‘Tell Your Story in Your Own Words, So That No One Tells It For You’ A commencement message of empathy and resilience for UCLA Luskin’s Class of 2024

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, let’s go together.”

Paco Retana, a leading voice in community mental health, invoked this African proverb as he called on UCLA Luskin’s Class of 2024 to embrace a spirit of compassion and collaboration as they set out to put their educations to work.

“In a world increasingly divided by conflict, inequality and environmental crisis, love and respect are more essential than ever before,” Retana told the gathered graduates at two commencement ceremonies on June 14.

“Together, you have the potential to create a tapestry of positive change that is richer and more vibrant than anything you could achieve alone.”

Retana spoke to public policy, social welfare and urban planning scholars earning master’s and doctoral degrees at a morning ceremony at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Later in the day, he addressed students awarded the bachelor of public affairs at the Grand Ballroom in Ackerman Union.

“The superpower you all have — resilience, corazon, heart — has been the key to navigating life’s inevitable challenges and setbacks,” said Retana, who shared his own background to underscore the point.

Born in Pico Rivera to working-class parents who emigrated from Mexico and Costa Rica, Retana was labeled an underperformer in school. But he went on to become the first in his family to attend college, earning two UCLA degrees: a bachelor’s in psychology in 1987 and a master’s in social welfare in 1990.

For more than three decades, Retana has served Los Angeles’ vulnerable youth and marginalized communities and is now chief program officer at the nonprofit Wellnest. He mentors graduate students as part of UCLA Luskin’s Senior Fellows career leadership program, and he will soon become president of the UCLA Alumni Association.

Retana credited his family for their unshakable support and thanked all the loved ones who were present to cheer on the graduates. “Families are the quiet towers of strength that support us in ways we often take for granted,” he said.

Like many of the day’s speakers, Retana acknowledged that the Class of 2024 pursued their degrees during an often painful era.

For the undergraduates, this included beginning their college careers in 2020 as COVID-19 took lives, strained finances and kept people apart. Political polarization, a reckoning with racism and labor strife followed, and the schisms grew deeper this academic year with the devastating loss of life in the Middle East and protests that have divided campuses across the country, including UCLA.

“Today, we gather to celebrate the achievements and the bright futures of our graduating class. Yet we cannot ignore the recent conflicts and violence that have affected our universities, including our beloved UCLA,” Retana said.

“These events remind us of the critical importance of fostering environments where respect, empathy and dialogue are important.”

Students chosen by their peers to deliver commencement remarks also spoke of this difficult moment, calling for moral courage and solidarity. At the graduate ceremony, members of the audience were invited to leave the ceremony to join a pro-Palestinian rally outside.

Retana urged the entire Class of 2024 to “tell your story in your own words, so that no one tells it for you.”

“Your resilience and your heart not only help you to survive hardships, but also to thrive and reach your full potential, turning life’s trials into stepping stones for success.”

View photos of the graduate commencement

2024 UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Graduate Commencement

Watch the graduate commencement ceremony

View photos of the undergraduate commencement

UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs 2024 Undergraduate Commencement

Watch the undergraduate commencement ceremony


Blazing Trails for Asian American Health and Well-Being Social Welfare alumni Bill Watanabe and Yasuko Sakamoto are honored for legacy of leadership

By Mary Braswell

Alumni, faculty, staff and friends of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare gathered in Little Tokyo this month to celebrate two trailblazers whose life’s work centered on making the Asian American and Pacific Islander community thrive, in Los Angeles and beyond.

Bill Watanabe MSW ’72 and Yasuko Sakamoto MSW ’83 were recognized as the Joseph A. Nunn Social Welfare Alumni of the Year for their decades of leadership in strengthening ethnic neighborhoods and training generations of social workers who would carry on a legacy of service.

Watanabe and Sakamoto were two of the three original staff members of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) when it opened in 1980, and they served together for more than three decades.

The nonprofit now employs more than 150 people, providing culturally sensitive social services, affordable housing, support for small businesses, and programs for children, families and seniors. The June 8 alumni celebration took place in the recently opened Terasaki Budokan, a community sports and activity center 30 years in the making.

Over the years, the service center has also served as a learning site for more than 120 social welfare interns, 60 from UCLA — including three current  faculty, Susan Lares-Nakaoka MSW ’99 UP PhD ’14, director of field education; Toby Hur MSW ’93 and Erin Nakamura MSW ’12.

A group of former interns nominated Watanabe and Sakamoto for this year’s award, and many delivered moving tributes to their mentors.

“Bill was well-known for his visionary leadership, unwavering ethics and persistence in pursuing social justice goals … and also, the way he just always does the right thing,” Lares-Nakaoka said of Watanabe, who served as the center’s founding executive director for 32 years before retiring in 2012.

three young people in historic B&W photo

LTSC’s three original staffers: Yasuko Sakamoto, left, Bill Watanabe and Evelyn Yoshimura. Photo courtesy of the Little Tokyo Service Center

Born in the Manzanar incarceration camp during World War II, Watanabe went on to complete his education and rise to several leadership positions at organizations that serve marginalized populations and fund community development. His efforts to save and restore historic places significant to the AAPI community earned him a “hero award” from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And as a past UCLA Luskin Senior Fellow, he has mentored graduate students in leadership and career development.

“You can see his massive reach, both locally and nationally,” Lares-Nakaoka said.

Alumna Hiroko Murakami MSW ’09 spoke of Sakamoto’s lasting impact as LTSC’s director of social services until her retirement in 2016. Programs to provide counseling, reach out to isolated members of the community, support families dealing with Alzheimer’s and provide transitional housing to survivors of domestic abuse are among those designed and launched by Sakamoto.

Murakami said Sakamoto was a creative leader, even initiating a series of tofu cookbooks “to introduce healthy eating to a wide audience, with the funds raised going to emergency services and domestic violence counseling.”

Sakamoto advocated on behalf of new immigrants and reparations for detained Japanese Americans, and has been a frequent speaker in both the United States and Japan, where she was born. She has received a commendation from the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles.

Despite numerous accolades over the decades, the two honorees never prioritized building up egos or empires, instead keeping their focus on community needs, the afternoon’s speakers noted. That outlook was evident in their comments to the gathering.

“This recognition is due to a collective effort, not just Bill and me,” Sakamoto said. She expressed gratitude to Evelyn Yoshimura, the third original LTSC staffer, and other employees, volunteers, partner agencies and places of learning like UCLA that sent budding social workers into the heart of Little Tokyo.

“Personally, I have always felt the student interns who I worked with were my great teacher. … They guided me to become a better social worker and effective supervisor,” she said.

Watanabe personally thanked Nunn, a UCLA Luskin professor emeritus who is the namesake of the annual alumni award and was present at the celebration.

“The name of Joe Nunn is a very highly honored name in the school of social welfare at UCLA,” he said. “And so to receive this recognition in his name is a very, very big deal for Yasuko and myself.”

He said UCLA was “perhaps the most courageous school of social work in the country” for opening its doors to him in the 1970s.

“I wrote a heartfelt autobiographical statement basically saying, if I get accepted, I commit myself and dedicate myself to work in this community to try to make a change,” Watanabe said.

“So I want to thank UCLA for taking a chance and allowing people like myself and Yasuko — who was much more qualified than I — to be able to be trained and educated so that we can serve the community.”

View photos from the celebration

Social Welfare Alumni Awards 2024

New Study Provides First Nationwide Window on Juvenile Lifer Population The most comprehensive tracking effort to date looks at resentencing, release and other key outcome data, including mortality and exonerations

By Stan Paul

A newly published study in the Journal of Criminal Justice provides a picture of a unique subset of incarcerated people across the United States — juvenile lifers — or the more than 2,900 minors given juvenile life without parole sentences since the first was meted out in the late 1940s.

The open-access study originated from a grant awarded to Laura Abrams, professor of social welfare, to lead an extensive national study of young people who are ultimately given a chance at freedom after having been sentenced to life in prison.

The study is the first to supply concrete numbers and a full demographic profile of the Juvenile Life Without Parole, or JLWOP, population. It includes information on resentencing and release statuses, plus other key outcomes such as mortality and exonerations.

“The present study offers the most comprehensive national tracking effort of the JLWOP population to date,” the researchers wrote.

The study provides time-series views into core outcomes and considers variation in state-level policy contexts and resentencing mechanisms.

“We are looking at this group as a case study to look at positive outcomes of resentencing that may eventually be applied to other lifers,” Abrams said. “We have a unique group based on their age of conviction, but our research is relevant to second chances and resentencing laws and policies writ large.”

Abrams noted that more than half of all current U.S. prisoners are serving sentences of 10 years or more. Consequently, the study has the potential to inform policies related to prisoners serving long sentences and the thousands — one in seven people in prison — currently serving life terms. Ongoing national efforts to end mass incarceration have largely focused on the decarceration of people imprisoned for nonviolent felony offenses.

This publication is part of a three-year study funded by the Houston-based philanthropy Arnold Ventures. It is an ongoing effort to build a base of knowledge that supports safe and equitable sentencing and second-look policies for people sentenced to life for offenses committed before they were 18 years old, Abrams said.

Many juvenile offenders already have spent years or decades behind bars, and others have passed away, Abrams noted.

The research team includes experts from UCLA, the University of Cincinnati, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Michigan, Northwestern University and Temple University, representing disciplines such as social work, human development and behavior, public health and criminology. Abrams and an interdisciplinary team of scholars from across the country are also studying juvenile lifers who were convicted of homicide after being tried in adult criminal courts.

The researchers point out that the United States is the only developed nation in the world that sentences minors to life without parole, a policy that conflicts with provisions of international law. For example, Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits life sentences for juveniles, which is considered a major human rights issue.

In the United States, harsh sentences for youth convicted of violent offenses increased dramatically with tough on crime policies in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, known as the Miller and Montgomery cases, found mandatory life sentences for minors unconstitutional, which has led to the resentencing and subsequent release of many.

To identify this subset, the team cross-referenced data to identify the JLWOP population starting at the time of the first Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama, in 2012 to build a demographic profile and track resentencing, release and mortality statuses. Statistics and data visualization were used to establish baselines at the national and state levels.

Since the rulings, more than 2,500 individuals have been resentenced and more than 1,000 have been released, the research team found. They also noted significant variations by state in the number of JLWOP sentences, the extent to which JLWOP is still allowed, the mechanisms for sentence review, and the percentages of juvenile lifers released.

Because the findings demonstrate variability in how states have responded to the federal mandates set by Miller and Montgomery, challenges and opportunities for policy reform exist, according to the researchers.

Although California is among the top five states nationwide by cumulative population of juvenile lifers, the state “has effectively resentenced everyone,” the researchers reported. States such as Alabama and North Carolina have taken a slower approach with resentencing, contributing to low rates of release.

“Every state has different laws, with California being somewhat ahead of the curve on sentencing reforms for JLWOP. This is why we look nationally but also state-by-state,” Abrams said.

“There has been a dizzying amount of variety in how states have responded to the Supreme Court cases, and how those responses have shifted over time,” said co-researcher Rebecca Turner, an attorney and associate legal director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Since every state has its own criminal code, parole procedures and sentencing procedures, the process for resentencing and resentencing outcomes have varied widely across the country.”

For example, some states retain life without parole as an option for people under 18 but now require a discretionary sentencing process that considers several factors that relate to youth, Turner explained. In such states, individualized resentencings for individuals already serving such a sentence are therefore necessary.

“This has been the case in some states with the largest JLWOP populations, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania,” she said.

Turner noted that based on underlying brain science, reforms to include young adults between ages 18 and 25 have been expanded in some jurisdictions, including California, Connecticut and the District of Columbia. A few states have taken no action in response to the Supreme Court decisions, she said. At least one is challenging the legal precedent.

“The variety in legislative responses and associated procedures has been hugely influential in terms of resentencing and release outcomes, so the work of our group to analyze these complex policy responses alongside broader data trends will be critical in assessing the current landscape, as well as future policy,” Turner said.

Abrams said that the next step is developing a survey tool to reach the 2,900 individuals who were found, of which roughly 1,800 are still incarcerated.

Randall Akee Appointed Next Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. Chair in Social Justice Public policy professor is cited for his commitment to Indigenous communities and accomplishments as an economist

Professor of Public Policy and American Indian Studies Randall Akee has been appointed the next Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. Chair in Social Justice at UCLA Luskin.

The chair, created by Meyer and Renee Luskin as part of their naming gift to the Luskin School in 2011, will provide financial support for research throughout Akee’s five-year term. Former professor Manisha Shah was the inaugural holder of the chair.

Selection committee members for the Gilliam chair described the former UCLA American Indian Studies chair’s commitment to justice for Indigenous communities as “palpable in his collaborative efforts with leaders from American Indian reservations, Canadian First Nations, Pacific Island nations and Native Hawaiian communities,” wrote Interim Dean Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris in an internal announcement about Akee’s selection.

The committee also cited Akee’s rigorous empirical research as a highly accomplished economist and his tenure on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, which concluded in 2023.

“During this pivotal period in navigating the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, he played a crucial role in addressing economic inequality with his expert insights,” they wrote.

Akee was cited for his mentorship of racially diverse students and for taking extensive measures to increase the pipeline of American Indian, Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian students in higher education.

“I started as an assistant professor at Luskin when Frank Gilliam was our dean, and I am very grateful for this honor,” said Akee, who joined the Luskin School in 2013 and was recently promoted to full professor.

‘Democracy Is on the Defensive’ Global affairs experts gather to analyze the sobering findings of the 2024 Berggruen Governance Index

Experts on global affairs came together this month at UCLA to analyze the findings of the newly released 2024 Berggruen Governance Index (BGI), which examines the relationship between the quality of democracy, the quality of governance and the quality of life in 145 countries.

This year’s index concluded that an overwhelming majority of the world’s people live in countries that lost ground on measurable benchmarks of democratic accountability from 2010-2021. Yet many of these countries have maintained or even improved delivery of public goods, including employment, health care and education.

This illuminates the fallacy that democracy alone will improve governance performance, according to the index’s authors, an international team of researchers from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute think tank and the Hertie School in Berlin.

The principal investigator is Helmut Anheier, adjunct professor of public policy and social welfare at UCLA Luskin and a former president of the Hertie School.

In an interview prior to the report’s release, Anheier commented on the index’s score for democratic accountability, averaged across 145 countries. The dip from 67 to 65 on a 100-point scale from 2010 to 2021 nearly erased an average gain of 3 points from 2000 to 2010.

“We will probably have a longish period ahead of us where democracy is on the defensive,” Anheier said, noting that countries including Russia, the United Arab Emirates and China are positioning themselves to be an alternative to democratic norms.

“What is the problem here? If they are successful in providing a quality of life that over time may approach what we have in the West, we are going to be even more on the defensive than we are now. That is what emerges in the data very clearly,” Anheier said.

While flagging performance by democratic governments could lead to calls for a more authoritarian approach, “very few people in established democracies will say, well, I just want to get rid of democracy,” said Nils Gilman, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Berggruen Institute. “What they want is for democracy to function better.”

The 2024 BGI was unveiled at a May 15 event at the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center. Anheier and BGI project manager and data scientist Joseph Saraceno presented the findings, then enlisted a panel of experts to offer insights and field audience questions.

The panel included Jody Heymann, director of the UCLA WORLD Policy Analysis Center; Georgia Kernell of UCLA’s political science and communications faculty; Brian Levy of Johns Hopkins University and UCLA Luskin; Alexandra Lieben, deputy director of the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations; and Michael Storper, director of Global Public Affairs at UCLA Luskin.

The Democracy News Alliance contributed to this report.

Read more about the 2024 Berggruen Governance Index.

Watch interviews about the BGI and view additional photos from the conference.


Berggruen Governance Index 2024

UCLA to Lead New Center of Excellence for Heat Resilient Communities The Luskin Center for Innovation, in collaboration with 50 partners, receives a first-of-its-kind federal grant to help guard against climate danger

By Mara Elana Burstein

We’re not prepared for rising temperatures. Heat poses a growing and inequitable threat to the health, economies and security of communities everywhere, yet heat governance remains underdeveloped, especially in comparison to other climate hazards.

The UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation (LCI) wants to change that. Under the leadership of its associate director, V. Kelly Turner, LCI has been awarded a $2.25 million grant to establish a Center of Excellence for Heat Resilient Communities. Funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS), the Center of Excellence will engage and support communities in determining the best strategies for local heat mitigation and management.

“Some communities have begun to plan for heat, but most lack the capacity or resources to engage in comprehensive planning,” said Turner, who leads LCI’s heat equity research and along with colleagues has long called for a coordinated national approach to heat resilience. “With this grant, we can help the federal government establish a robust, actionable and durable plan to support those efforts.”  

Turner’s co-leads for this project are Sara Meerow at Arizona State University and Ladd Keith at the University of Arizona. With more than 50 other partners committed, the grant will enable the creation of an international network of heat scholars and practitioners. One outcome will be a framework to identify and evaluate policies, protocols and lessons for heat resilience that can be applied in the U.S. and internationally. 

Thirty communities and tribal entities will be selected for direct technical assistance and comprehensive educational support during the three-year grant period. By centering equity in its approach, the Center for Excellence will systematically work with and fund historically excluded communities and help meet the Biden Administration’s goals under Justice40. This will broaden the impact and benefits of engagement, heat data and information, and other approaches, like benefit-cost analysis, to inform effective and equitable planning for heat resilience. 

The ultimate goal is to protect public health and well-being from acute and chronic heat dangers through equity-centered, data-informed, whole-of-government approaches to mitigate and manage heat in diverse communities and heat-exposure settings.

Funding for the Center of Excellence for Heat Resilient Communities is provided through the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and is part of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda. This is one of two new National Integrated Heat Health Information System centers of excellence. The complementary Center for Collaborative Heat Monitoring, to be led by the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C., will assist community-serving organizations in conducting local climate and health studies.

“The impacts of extreme heat caused by climate change are an increasing threat to our health, ecosystems and economy,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. “Thanks to President Biden’s ambitious climate agenda, this investment will support new NIHHIS Centers of Excellence to help protect historically excluded communities from the dangers of extreme heat, boost climate resilience and increase awareness on best practices to tackle the climate crisis.”

To learn more about how LCI research informs heat equity solutions to improve human well-being and quality of life where we live, work, learn and play, see LCI’s heat equity webpage.

Building Up Communities of Color Three Black real estate professionals committed to investing in low-income neighborhoods share their successes and struggles

By Mary Braswell

Former Los Angeles Laker Devean George’s second career as a builder of safe and affordable housing for communities in need was inspired, in part, by his conversations with children.

In his 11-year NBA run, including three championship seasons in L.A., George used his platform to connect with young people across the country — “to really open up kids’ minds to dreaming and thinking there’s another world outside their four walls.”

But the encounters often came with a reality check, George told a UCLA Luskin Lecture audience on May 9.

“I’m thinking to myself, I’m going to talk to kids and say, ‘Hey, eat your vegetables and you’ll grow like me and get good grades,’” he said. “And they don’t really know where their next meal is coming from or where they’re staying.

“They’re staying at Grandma’s house tonight or with their mom’s boyfriend tomorrow, or they’re somewhere else so they’re missing school.”

The stark need for safe, stable housing options across the country led him to create the George Group North development company and Building Blocks nonprofit in his hometown of Minneapolis. His first housing venture there includes a gathering space for youth, with homework help and food provided by the local school district.

At the Luskin Lecture at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown Los Angeles, George came together with two other Black real estate professionals to share the struggles and successes of building up neighborhoods of color.

Malcolm Johnson launched Langdon Park Capital in Los Angeles in 2021, with a focus on preserving and upgrading existing properties to house low- and middle-income families. He, too, transitioned into the real estate industry after a stint in professional sports, as a wide receiver for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Malika Billingslea is a senior development advisor to NEOO Partners, a commercial real estate firm based in St. Paul, Minnesota, that works to elevate Black voices in the industry. “This rings true every time I think about affordable housing: If you don’t ask me, it’s not for me,” Billingslea said.

The lecture was part of a larger conversation about housing development and social justice taking place at UCLA Luskin, which is launching a new master’s degree in real estate development in fall 2025.

Housing scholar Michael Lens moderated the dialogue, making this foundational observation: “If we’re going to have a conversation about Black people building housing in Black communities, we need to start by talking about why so few Black people are working in development, really in any capacity.”

Nearly 111,000 of the 112,000 real estate development companies in the United States are white-owned, and only 2% of their chief executive positions are held by Black men — “and surely the number is even lower for Black women,” said Lens, an associate professor of urban planning and public policy.

“That’s why it matters for us to be in the room — and not just in the room but making decisions,” said Johnson, who is a UCLA supporter through the Ziman Center for Real Estate.

He did point out that racial awareness can be a significant business asset when competing for capital.

“That is the reason that we’re able to make smart investment decisions in the Crenshaw District, Highland Park, Leimert Park, Prince George’s County, Maryland, the East Bay. We actually have on our investment committee people with cultural competency in those submarkets,” he said. “So it’s not just diversity for the sake of diversity. That’s what investors will respond to.”

Johnson’s company is named after the recreation center that served as the heart of the diverse Washington, D.C., neighborhood where he grew up. Now, each of the buildings he has refurbished bears the Langdon Park name.

“There’s something powerful about owning in your community … but the economics mean that there are far more renters by necessity today, and that’s who we serve,” Johnson said. “So our idea of ownership is how can you take pride in the building? … We provide amenities that meet their needs, just like you would have if you owned a single-family house.”

The panel offered up a wish list of policy changes that could remove barriers to housing justice.

Federal tax credits are supposed to encourage the development of low-income housing, Billingslea said, but “anybody that knows anything about tax code knows it’s ridiculously complex for no apparent reason.”

Intentionally or not, the system of bidding on projects often excludes small minority businesses, George said. The panelists called on lead developers to show diligence, flexibility and creativity to bring diverse talent into the fold.

Johnson said rent control ordinances can have the unintended consequence of curbing cash flow that can be reinvested in a building’s safety upgrades, renovations and tenant amenities, which then make the surrounding community more secure.

“Who’s ever been to a housing project and said, ‘This place looks like it has a lot of hope just because the rents are really low?’” he said. “That doesn’t work. A bunch of poor people with a low tax base means poor-performing schools, it means potholes that don’t get fixed, police that don’t show up.”

George underscored the impact of embedding social supports into housing ventures, a hallmark of his first model housing project in north Minneapolis, which opened in 2016. Professional athletes from around the country have asked George if he could help replicate the project in their own hometowns. And that’s why he now has housing projects in cities like New Orleans.

“Other football players and basketball players that I know were saying, ‘Hey, why don’t we get past the transactional things we’re doing for our communities, the turkey drives and the toy giveaways that are here today and gone tomorrow,’” George said. “What are we going to do for our community that can last? What can we do for our community that can be uplifting, bring more resources and provide jobs?”

Attended by government, nonprofit and philanthropic representatives, as well as students and members of the public, the lecture was co-sponsored by the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, the UCLA Bunche Center for African American Studies and the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate.

Watch a video of the event and view more photos.

Housing for Black People by Black People


Poco Kernsmith Appointed New Chair of Social Welfare Alumna will return to her doctoral alma mater this summer as a professor

By Stan Paul

Poco Kernsmith, a social welfare scholar from the University of Texas at Arlington, has been appointed to serve as the next chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare.

Kernsmith, who earned her PhD in social welfare at UCLA Luskin in 2002, currently serves as the doctoral program director at UT Arlington’s School of Social Work. Previously, she was a longtime faculty member at Wayne State University in Michigan, where she recently finished a second master’s degree in public health focused on public health methods.

Originally from Minnesota, she graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 1994 with a bachelor’s in psychology and women’s studies, then earned a master’s in social work at the University of Michigan in 1995.

“We are excited to welcome Poco to Luskin this summer,” announced Interim Dean Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris. Kernsmith will officially join the UCLA Luskin Social Welfare faculty as professor and chair on July 1.

Kernsmith said in an interview that she is looking forward to coming back to the Westwood campus after more than two decades and getting reacquainted with the Luskin School.

“Really, I want to understand this whole experience and the people who are in the School and the students, so that I can get a big-picture understanding of what’s happening now.”

Loukaitou-Sideris noted Kernsmith’s expertise in violence prevention, school-based violence interventions and intimate partner violence. Her research has received substantial funding and recognition from federal sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In 2020, she received $2.25 million in federal funding to strengthen violence prevention and response efforts in Michigan schools. Other CDC support has included a $1-million grant for Supporting Healthy Adolescent Relationships and Environments (SHARE), which explored causes of intimate partner violence and identified school connectedness, parental engagement, hopefulness and community involvement as important protective factors for preventing violence perpetration among youth.

Kernsmith’s current work involves the analysis of school policy to create inclusive, trauma-informed environments to prevent and respond to violence or threats of violence in middle and high schools. Other areas of her research include sexual health education, hate-motivated violence and domestic terrorism.

“She will also bring her leadership experience in directing the PhD program at UT Arlington for the past two years and her experience for 20 years prior to this, as a scholar, teacher and faculty member at Wayne State University School of Social Work,” Loukaitou-Sideris wrote in a memo announcing the appointment.

Kernsmith said she is also interested in mentorship and best practices related to graduate and doctoral students — as well as faculty — over their careers, explaining that people who are just starting out or new to a position are generally the only ones considered for mentorship.

“Mentorship is something we need across our lifespan … any time you are making a change to the next step in your career and even into retirement,” she said. “Every transition brings new questions and new opportunities.”

For Kernsmith, one of the biggest challenges in education is promoting respectful dialogue and a free exchange of ideas from different perspectives.

“How do we engage in our intellectual curiosity to better understand separate perspectives when the issues are so heated and emotional? … It’s always a balance.”

Kernsmith will step into a leadership position held by Laura Abrams, professor of social welfare, for seven years. Under Abrams’ leadership, the program saw its reputation grow, achieving the No. 8 standing among social work programs nationally in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings. During that time, UCLA Luskin Social Welfare also hired more than a dozen new faculty and graduated hundreds of skilled practitioners and scholars.

“It has been an honor to serve as the department chair in social welfare for the past seven years … and it is now time to pass the baton,” Abrams said. “I am thrilled that Dr. Kernsmith, an alumnus of our PhD program, will be joining us in the fall as our next chair.”

L.A. Mayor Focuses on the Need for Housing Solutions During UCLA Luskin Summit Karen Bass visits campus to join discussions on the value of research about issues like homelessness, climate resilience, governance and equity in transportation

By Les Dunseith

On April 17, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass was the featured speaker as scholars, civic leaders and the philanthropic community came together to discuss policy issues during the sixth annual UCLA Luskin Summit.

What was on her mind? Housing.

Bass, who declared homelessness a state of emergency immediately upon taking office as mayor in December 2022, told the more than 300 people in attendance at the UCLA Luskin Conference Center that her office is now turning more attention to longer-term solutions after initially emphasizing urgency in getting unhoused people off the streets.

“It is not reasonable for somebody [needing shelter] to be able to stay around while we get housing built,” she said of the challenge to provide shelter for people in need amid an ongoing affordable housing crisis.

The mayor’s remarks were delivered during a discussion with Jacqueline Waggoner MA UP ’96, the current chair of the Luskin School’s Board of Advisors. Waggoner, who is the president of the Solutions Division for Enterprise Community Partners, said she was heartened by the mayor’s intense focus on homelessness, given the magnitude of the problem in Los Angeles.

Bass, a former congresswoman who now chairs the Homelessness Task Force for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said that meeting with mayors around the country presents an opportunity to learn from others, and for other cities in the United States to benefit from what is being done in Southern California. She had announced a new housing initiative based on a program in Atlanta two days before speaking at the Luskin Summit.

“I feel good in terms of what we can do and how we should move forward,” said Bass, who then emphasized, “the biggest question is scale.”

two men in ties sit on stage as one speaks

During an on-stage interview by ABC7’s Josh Haskell, left, the results of the ninth Quality of Life Index were unveiled by UCLA’s Zev Yaroslavsky. Photo by Stan Paul

Concerns over housing affordability was also a key takeaway from the ninth annual Quality of Life Index, which was publicly unveiled in the opening session of the 2024 Luskin Summit. The project at UCLA Luskin is directed by former Los Angeles public official Zev Yaroslavsky, now an adjunct faculty member at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Concerns over the high cost of living pushed the satisfaction of Los Angeles County residents back to its lowest-ever level, according to the annual survey, which received coverage as breaking news by media outlets that included the Los Angeles Times, area radio stations and the local affiliates of all four major U.S. broadcast TV networks.

More than half of respondents, or 59%, cited housing as the most important factor in their rating. During a Q&A moderated by reporter Josh Haskell of ABC7 in Los Angeles, Yaroslavsky pointed out that renters are feeling especially pessimistic about their futures.

“In our survey, we found that 75% of renters do not think they will ever be able to afford to buy a home in a place they’d like to live in Los Angeles County. Think about that — more and more people in our region see the American dream of homeownership slipping away,” Yaroslavsky said.

Yaroslavsky’s remarks were followed by six breakout sessions that examined timely policy issues from the perspective of scholarly research originating at the Luskin School and its affiliated research centers.

Summit attendees heard about studies and policy proposals in climate resilience, governance and equity in transportation. Panels made up of UCLA Luskin scholars and experts from the public, private and nonprofit sectors took on pressing issues affecting Los Angeles and beyond:

  • What strategies can governments adopt now to help communities withstand rising temperatures?
  • How is the Southland voter pool changing in this election year, and how can Los Angeles better provide representation for its 3.8 million people
  • How are government agencies and nonprofits meeting the transportation needs of the region’s most disadvantaged people?

Much of the conversation was guided by research conducted by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, the Institute of Transportation Studies, the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and the Latino Policy and Politics Institute.

The session with the mayor was the final session of this year’s Luskin Summit. For about an hour, Bass answered questions and engaged in conversation with Waggoner, a native Angeleno with a longtime connection to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).

Since Bass took office, Waggoner said she has noticed visible change in the homeless population. In the past, she would see people leave the streets, only to return soon after.

“I haven’t seen those same people in a year, and what I would say to you is that you are on the path to permanent solutions,” Waggoner said to Bass.

“But I’m never satisfied,” replied Bass, a former social worker. She understands that people experiencing homelessness need not just roofs over their heads, but social services.

“I come at it with a bias because my background is in health care, and I just think we need to do much, much more,” Bass said.

She noted that mental health is something that people often talk about in connection to the unhoused population, but treatment for chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer are also important and deserve attention.

“I feel that health needs to be at the center,” Bass said.

Waggoner said that with homelessness spreading “in every neighborhood, people want to do something about it.”

Noting UCLA Luskin’s public-private partnerships with organizations like Hilton Foundation, a Summit sponsor, Waggoner asked Bass about the role of businesses and other groups in helping to get people into permanent housing.

“We are a state of unbelievable wealth. We have many, many, many billionaires that live in the city, tons of multi-millionaires who do phenomenal charitable work,” Bass responded. “I feel good that we’ve been able to align the public sector. But now we need the private sector, we need private money … to expedite the building” of more affordable housing.

Relying on public money can be a slow process because of regulations, construction approvals and the need to juggle multiple funding streams.

“A private developer comes in and can get the development going,” Bass explained. “So, we are hoping that we can do a capital campaign. Everybody knows capital campaigns — buildings get built.”

During her discussion with Waggoner and the 25-minute audience Q&A that followed, Bass also talked about the city’s LA4LA plan to partner with private donors and business to purchase existing properties, including major hotels, to develop its system of long-term interim and permanent housing.

Noting the scale of the problem and an audience consisting of scholars, philanthropic leaders and community organizations, Waggoner pointed out that many people will need to play a part for Bass to realize her vision of a housing solution in Los Angeles.

“Everyone needs to have skin in this game,” Bass said.

The annual event is organized by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs under the guidance of its Board of Advisors, and naming benefactors Meyer and Renee Luskin were among those in attendance. The event was supported by gifts from 12 local charitable organizations and businesses, many of which have been sponsors since the first Luskin Summit in 2019. This year’s theme was “Transformative Action.”

Mary Braswell and Stan Paul also contributed to this story. 

See additional photos on Flickr:

UCLA Luskin Summit 2024

Watch a recording of the mayor’s discussion with Waggoner and the audience Q&A on our Vimeo channel:



L.A. County Residents’ Satisfaction With Quality of Life Matches Lowest in Year 9 of Survey High cost of housing is the most important factor impacting the annual Quality of Life Index, particularly among renters

By Les Dunseith

Concerns over the high cost of living pushed the satisfaction of Los Angeles County residents back to its lowest-ever level, with renters feeling especially pessimistic about their futures, according to an annual UCLA survey.

The Quality of Life Index, or QLI, is a project of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs  that measures county residents’ satisfaction in nine categories. The overall rating fell two points from last year to 53 on a scale from 10 to 100, marking the second time in three years it came in below the survey’s 55 midpoint since the index launched in 2016. That means a majority of respondents are dissatisfied with the overall quality of their lives.

fever chart shows rating change over time

The cost-of-living rating dropped from 41 to 38, the lowest satisfaction score ever observed for any category in the survey. Although all major demographic subgroups rated the cost of living negatively, the lowest scores came from women, 36 (33 from those 50–64 years old) and Latinas, 36 — as well as renters, 35.

Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the study at UCLA, said renters, who make up nearly half of survey respondents, are being disproportionately affected by the economic and inflationary pressures facing the region. More than half, or 59%, cited housing as the most important factor in their rating.

“Housing costs have gone up,” Yaroslavsky said. “And incomes have not gone up anywhere near commensurate with what’s happened to housing.”

While 61% of homeowners feel optimistic about their economic future in Los Angeles County, 51% of renters report being pessimistic. Only 23% of renters think they will be able to buy a home where they would want to live at some point in the future.

pie chart shows only one in four renters expect to buy a home eventually


This year’s survey also produced striking results on the issue of homelessness.

“We discovered very little optimism about whether the current programs and efforts to eradicate homelessness will work,” Yaroslavsky said.

More than half, or 60%, of respondents said homelessness in their area has gotten worse over the past year, with only 10% saying it has gotten better. Just 20% are more hopeful than they were last year that the homelessness situation in Los Angeles County will improve.

Respondents were also asked whether they worried about becoming homeless themselves, with the highest levels of anxiety expressed by people living in households earning less than $60,000 annually at 44%, renters 37% and African Americans 33%.

“Despite the best efforts of state and local officials, the public is more negative and less hopeful about solving homelessness,” Yaroslavsky said.

In an election year, do such findings signal possible voter upheaval?

“It feeds an overall sense that things aren’t working well,” said Yaroslavsky, a former elected official. He framed this year’s results in the context of nearly a decade’s worth of research showing positive results for neighborhood quality and racial/ethnic relations, but low marks in categories commonly associated with decisions by public officials.

“A main theme over the last nine years is that Angelenos love the neighborhoods where they live. We appreciate diversity and get along with others better than some people think. And the quality of life for most of us is pretty good,” he said. “But at some fundamental level, people think our governmental institutions are letting them down.”

The QLI showed minor changes from the previous year in most categories, although satisfaction with education fell three points to 48, the second-lowest score behind cost of living. While transportation/traffic jumped eight points in importance from 2023, it remained among the three lowest categories in quality-of-life importance.

Among Angelenos who are employed, 55% are working full time at a workplace away from their home. Of those, 59% of Latinos, 64% of African Americans, 63% of men over age 50 and 63% of Latino men always work away from home.

The last year has seen a modest decline in most ratings for elected officials.

  • Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna is viewed favorably by 34% and unfavorably by 26%. Last year was 37% favorable and 21% unfavorable.
  • Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass is viewed favorably by 42% and unfavorably by 32%, a drop from 46% favorable and 23% unfavorable in last year’s QLI.
  • Respondents had a slightly favorable view of the city councils in their cities: 37% favorable and 32% unfavorable. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is viewed more negatively: 27% favorable and 35% unfavorable.

Regarding the environment, 25% of respondents said climate change had a major impact on their quality of life in the last year; 38% saw a minor impact. The 2024 QLI also asked about the availability of air conditioning: 75% of Angelenos have it in their homes but with substantial variation by region, income and race/ethnicity.

  • Some of the differences likely relate to climate patterns: 48% of residents in the ocean-cooled South Bay communities have air conditioning compared to 92% in the hotter San Fernando Valley.
  • Residents most lacking in air conditioning, 40%, are at the lowest end of the income scale (under $30,000 per year), compared to just 11% for those making over $150,000 per year. And 30% of renters do not have air conditioning.

This year’s QLI is based on interviews conducted in English and Spanish with 1,686 county residents from Feb. 22 to March 14. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 3%.

Funding for the Quality of Life Index is provided by Meyer and Renee Luskin through the Los Angeles Initiative. The full report is being published April 17 as part of UCLA’s Luskin Summit.

View the report and other information about this year’s study, plus previous Quality of Life Indexes, on the website of the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies.

text with report name and a map of Los Angeles County