they interact with people at the margins of society who are often overlooked by the general public and in media reports. “What’s happening out in the community, especially with really vulnerable populations like homeless folks or people in the jails or children in foster care?”

Abrams said she has learned a lot from the Zoom calls. For one thing, the feeling of personal safety varies from person to person and job to job. A social worker in a hospital, for example, said she had access to personal protective equipment and felt safe. But those who work for government agencies, however, said they were fearful about their level of protection from the novel coronavirus.

Many social workers said they are facing unexpected dilemmas, and “working in spaces in which their clients are not getting what they need,” Abrams said. For example, an alumna who works in a correctional facility observed that people being imprisoned there were not given proper access to soap and water so they could comply with orders to frequently wash their hands.

A surprise from her interviews was discovering that some facilities and social services are actually being underutilized at the moment. The number of cases being handled is less than usual for Peraza and for Madison Hayes, another 2019 master’s in social welfare graduate, who works in Sacramento at a shelter for foster youth. For both, the decline in cases mirrors a steep drop-off in calls to crisis hotlines and a lack of referrals from the mandatory reporters at public schools.

“We know that things like abuse and other family problems are probably increasing, but calls … are decreasing so dramatically,” Abrams said. “Child protection is basically falling apart because there’s no window to the outside world.”

Gabby Peraza was a student commencement speaker in 2019.

Talking to social workers in the field has also reminded Abrams of the inequities that always exist in society.

“Access to health care: What does that mean?” Abrams asked. “Access to even having a home, to being sheltered? I am seeing the racial disparities and seeing the ways that the haves and the have-nots have different levels of access at this time.”

The interviews have also reminded Abrams of one other important — and more hopeful — aspect of society. People keep doing their jobs despite the risks involved.

“We all knew coming into this career that there’s always going to be a risk,” Peraza told Abrams about what it’s like to be a social worker during this crisis. “We just didn’t think it was going to be this type of risk.”

Peraza said it’s not about herself, it’s about the children and the families she serves.

Maas acknowledged the risks to her own health and the fear of getting infected and passing the virus along to a colleague or loved one. But there is work to be done.

“I love being a social worker and, to me, service is the only thing that matters,” Maas said. “Of course, you can’t be of service if you can’t protect yourself. I know that. But, especially in a time like this, I have to be of service.

 

 

 

For 30 Years, Lewis Center Has Responded to L.A. Issues With Ideas All six current and former directors gather to recall the challenges and successes they experienced while leading regional policy research at UCLA

By Lauren Hiller

During a gathering March 5 at its first home on the UCLA campus, the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies commemorated 30 years of scholarship, public advocacy and leadership on campus and in the community.

All five former Lewis Center directors — a who’s who of distinguished scholars — joined the current director, Urban Planning Professor Evelyn Blumenberg, at DeCafe Perloff Hall to discuss the milestones and issues facing the region during each person’s tenure. As each director spoke, it was evident that the center’s longevity is rooted in interdisciplinary scholarship and fostering the next generation of scholars.

In 1989, Ralph and Goldy Lewis donated $5 million to endow a research program at UCLA that studied regional policy issues. The following year, the Lewis Center opened its doors in Perloff Hall, the location of what was then known as the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, with founding director Allen J. Scott, distinguished research professor of geography and public policy. Scott was succeeded by Roger Waldinger, distinguished professor of sociology; followed in chronological order by Paul Ong, research professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs; J.R. DeShazo, professor of public policy, urban planning and civil and environmental engineering; and Brian D. Taylor, professor of urban planning and public policy.

“My parents both went to UCLA and they believed in the power of public education and need to support the public system,” said Randall Lewis, whose parents were homebuilders and interested in issues of growth, transportation, housing and air quality. “They felt as they were building houses, building communities, that they didn’t want to create problems. They wanted to find solutions.”

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, who joined the UCLA community the same year that Lewis Center was established and received one of its first grants, kicked off the event.

“The Lewis Center best exemplifies the role that we’re asking our research centers to play: push research forward, support the educational mission of the school and its students, and serve as a public forum that disseminates important research-based information and data to a larger public,” said Loukaitou-Sideris, professor of urban planning and associate provost for academic planning.

Launched Amid Regional Turmoil
The early 1990s were a tumultuous time in Los Angeles. The aerospace industry, which was a backbone of the region’s economy, was collapsing. The 1994 Northridge earthquake killed 61 people and caused $6.7 million in damage, crippling major infrastructure like freeways. And civil disturbances fueled by racial injustices, police brutality, and poverty and social marginalization rocked the city.

“Los Angeles looked like, from some points of view, a basket case and getting worse,” Scott recalled. “And so we were, at a very early stage, involved in attempting to build responses to these problems and others.”

Scott and the Lewis Center published a series of working papers focusing on new industry (such as electric vehicles) to replace aerospace and an examination of the nature and causes of the crises in South Los Angeles.

By the time Waldinger took over in 1996, the immigrant population in the Los Angeles region had quadrupled within two decades. Yet, research on the impact of immigration on the Los Angeles region lagged behind frequently studied cities like Chicago and New York. The Lewis Center played an integral role in bringing Los Angeles to the forefront of regional studies with efforts such as Waldinger’s book “Ethnic Los Angeles.” Today, it’s hard to imagine a discussion of immigration and foreign-born individuals without considering L.A.

Waldinger said the center’s early research has transformed California policy. Although immigration policy is a federal issue, immigrant policy can be local, he noted, pointing to state measures that have aided California’s immigrant population.

Ong, the center’s third director, continued the multidisciplinary tradition of the Lewis Center and collaborated with scholars in UCLA Luskin Social Welfare and the natural sciences. As director, he published a seminal report on the undercounting of low-income people and communities of color in the 2000 Census.

Ong’s work also highlighted a core strength of the Lewis Center — its focus on addressing social justice issues for marginalized communities. He said the center also partnered with the County of Los Angeles and L.A. Metro to understand the transit needs of underserved communities.

DeShazo oversaw the Lewis Center during a time when its focus turned to environmental issues. In 2006, California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), promoting ambitious climate solutions that even some legislators doubted could be achieved.

“Those were the days we didn’t even know where greenhouse gases were coming from,” DeShazo remembered. The first step was to identify sources and then to identify solutions to reduce emissions, including electric vehicles, rooftop solar energy and energy-efficient technology.

“Everything that we have today is what people thought was impossible to accomplish. The groundwork for that was laid in the 2006-2012 period,” DeShazo said.

The Lewis Center has also contributed to environmental justice scholarship, especially the designations of disadvantaged communities as a result of identifying where emissions were coming from and where populations vulnerable to those emissions are living.

Taylor next put the focus on housing affordability and transportation in light of large investments in public transit like Measure R, a sales tax that is expected to raise $40 billion over 30 years.

He said the center’s regional lens has a built-in advantage when it comes to studying housing affordability, transportation and access, which play out across a diverse geography.

Taylor’s tenure also overlapped with his role as chair of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning. It was a position that helped him to advocate for the addition of faculty members and scholars who could tackle these regional priorities.

“Housing affordability was not my area of research,” Taylor said. “All I did was try to support and catalyze the intellectual leaders that are helping shape the important debates on this.”

A Legacy of Leadership
Acting as a consistent bridge to marginalized voices, the Lewis Center’s former directors see scholarship and professional development as their enduring legacy. Many onetime students have gone on to become academic leaders in their own right.

“I’m honored to follow in those footsteps,” said Blumenberg MA UP ’90, Ph.D. ’95. She became director in 2018 and has focused on how Angelenos live, move and work in L.A., with a particular interest in pathways out of poverty. The center recently launched the Randall Lewis Housing Initiative.

Has Los Angeles made progress over the last 30 years?

The answer is mixed, Ong said. A commitment to climate change initiatives and equity are highlights, but income inequality and social justice remain daunting issues.

“I’m proud of the fact that the Lewis Center continues to look at issues of inequality,” Ong said. “We’re dedicated to doing the research to find solutions, but it’s like swimming upstream.”

Still, Ong remains hopeful: “I know enough about [Blumenberg’s] history that there will continue to be a commitment from the Lewis Center to accomplish things that will bend us towards justice.”

Paving a Path to Homeownership Lewis Center hosts panel to contemplate ways that homeownership can be an attainable goal for more low-income families

By Lauren Hiller

Despite the promise of homeownership enshrined in the American Dream, many people in low-income communities of color remain far from owning their own homes, and this challenge served as a focal point for a recent discussion at UCLA Luskin.

During the Housing, Equity and Community Series event held on Feb. 26, the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and the UCLA Ziman Center brought together scholars and housing experts to discuss what it would take to ensure access to homeownership for communities historically locked out of it, particularly low-income families. The conversation was moderated by Michael Lens, associate faculty director of the Lewis Center and an associate professor of urban planning and public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Rocio Sanchez-Moyano, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning, opened the panel by providing context about homeownership in the United States.

According to U.S. Census statistics, homeownership rates have fallen below 50% in Los Angeles County, which is below the current 60% nationwide average and far below rates observed before the Great Recession. These rates are even lower for black and Latino households, and Sanchez-Moyano said this situation is compounded by predatory lending practices by banks that contribute to foreclosure rates in those communities that are among the highest.

Barriers to homeownership are particularly concerning given the benefits that homeownership can confer, Sanchez-Moyano said. These include greater household wealth, better neighborhood safety and quality, lower rates of perceived stress, and increased civic participation.

Discriminatory mortgage terms and higher income volatility among black and Latino households are among the reasons that these families are disproportionately shut out of homeownership opportunities, she said.

Ashraf Ibrahim, office director at the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA), spoke about his experience helping families apply for mortgages. He explained that housing affordability is the largest hurdle faced by families seeking to secure financing to buy homes. A household needs an annual income of at least $125,000 to be able to afford a home in Los Angeles County, Ibrahim noted.

Housing costs are also not rising linearly, said Dorian Young, a mortgage counselor at NACA. As of January 2020, the median sales price of a home in Los Angeles was $744,000, according to Zillow — up from $474,000 as recently as 2015. Housing costs are quickly outpacing income growth in cities such as L.A.

Sanchez-Moyano said this problem is exacerbated by high rents, meaning that lower-income households have less spare income to save up for a down payment.

John Perfitt is executive director at Restore Neighborhoods Los Angeles, a nonprofit that builds and improves homes for low-income families. He said that land values are the largest determinant of housing costs. High land values produce high housing costs, which reductions in construction costs are unable to offset.

Despite these challenges, options exist to increase homeownership rates. Counselors can educate families on practical steps needed to save up for a home, Young said. As a mortgage counselor, he and others in his field also can inform households of other approaches to securing home financing, including leveraging future rent to be collected from multi-family properties as part of the loan process.

Perfitt said that Los Angeles offers a low-income and moderate-income homeownership program that provides down payment assistance. More people sign up every year than there is help to give, however.

Sanchez-Moyano reminded the audience that homeownership has never been attainable for all families. Still, she hopes people will support efforts to make owning a home more accessible, particularly to communities of color, and ensure that “being a renter doesn’t mean being left behind.”

View additional photos from the event in an album on Flickr:

Promise and Peril: Homeownership in Southern California