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Alumnus Looks Back on UCLA Social Welfare in the Turbulent 1960s Mickey Weinberg MSW '69 on his education and career as a grassroots organizer and advocate for the disadvantaged

Mickey Weinberg earned his Master of Social Welfare at UCLA in 1969, a year when the country was divided by war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon arrived in the Oval Office and humans first set foot on the moon. Trained in grassroots organizing, Weinberg was well-positioned to be of service to disadvantaged communities at a turbulent time.

An Ohio native, Weinberg earned his bachelor’s in political science from University of Cincinnati in 1963, then headed to New York’s Columbia University to study law. Realizing this was not his calling, he left Columbia and took a job at Manhattan State Hospital, where he worked for close to two years before returning to University of Cincinnati for graduate courses in poli sci. In the autumn of 1966, he came to UCLA to continue his graduate education, eventually switching to Social Welfare and its program on community organizing.

His classmates were an impressive group, Weinberg recalls. They included Maury Samuel, a minister nicknamed Father Sam who had delivered food to distressed neighborhoods during the Watts riots, and June Sale, who introduced Weinberg to historic East Los Angeles and later became prominent in the field of child care services.

Weinberg’s career path led to Los Angeles’ federal veterans affairs hospital, where he spent nearly three decades. He helped many Vietnam veterans secure housing and other services, all the while challenging the medical model of mental health. He has continued this advocacy since his retirement in 2000.

This year, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of social welfare education at UCLA, Professor David Cohen, associate dean of UCLA Luskin, spoke at length with Weinberg to hear about his days as a student in the ’60s and his long career as an organizer and medical social worker. The interview was edited for space and clarity.

On the experiences that drew Weinberg to a career in social work:

As an undergraduate student, I worked in the summers in Cincinnati playgrounds, first as a maintenance man but later as a play leader, as they called it. I recall a lot of Appalachian kids there, they could relate to me, and at the end of the day, when the swimming pools were drained, perhaps for polio reasons, we would sit on the edge of the pool and talk quietly. Cops were often called to the playgrounds because the teenage boys were rowdy, but they were never called to my playground. Later, my work at Manhattan State Hospital changed my life — not only because of the harmful things I saw, but the good things, too.

On his recollections of a boy named Frank, born in Manhattan State Hospital and confined to the hospital grounds after his mother died:

Frank was very upset because he didn’t want to stay there all the time. He wanted to get into Manhattan, but couldn’t because someone had written in his chart that he was homicidal. The reason: He had one possession, a transistor radio, and they took it away from him as punishment and he blew up. I went to the psychiatrist in charge of male patients, and I said “This is a good kid, it can’t be good for him to spend his whole life in this place. What do you think about letting him do what he wants to do?” So we did it. The kid’s going back and forth between the hospital and Manhattan. Very quickly he got a job as a bicycle messenger. He joined a church. They loved him in the church, he got adopted by a family, he could leave the hospital. So what I learned from that as a twenty-something-year-old, is that sometimes the best thing you can do for hospital patients is get off their back.

On his education in grassroots organizing at UCLA Social Welfare:

There were just six of us in that concentration, and I recall that we were very separate from the rest of the students. Our grassroots group met almost exclusively with Warren Haggstrom. He was an incredible teacher. The way he talked about power, the simple and clear language that he used, was inspiring. Part of his pitch was not only about the use of power, but how to talk to people. But we didn’t just talk. He took us out to Delano, where he introduced us to farm workers and their organizer Cesar Chavez. I recall that we were frisked and patted down before meeting Chavez, indicating the nature of the situation.

On a student walkout organized by Weinberg and his classmates:

We wanted some changes, so we organized a walkout of all the students. Haggstrom told us later that he thought we would never do it, couldn’t pull it off. But it was he who gave us the tools and confidence to make it happen. What we wanted was more minority students admitted. There was only one Black student in our grassroots major. We also wanted curriculum change. My friend and classmate Jack Carney and I were on the phone every night to pull it off. I remember that we wanted to make sure that older students in the program, there were a few, would be on the picket line. We wanted our faculty to notice, we wanted people who walked on campus to notice. One measure of its success was a meeting the faculty had with Black students in the School to discuss increasing minority enrollment, a meeting that was open to everybody.

On his Social Welfare field placements:

My first-year placement was in East L.A. at welfare rights offices. I spoke to a lot of moms, moms of schoolchildren, moms who were worried about drug dealers in their neighborhoods. My second-year field placement was at the Veterans Administration, and it grew out of a summer job when I worked in what they called the domiciliary, where vets lived who had no other place. It was during that summer job that I met George Katz, a psychologist who had supervised psychology students there. He learned of my background working in the state hospital and that I was skeptical of psychiatry, and he took me under his wing. After my placement ended and I graduated, they hired me to organize the people living in board and care homes. Because at that time, we had decided to redefine helping these people, into helping people learn how to help themselves. Essentially, to organize them.

On his work on a grant-funded project to organize residents of board and care homes, many of whom had been labeled mentally ill:

We put a classified ad in the L.A. Times, looking for former psychiatric patients interested in organizing to meet with us. We got a meeting room somewhere in Hollywood, and I recall a woman in that group, very quiet, who hardly ever spoke at meetings. But people thought she was intelligent, and it was suggested she take minutes of meetings. Later, she and her husband had to leave the state, and she approached me and said, “I want you to know that I was planning to commit suicide, and if it hadn’t been for how respectfully and kindly I was treated in these meetings, I would not be alive today.” People can be helped in many ways. Another learning experience for me.

On learning the power of teaching people to advocate for themselves:

At the board and care homes, we organized people to do what they wanted to do — if there was vermin in the board and care homes, if the food was bad. For the first weeks, all I did was sit around, just observing. And you know, they’d come up to me, and say, “What are you doin’ here?” I’d say: “I’m here to help.” This went on for six weeks. They’d come back, insisting, “What d’you want to do?” And me: “Well, what do you want to do?” And they said whatever their problems were, and then I said, “Oh, you want to do it. OK. If you want to do it, help me get the rest of the people who live here together, and we’ll have meetings.” And we had meetings, and what we did was to find ways to have meetings with the ownership, to solve problems. When it was over, some state people researched it and found that the people who were in the organizations were much more confident than those who weren’t, and they were better able to function and solve their own problems. Because that’s what we talked about: how to solve the problems. No talk at all about mental illness or anything. It was just: you have a problem and let’s all figure out a way to resolve it.

‘Have the Courage to Create the World We All Deserve to Live In’ Commencement speaker Michael Tubbs challenges UCLA Luskin's Class of 2023 to use their education for the greater good

By Mary Braswell

Savor the moment, then get to work.

That was the Commencement Day message from anti-poverty advocate Michael Tubbs, who called on UCLA Luskin’s Class of 2023 to use their education and training to restructure society from the ground up, with justice as a guide.

“We’re here not because of what you’ve done but who you will become and how you will use the precious gift of this UCLA education,” Tubbs said. “We need you all to have the courage to imagine and create the world we all deserve to live in.”

Tubbs spoke to public policy, social welfare and urban planning scholars earning advanced degrees at a morning ceremony on June 16 at UCLA’s Royce Hall. In the afternoon, he addressed students awarded the bachelor of public affairs at a festive gathering on the patio of Kerckhoff Hall.

Tubbs made history in 2016 when he was elected the first Black mayor of Stockton, California, at age 26. He recalled his own educational journey as a first-generation graduate of Stanford University, and offered this reminder to UCLA Luskin’s newly minted BAs, MPPs, MSWs, MURPs and PhDs:

“The alphabets behind your names don’t mean you’re better than people … and dare I say they don’t even mean you’re smarter than the people who raised you,” he said. “But what it does mean is that you’re better equipped to serve. It does mean you’re better able to self-actualize. It does mean you’re better positioned to use your privilege and your access to do some good.”

This year, more than 420 students earned bachelors, master’s and doctoral degrees from UCLA Luskin. Interim Dean Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris offered congratulations while also underscoring the stakes at play as the national election cycle is now picking up steam.

“You are taking your places in the workforce during a critical time not just for America but for the entire world. Who are we as a people? What are our values? Will we make the right decisions to better all of society? …

“As I look at you, I take comfort. I know you have been well prepared,” Loukaitou-Sideris said. “I trust that you will remain dedicated to a future in which geography, income, gender or race have little bearing on an individual’s ability to access opportunity and have a fulfilling life. I can’t wait to see all that you will accomplish.”

At each commencement ceremony, students delivered greetings in different languages, 16 in all, a reflection of the School’s cultural diversity. Four students were selected by their peers to offer words of inspiration: Chinyere Nwonye of Public Policy, Jhorna Islam of Social Welfare, Antonia Izuoga of Urban Planning and Mina Anochie of the Undergraduate Program.

In his remarks, Tubbs urged the graduates to make the most of both the triumphs and the inevitable disappointments in life. As Stockton’s mayor, he led a program of reforms to reduce poverty, provide scholarships to students, bring down the homicide rate and improve the city’s fiscal health — yet his bid for reelection in 2020 failed.

The defeat ultimately led to an important realization: “Your job, your title, your accolades — that’s a means to an end … but your purpose remains the same.”

Tubbs went on to join the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom as special advisor for economic mobility and opportunity, and is widely viewed as a rising star in progressive politics. He is a leading advocate for a guaranteed basic income to provide stability to American households, and last year he founded End Poverty in California, a nonprofit devoted to breaking the cycle of income inequality.

“Today is such a wonderful day because it’s a mountaintop day. It’s one of those days where everything comes together,” Tubbs told the graduates. “But I submit to you, over the course of the next several decades of your life, every day won’t feel like this day. …

“As you figure out what it is you want to do, maybe your purpose, maybe part of what you’re supposed to do, will be found in the pain you’ve experienced, in the things that make you angry, in the things that feel unfair, in the things your parents had to experience.”

Tubbs advised the students to take the long view as they work toward change. As a younger man, he had the privilege of meeting Bob Singleton, a UCLA alumnus and one of the original Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who boarded buses to Southern states to challenge segregation. Singleton was arrested for his actions on June 4, 1961. The same day, Barack Obama was born.

“He said he had no idea that the choice he made as a 21-year-old UCLA graduate to do something to change the world would pave the way so that 50 years later a child born with no opportunity would have the chance to be president,” Tubbs said.

“Class of 2023, the question before you all today as you get your degrees is what are you prepared to do today, tomorrow and next week so that 50 years from now, we’re not having the same conversation? So that 50 years from now we don’t have hundreds of thousands of people in our state sleeping in tents right next to luxury apartments and mansions? … So that 50 years from now, we live in a country that’s deserving of your talent, of your time and of your treasure?”

View photos and video from the UCLA Luskin undergraduate commencement ceremony:

Commencement 2023: Undergraduate

View photos and video from the UCLA Luskin master’s and doctoral commencement ceremony:

Commencement 2023: Graduate

 

Fernando Torres-Gil, a Lifetime of Service and Resiliency  As an educator and public official, the UCLA Luskin professor has spent four decades 'finding a silver lining' amid life’s misfortunes  

By Stan Paul

Fernando Torres-Gil has worn many hats — including a stylish white fedora he favors — in a long career as an educator and as a public official dating back to the Carter administration. 

As UCLA Luskin Social Welfare celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding, Torres-Gil will retire after more than three decades helping to advance the School’s educational mission as a professor of social welfare and public policy. He has served as chair of Social Welfare, associate dean and acting dean, as well as founding director of UCLA’s Center for Policy Research on Aging. 

Comparing his early years to the tale of “Forrest Gump,” Torres-Gil said the travails of his “personal circumstances created unexpected opportunities for higher education.”  

His mother, Maria, made education “the first, second and third priority,” Torres-Gil said. “Growing up in Salinas, California, as the second of nine siblings to Mexican farmworkers and an extended immigrant family from Mexico created the likelihood that none of us would go beyond farmwork,” he said. “Factory jobs, at best.” 

And yet, Torres-Gil, his siblings — and later their children — would gain admission to Brandeis University, UCLA and five other University of California campuses, Pomona College, Cal Poly Pomona, San Jose State, USC and Occidental. 

family photos show siblings as children and adults

Family photos show Torres-Gil with siblings as a child and adult.

His mother became an expert at navigating community services. She fought fiercely to avoid foster care and to keep her family intact despite poverty and the “drama and challenges of her circumstances,” which included Fernando contracting polio at six months and becoming unable to walk.  

“To our everlasting gratitude, … after many years of surgical interventions and rehabilitation, I acquired a modicum of mobility,” Torres-Gil said. “This led to key milestones that informed my academic journey.”  

In the 1950s and 1960s, higher education was rarely an option for the children of working-class families from Mexico. Most young Latinos from public housing projects like him ended up in the military, fighting in the Vietnam War. But Torres-Gil’s disability put him on a different course — community college, then San Jose State, where he excelled academically and was active in the Chicano movement.  

Torres-Gil had few role models at the time for the next step — graduate school. “We knew of no Chicanos/Latinos from our region that had ventured afar for graduate education,” he recalled.  

He wound up studying social policy and management at Brandeis University near Boston because he could continue working with the United Farm Workers there to promote a lettuce and grape boycott in New England. He went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees from Brandeis.  

Torres-Gil chose the emerging fields of gerontology and  geriatrics as his emphasis after attending the 1971 White House  Conference on Aging. He remembers skeptical Chicano friends  in Boston questioning his choice to work with old people, calling  it “depressing” and asking how he would find a job. Fifty years  later, he said, they “are all elders and deeply interested in all things about aging.”   

His circle of contacts expanded to include the Jewish, Irish, Italian and Portuguese communities in New England, and those connections later led to high-level policy and governmental positions. He earned his first presidential appointment in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the Federal Council on Aging. Over the next few decades, he held staff positions or advisory roles during the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  

As a scholar at both USC and UCLA, his mantra has been to prove himself as an “independent scholar with original ideas” respected by peers. 

Torres-Gil’s research has focused on the politics of aging, health care and long-term care reform, and disability policy. He has continued to provide expertise on aging to elected officials about the intricacies of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act. 

“This has given me a most satisfactory career as a scholar, public servant and policy entrepreneur,” said Torres-Gil, who was recently elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.   

During retirement, he plans to continue being an advocate for older adults, the disabled and the homeless, although mostly at the local level.  

He also wants to continue teaching part time, offering the type of advice to students that has exemplified his own life — to view difficult situations as learning opportunities.  

“Never let misfortune keep you from achieving greater resiliency and … finding a silver lining,” Torres-Gil said. “For any bad breaks I may have had, I’ve had a lot of silver linings.”

Opening Doors of Opportunity for Undocumented Students Spearheaded by two UCLA Luskin master's students, a campaign to establish the right to work puts public policy coursework into action

By Mary Braswell

Two UCLA Luskin master’s students are putting their public policy education into action to advocate for equal opportunities for undocumented students — and their work is already paying off.

Last fall, Carlos Alarcon and Karely Amaya spearheaded a campaign known as Opportunity for All, which called on the University of California to remove hiring restrictions for all students, regardless of immigration status.

Backed by labor, legal and education experts across the nation, the campaign laid out a strategy that upended prevailing interpretations of a 1986 federal law that had blocked employment opportunities for undocumented immigrants.

In May, hundreds of students from up and down California carpooled to UCLA to show their support at a rally during a meeting of the UC Regents. During a public comment period the following day, speakers donned Opportunity for All T-shirts to stand in solidarity.

“Just to see the sea of blue — it was beautiful,” said Amaya, who delivered an impassioned statement to the regents that day, along with Alarcon and other advocates.

At the close of the session, the board voted unanimously to find a pathway to enact the groundbreaking policy. It established a working group that set out to tackle the legal and political ramifications within six months.

“Absolutely, it is our intention to find a way to allow employment opportunities for all our students, regardless of their immigration status,” Regent John A. Pérez said after the meeting. “This is too important to get wrong.”

‘This could set a huge precedent for what happens next.’ — Student leader Karely Amaya

Alarcon and Amaya credited the vast array of forces that came together to create a campaign that ended in “yes.” The UCLA Labor Center and UCLA Law were key allies that provided expertise and resources, and endorsed the strategy of letting undocumented students’ voices lead the way.

“The beauty of our campaign was that we weren’t looking at this just through the lens of student organizing. We weren’t looking at it just through a lens of the law and immigration and labor law,” Alarcon said. “We were also looking at it through the lens of politics,” aware that the window of opportunity to act on immigrant rights would be impacted by the 2024 U.S. presidential contest.

Lessons learned in their public policy coursework helped shape the campaign, the students said.

“This showcases the incredible policy work our students are engaging in outside of the classroom,” said Kevin Franco, director of student affairs for UCLA Luskin Public Policy. “The work that Carlos and Karely are doing is crucial.”

The student leaders, each of whom came to the United States as young children, had been speaking out on behalf of the undocumented population for years. Their paths first crossed when they were undergraduates, Alarcon at UC Riverside and Amaya at UCLA.

Both were part of the 2021 Dream Summer fellowship program, hosted by the UCLA Labor Center’s Dream Resource Center to empower immigrant youth to address the needs of their community. And both were accepted into the Master of Public Policy program at UCLA Luskin, Amaya in her first year and Alarcon preparing to graduate this week.

At UCLA, they launched the Undocumented Student-Led Network, uniting peers from across the UC campuses, and settled on their top priority: allowing students to work so that they could sustain themselves, pay tuition and continue their education.

“Our message was, ‘Hey, we’re your students. You accepted us into this prestigious university. You put us on your brochures. But I don’t have the same opportunities as my classmates,’” Amaya said.

As a participant in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Alarcon is eligible for a work permit. But Amaya is one of tens of thousands of California students who were shut out of DACA after it was halted during the Trump administration and remains tied up in the courts. As a result, she said, she was unable to accept an offer to work as a graduate student researcher, which would have fully covered her tuition.

The Undocumented Student-Led Network set out to address that inequity, and quickly learned that UCLA Law was already on the case. Its Center for Immigration Law and Policy had developed a novel legal theory arguing that individual states are not bound by the decades-old federal law barring the hiring of undocumented residents.

Twenty-nine respected immigration and constitutional law professors from universities around the country signed a letter endorsing the legal analysis, a pivotal part of the campaign’s multi-pronged approach.

“We realized that it’s going to take a whole strategy, an implementation plan,” Amaya said. “We’re going to organize undocumented students. We’re going to build power. We’re going to continue reaching out to the media to report on this, and we’re going to meet with state legislators, nonprofits, different actors. We need all of our allies to show up for this.”

Their efforts paid off. The October launch of the campaign was accompanied by a New York Times piece laying out the issues. A nonprofit donated $30,000, allowing the team to purchase shirts, banners and other campaign materials aimed at underscoring their message and building community. Momentum grew, leading to the UC Regents’ action on May 18, which made headlines across the country.

The vote means the students’ work will continue. Representatives from the Undocumented Student-Led Network and other student organizations plan to meet regularly with the regents’ working group. And Alarcon and Amaya have high hopes that California will be a model for action that eventually opens the door of opportunity for students beyond its borders.

“This could set a huge precedent for what happens next,” said Amaya.

Capstone Projects Tackle Complex Social Issues Clients explore tough policy decisions with help from graduating UCLA Luskin students, including those in Urban Planning 

By Les Dunseith  

Antonia Izuogu, a second-year urban planning student, came to UCLA with an interest in affordable housing, and as a Bohnett Foundation fellow, she has had an opportunity to participate in initiatives relating to homelessness for the Los Angeles mayor’s office. 

“I was homeless at one point, actually twice, within my childhood,” Izuogu said. 

But when the time came to choose a topic for her required capstone research project, Izuogu chose to pursue an emerging interest in the community development side of urban planning, particularly work cooperatives. She ended up doing a feasibility study for a partner group of the Downtown Crenshaw Rising community organization. 

“My capstone and my mayor’s work didn’t really touch each other — they’re just two passions of mine that I was able to work on this past year,” Izuogu said.

Read about Graham Rossmore’s capstone on al fresco dining and its influence on policy in L.A.

Throughout the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, soon-to-graduate students pursue monthslong deep dives into pressing policy issues with social relevance. In the Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) program, the capstone experience may involve individual students like Izuogu working with community groups, government officials or public agencies to investigate real-world policy issues.

Other MURP candidates work in small teams or participate in one of two longstanding group-learning opportunities — the Community Collaborative and the Comprehensive Project classes.

The Community Collaborative is a unique pairing of students with community-based organizations in need of the expertise that academic researchers can provide. In turn, the students benefit from the insights of activists and others with lived experiences, fostering a mutual learning experience. 

This year’s Spatial Justice Community Collaborative course was taught by Professor Ananya Roy, and it focused on issues relating to life in homeless encampments. Class participants included individuals who had been among the unhoused populations at encampments forcibly cleared by law enforcement.  

The second group option is the Comprehensive Project class, which is a more traditional group project experience led by a faculty member who directs student researchers through an examination of a complex policy issue. Interested students had to apply nearly a year in advance to be admitted to the class, which this year focused on heat equity under the direction of Gregory Pierce BA ’07, MURP ’11, PhD ’15, an adjunct associate professor of urban planning and co-director at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation.

The client for the class of 13 MURP students was Marta Segura, chief heat officer and director of the city of Los Angeles’ Climate Emergency Mobilization Office, which is known informally as CEMO. Segura and her staff are developing strategies for Los Angeles’ efforts to deal with rising heat from climate change in an equitable manner. 

“The work that CEMO is doing is really important, and they have a huge mandate, particularly on heat,” Pierce said. “But they have very little actual staff capacity to do a lot of the research they need to do.”

The office’s agenda is driven by nonprofit and community-based organizations, which “aligns with the social justice orientation of the Luskin School, for sure,” Pierce said. 

The students, whose research has also been guided by Ruth Engel, project manager for environmental data science at the Luskin Center for Innovation, have divided the task into three subtopics — cooling centers, emergency response and bus shelters. Their final report was due to CEMO on June 9, just one week before UCLA Luskin’s commencement. 

Pierce said the report commends Los Angeles for being at the forefront of government efforts on extreme heat, but it notes room for improvement in terms of action and having systems in place to ensure public safety and equitable distribution of resources. 

“This is a pretty new space for a lot of cities, so it’s in its early days,” Pierce said of the strategic planning. “But there’s a lot of work to do to really follow through on what needs to be done as it gets hotter all the time.”

Among the students’ recommendations: 

  • increasing cooling center density in underserved areas of the San Fernando Valley and Harbor Gateway;
  • developing heat responses in cooperation with unhoused residents and their advocates to better meet their needs; 
  • utilizing more expansive definitions of heat emergencies and heat warnings, with lower heat thresholds than existing city policy;
  • shifting the priority for bus shelter development — often guided in the past by political considerations or the revenue potential of shelter advertisements —  toward geographic equity, thus prioritizing the placement of shelters in hotter neighborhoods with high numbers of bus riders.

Among the bus shelter group was Miguel Miguel, a second-year urban planning student who grew up in an area of the San Fernando Valley that often sees dangerously high temperatures. 

“I grew up seeing people suffer from what happens without adequate heat protection. It was really important for me to be involved, and to bring lived experience and emotional compassion into this project,” Miguel said. He said the capstone experience helped position him to play a role in shaping the nature of environmental justice in Los Angeles moving forward.

young woman in blue jacket gestures while talking about research shown on poster to her right

Pearl Liu’s capstone research looked into safety issues on public transit in San Francisco. Photo by Les Dunseith

Equity was a foundational element of many urban planning capstone projects completed this year, including one by Pearl Liu. Her capstone project focused on public transit safety issues among women and gender minorities.

An international student, Liu was accustomed to getting around her home city of Taipai, Taiwan, via ready access to a clean, safe public transit system. She didn’t find the same conditions in Los Angeles or San Francisco, where she did an internship with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, or SFMTA. 

“As a woman, and living without a car at all for two years in L.A. and also in S.F., I totally understand how women feel when they travel,” Liu said. “I have all these struggles. I have all this … built-up anger and complaints. I hope to change all these things as a transportation planner.”

At SFMTA, she had an opportunity to become familiar with a grant-funded gender equity initiative. During the internship, she started building a transit safety survey that eventually led to her capstone project.

The survey was launched through the Transit app for riders of San Francisco’s public transportation system, known as the Muni. Within a month of launching, a total of 1,613 people had filled out the survey. 

“Sexual harassment is a very common experience for many transit passengers, but especially to women and gender minorities  —  transgender people and those with non-binary gender identities,” Liu said. 

Another MURP, Greer Cowan, worked with Liu on the survey about Muni usage and travel patterns among women and gender minorities in San Francisco, with special attention paid to riders’ experiences. Gender-based violence can include inappropriate swearing or leering, as well as physical assaults. Were the survey respondents victims? If not, had they witnessed it? If so, where? When? Was it on a train, a streetcar or a bus? While riding or while waiting for a ride? Night or day? And so on.

Cowen focused on the reporting of incidents, noting that many people only tell their friends or family, so authorities have insufficient data to take action. Liu’s capstone focuses more heavily on how respondents feel about their safety, and where incidents occurred.

Among gender minorities, more than half of respondents felt the least safe at a bus stop, for example. But for male and female transit users, harassment and the fear of it happening was more intense during transit rides, particularly on buses. 

She did a spatial analysis of the data, overlaying the incident maps with the transit lines and transit stops, and produced a “heat map” to determine places with higher concentrations of incidents of gender-based violence. The bus system showed the most problems.

“It is mostly happening in the downtown area,” she found. “A lot of it was on Market Street,” in the financial core of San Francisco.  

Therefore, her capstone recommends that safety and equity initiatives by the SFMTA focus heavily on bus routes near Market Street. She also advocates for a safety toolkit for women and gender minorities. A transit ambassador program to monitor stops, stations and vehicles could focus more attention on buses. And the No. 1 suggestion to benefit women and gender-minority riders? Install more lighting.

“That always — always — is something that we’re pushing for,” Liu said. “Most people … feel at least somewhat safe during the daytime or when a station is well-lit.”

Liu said the capstone project helped refine her career aspiration. 

“This project … it really sparked an interest in me in how safety is so important in public transit,” Liu said, “and I feel like that has given me a passion to want to work in this area in the future.”

In some cases, the capstone projects serve as a reality check for the client organizations. Such was the case for Izuogu’s research for Downtown Crenshaw Rising. 

Her capstone project focuses on cooperative ownership, or co-ops, as a means to foster economic development in lower-income areas. The project was built on work that had been done by the previous year’s Community Collaborative class  — a project that ended up being recognized by the American Planning Association’s Economic Development Division for its Student Project Award. 

That project had recommended several possible ways to improve economic conditions in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles, and her client was interested in the possibility of creating a cooperatively owned manufacturing facility in the area. 

Izuogu is a native of North Carolina who had gotten her undergraduate degree at Spelman College, a historically Black college in Atlanta, Georgia. She was excited for an opportunity to familiarize herself with a neighborhood like Crenshaw with a sizable Black population and do work that might benefit its residents.

“I was like, ‘That sounds really interesting, and I want to work with Black communities, too,’” Izuogu remembered thinking. 

two Black women pose in front of a poster about a research project

Antonia Izuogu, right, had an opportunity to discuss her research with Eve Fouché, who represented the project’s client during the poster event at UCLA. Photo by Les Dunseith

Her feasibility study reflects the Crenshaw group’s interest in launching an eco-friendly manufacturing site for electric vehicle charging stations to take advantage of incentives created by the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Biden initiated in 2021.

“I didn’t know much about clean energy before coming [to UCLA] or about working with co-ops. At the same time, I’ve been taking economic development classes,” she said, “so everything was … fleshing out well together.”

Once she delved into the data, however, it became apparent to Izuogu that manufacturing electric vehicle charging stations was not the best option for the group. They lacked startup financing. No one in the group had experience building charging stations, nor connections within the industry. That led to the reality check. 

“As a consultant, I’m saying that maybe we should take a pause on that,” Izuogu said. Her capstone report suggests that the group instead create a co-op to install such stations and maintain them as part of a long-term strategic plan that would start small — a bakery/restaurant co-op is already in the works — and build over time into a hub for economic activity. 

Izuogu said her client expressed gratitude for her insights. 

“They like the idea that I didn’t stop and just say, ‘OK, this is not a good idea. Goodbye,’” said Izuogu, who has urged the group to think beyond Year 1. “Let’s go further than that. And they’ve been very appreciative of the information.”

The capstone project also helped inform Izuogu’s future plans. She will be pursuing a law degree, envisioning a career focusing on “solidarity economy lawyering,” helping small businesses and worker co-ops organize, drafting contracts and successfully navigating government regulations. 

Izuogu is a big fan of the UCLA capstone requirement.

“I love how they’re community-based, and this is not just a theory, but we’re actually applying what we’re learning in the classroom,” she said. “I love that I had the opportunity — even though I’m not from L.A. — to benefit the residents here. And getting to know their names and, basically, that we’re continuing this connection between academic institutions and the residents around them.”

View photos of other individual capstone projects in Urban Planning in this Flickr album:

Careers, Capstones and Conversations 2023

Click the links below to view photos from the numerous other capstone project presentations at UCLA Luskin this year:

Comprehensive Project class

Community Collaborative class

Public Policy’s Applied Policy Presentations

Master of Social Welfare capstones

Undergraduate Public Affairs capstones

Click here and enter “capstone projects” to find stories from previous years and other information about student research at UCLA Luskin.

Aspiring Urban Planner Chews Into Use of City Property for Outdoor Dining Graham Rossmore’s research has already influenced Los Angeles policy decisions

By Les Dunseith

In recent months, UCLA Luskin graduate Graham Rossmore has become a go-to expert for Los Angeles officials who are studying the economic pros and cons of continuing the al fresco dining that sprang up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Does the economic benefit of allowing outdoor dining on public property outweigh a loss of revenue from, say,  parking meters?

Rossmore received his master’s degree in urban planning in June 2023, and he dove deep into that question and a host of related ones as part of his capstone project at UCLA Luskin. He found that, indeed, continuing outdoor dining would outweigh a loss of various revenue sources — along with a whole bunch of other benefits.

“Al fresco encourages more people walking, or people choosing to take alternative modes of transportation — and enjoying their neighborhoods,” Rossmore said.

Throughout UCLA Luskin, capstone projects like those in Urban Planning offer a chance for soon-to-graduate students to wrap up their UCLA education with a monthslong examination of a timely public policy issue. While student researchers often work with local government agencies as their clients, few have the opportunity to influence citywide policy decisions immediately. But that’s what happened for Rossmore.

An American born in Canada, Rossmore lived without a car for much of his 15 years in California. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, he began his urban planning studies with a focus on rail and bus transportation — which led him to a course taught by Donald Shoup, the distinguished research professor at UCLA Luskin who is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on parking.

“For whatever reason, parking policy speaks to me,” Rossmore said.

Shoup’s class gave Rossmore the opportunity to explore whether cities should continue what had begun as a temporary COVID-19 response — converting outdoor public spaces into al fresco dining spots. He focused on the Rustic Canyon neighborhood of Pacific Palisades, where he lived at the time.

The number of off-street parking lots there outnumbered restaurants, and when restaurants converted some of that parking into al fresco dining, they took it seriously.

“They spent a lot of money,” Rossmore said. “They have lights. They have fixtures. They’ve got heating. They’ve got seats.” He said some restaurant owners he interviewed in spring 2022 told him they had doubled their sales and expanded their customer bases.

A summer internship followed with the office of Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian, who is now council president. One connection led to another, and Rossmore soon found himself working part time on the city’s Al Fresco Dining program in the parking meters division of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

young person with beard and checkered shirt stands in front of poster about curbside dining

Rossmore and other students pursuing master’s degrees in urban planning present their capstone research findings during a poster session each year. Photo by Les Dunseith

The project helped inform his capstone project, and vice versa. He learned the ins and outs of sales tax, of which 99% goes to the state, while typically 1% is remitted to the city. Yet Rossmore found that the al fresco dining generated enough tax revenue to offset lost revenue from parking meters.

During presentations to LADOT leaders and city officials, Rossmore has highlighted many of the broader benefits of al fresco dining for local municipalities: Greater sales tax revenue represents higher overall economic output, which means happier business owners, customers and city officials.

He also discovered another plus of outdoor dining: More residents tend to eat closer to where they live, which brings all the benefits associated with reduced vehicle use.

“And when we take away parking spots, restaurants haven’t reported a lack of customers or people coming in and complaining, ‘I don’t dine here anymore because I can’t park,’” Rossmore said.

Rossmore’s capstone report analyzes three formats for al fresco dining — on sidewalks, on streets in formerly metered spaces and in private lots — each of which entails its own regulatory considerations. Sidewalk dining, for example, falls under the purview of the Department of Building and Safety because of the need to meet safety codes and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On-street dining is the focus of LADOT’s roadway dining initiative, and an LADOT report that cited Rossmore’s findings was sent to the Los Angeles City Council, recommending that businesses be allowed to offer curbside al fresco dining, so long as they pay a fee that would help offset lost parking revenue.

Even with his capstone project complete, Rossmore, who also serves on the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, has continued researching the subject. He has also analyzed the costs and benefits of al fresco dining in several other corridors — Larchmont Village, San Pedro, Westwood Village, the NoHo Arts District in North Hollywood and Venice’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

“The sales tax in 2022 in most of these corridors is almost double pre-pandemic levels,” said Rossmore, noting that other parts of the city that lack al fresco dining, like Hollywood and Studio City, are collecting significantly less sales tax revenue than they were before COVID-19. “That suggests that the al fresco program not only was successful in keeping the businesses afloat — so that they didn’t close during the pandemic — but it also increased sales tax for the city and generated more profit for the restaurants overall.”

Rossmore also was asked to present his capstone research to officials at the Department of City Planning, which is developing the ordinance for outdoor dining in private, off-street parking lots. On April 27, he presented findings that only around 3% of al fresco dining was in on-street metered spaces.

“My client and I were able to speak at the public hearing and to demonstrate how off-street dining is the lion’s share of the program,” Rossmore said.

Soon after, the City Planning Commission issued a letter of determination to create a path for businesses to make outdoor dining a permanent feature. And the city’s chief executive has weighed in.

“Al fresco shows us a better way that supports small businesses, creates jobs and adds vibrancy to our neighborhoods,” Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement. “I directed city departments to work together to make this a permanent al fresco program that incorporates everything that made the temporary program successful and to make the process simple and easy to navigate for our restaurants.”

Two years ago, Graham Rossmore had no inkling he’d find himself telling city officials why it makes sense to convert public spaces into outdoor dining spots.

“In my personal statement to get into UCLA Luskin, I didn’t say, ‘Leaving this program, I’m going to be a parking expert,’” he said with a smile of satisfaction. “But that’s where I’ve ended up.”

View additional photos from Careers, Capstones and Conversation, a showcase of each year’s individual urban planning projects

Careers, Capstones and Conversations 2023

Toasting Social Welfare’s Diamond Anniversary Alumni, faculty, students and friends gather to celebrate 75 years of advancing justice

The UCLA Luskin Social Welfare family came together May 6 for an evening of festivity and reflection to celebrate a memorable milestone: 75 years since the study of social work began at UCLA in 1947.

Alumni, faculty, staff and friends from across the decades joined current students at the gala event at the UCLA Luskin Conference Center, the culmination of a yearlong lineup of special events in honor of the anniversary:

  • A fall gathering of Social Welfare PhD students and doctoral alumni highlighted the research and scholarship aimed at advancing justice in both society and academia.
  • A reception in winter quarter honored the many community groups and agencies that have guided Social Welfare students in field placements over the decades.
  • And a special UCLA Luskin Lecture by Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell put a spotlight on the alleviation of poverty, a key focus of the social welfare discipline.

The importance of field education was underscored at the spring gala with the presentation of the 2023 Joseph A. Nunn Social Welfare Alumnus of the Year award to Gerardo Laviña MSW ’86. Laviña, the longtime director of field education, is retiring at the end of the academic year. His award was presented by field faculty Larthia Dunham and Laura Alongi MSW ’92.

Adjunct Professor Jorja Leap MSW ’80 emceed the gala, which included a welcome from UCLA Luskin’s interim dean, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, as well as perspectives shared by Laura Abrams, chair of Social Welfare; Rosina Becerra, professor emerita and former dean; current MSW student Elisse Howard; and alumni Stephen Cheung MSW ’07 and Diane Terry MSW ’04 PhD ’12. Adjunct Assistant Professor Khush Cooper MSW ’00 PhD ’10 raised a champagne toast to end the formal program and invite guests to the dance floor.

Read about 75 years of social welfare education at UCLA, including an account of the program’s “finest moment” during the Los Angeles riots.

Read profiles of key figures in UCLA Social Welfare’s history:

  • Rosina Becerra, former dean and professor emerita
  • Jack Rothman, professor emeritus
  • Joe Nunn, professor emeritus
  • Gerry Laviña, director of field education
  • Coming soon: Fernando Torres-Gil, retiring professor of social welfare and public policy

Watch a video celebrating the importance of field education at UCLA

View photos from the gala on Flickr

SW 75th Anniversary Gala

L.A. County Supervisor Advocates ‘Poverty Disruption’ at Luskin Lecture Holly Mitchell wants to reweave the social safety net with an equity focus in the wake of COVID-19 and the stark inequalities it exposed 

By Les Dunseith

Poverty has been a cornerstone of the professional life of Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell as an elected official and in her prior work within child and family welfare organizations. Today, she is at the forefront of next-generation approaches that she thinks could fundamentally dismantle poverty in our society.

Speaking on the UCLA campus during a May 3 Luskin Lecture organized by the Luskin School of Public Affairs, Mitchell urged a crowd of faculty, staff, alumni and students to rally behind a current movement that goes beyond simply strengthening the social safety net.

“I think we have to reweave it, reimagine it and remake it to serve with equality, inclusion and humanity,” Mitchell said. “We have got to be as intentional about equity as previous generations have been intentional about exclusion.”

Organized in conjunction with a yearlong 75th-anniversary celebration of social work education at UCLA,  Mitchell was invited to speak because her focus on poverty coincides with the Luskin School’s mission.   

Social work was born as a profession to respond to poverty and inequality in society, said Laura Abrams, professor of social welfare and department chair, in her introductory remarks. Yet, social services programs like welfare and food stamps “have too often been coercive and judgmental, [with] caste stigma and population stereotypes racialized and inflicting harm on communities.”

Since being elected as a supervisor in 2020, Mitchell has pushed help for disadvantaged communities as a countywide priority, and her office’s effort to ensure that equity is a centerpiece of the local COVID-19 recovery plan has been held up as a national model.

In the wake of the pandemic, public officials have access to what Mitchell described as a “once-in-a-generation onslaught of public funds called COVID-19 recovery dollars.” Past tradition in L.A. County would have meant simply splitting those dollars equally among the five supervisorial districts. That made no sense to Mitchell. 

“From my perspective, it’s really pretty simple math: Those who have been disenfranchised and hit the hardest deserve the disproportionate investment in their recovery,” she said. 

This led to the creation of the first-ever countywide equity formula and public dashboard to ensure that federal dollars reach those most impacted by the pandemic. The L.A. County formula incorporates economic, social and environmental factors to identify the communities with the highest need, so far allocating $1.9 billion to 120 projects from the Antelope Valley to East L.A. to South L.A. and beyond. 

“For many of these neighborhoods, it’s the first time that government puts them at the front of the line for investments,” said Mitchell, who led one of the largest private, nonprofit child care and development corportations in California, Crystal Stairs, before entering politics and going on to serve in the California Assembly and Senate.

‘The era of invasive and patronizing social welfare in L.A. County is over,’ says Holly Mitchell.

A centerpiece of her policy history has been fighting against so-called benefit cliffs — eligibility restrictions on social services benefits that can trap people into cycles of poverty just to remain eligible for public assistance.

During her time at Crystal Stairs, Mitchell said, “my most painful days” related to working mothers faced with the prospect of losing public assistance because a work promotion would put them “pennies, literally, over the eligibility limit. And they were having to decide whether to walk away. ‘Do I keep this $3,000-a-month childcare voucher? Or do I take this promotion at work?’” 

Eliminating such dilemmas requires radically new approaches, Mitchell said.

“The era of invasive and patronizing social welfare in L.A. County is over. I’ll put the final nail in that coffin right now,” she said, prompting supportive applause from the UCLA audience.

“Research has shown us that things like work requirements and impossible barriers to eligibility do nothing to truly address poverty. It just continues to criminalize poverty,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to go beyond, in my humble opinion, poverty alleviation and focus on poverty disruption.”

Central to her poverty disruption agenda for L.A. County is a pilot program called Breathe L.A., which is one of the largest guaranteed income programs in the nation. Since March 2022, it has been providing 1,000 Angelenos with $1,000 a month. The payment will continue for three years, no strings attached, for randomly selected participants who are 18 years or older and have been negatively affected by the pandemic.

Assistant Professor Judith Perrigo is among the researchers at UCLA Luskin helping to evaluate Breathe L.A., joining scholars currently evaluating similar guaranteed income efforts across the nation and around the world. 

Mitchell said that early results of that research belie the misguided perception put forth by opponents attempting to cast doubt on whether recipients will spend the money wisely.

“What’s the No. 1 thing participants in Breathe L.A. have spent the money on?” Mitchell asked the crowd, pausing a moment to let her listeners think about an answer. “It’s food. Food and basic necessities to feed their families. And making sure one less child is going to bed hungry, I believe that’s a good thing.”

After her prepared remarks, Mitchell was joined on stage by Perrigo for a Q&A session. “You have fire inside of you,” Perrigo told Mitchell, then invited her to describe where she finds the courage to advocate for poverty approaches like guaranteed income that have a history as political lightning rods.

Mitchell stressed the public servant aspect of her role, saying she thinks about the new mothers among her constituency who dream of creating a better life for their children. 

“Everyone has the right to have that dream. And the role of our society is to not create barriers to lift those possibilities,” Mitchell said. “When I think about things like that, it gives me the courage to go against the grain and fight.”

She recalled her effort in Sacramento to do away with a state provision that penalized low-income families receiving cash aid for having another child. After three frustrating defeats, she found success on the fourth try.

It will take similar perseverance to make guaranteed income a cornerstone of social services policy. 

“It’s a righteous fight,” said Mitchell, urging supporters in the audience to look at the gradual rollout of guaranteed income efforts as “an opportunity to expand your warrior base of people who will fight.”

She noted that the basic idea of guaranteed income is not new — Martin Luther King Jr. was a proponent, in fact. Decades later, it’s only now taking hold.

“It’s a movement,” said Mitchell, comparing Breathe L.A. to today’s bedrock public aid programs like Medicare and Social Security. 

“Those were, in their time, cutting-edge, innovative concepts around income security,” she said. “When I think about those game-changing, life-saving policy initiatives that I’m sure had a very rough start also, I believe we can get there.” 

The name, Breathe L.A., implies providing the means to weather a crisis — a little time to breathe — directly to people facing financial hardship.

Perrigo noted the popularity of the idea among lower-income, underserved communities and their advocates. But how will policymakers like Mitchell persuade skeptical taxpayers? 

 “If we are able to create healthier communities, safer communities, everybody benefits,” Mitchell said. 

Public education is also necessary. 

“It’s trying to acknowledge and help [skeptics] understand they started out 10 steps ahead, and this other community is trying to catch up. I think it’s important to have those kinds of conversations,” she said, “because that’s the honest truth.”

Mitchell is also a board member of LA Metro, and in response to a question from the audience, she said her priority for public transportation in the county is bus service “because that’s what a lot of our poor rely on.”

Eventually, she said, her goal is an entirely fareless bus system. For now, she takes heart in the success of Metro’s GoPass pilot program, which has provided more than 241,000 youths a free transit pass since it launched as a pandemic recovery measure in October 2021.

“The data … on school attendance is mind-blowing,” Mitchell said. “For some of us, it may be hard to imagine that $1.75 can stop a lot of people from going to school, but it can. Our K-12 ridership is double the pre-pandemic numbers.” 

Much of Mitchell’s presentation focused on touting accomplishments, but she acknowledged that L.A. County has no shortage of problems yet to be solved. Homelessness is a primary ongoing concern, “and we are 500,000 housing units short in L.A. County,” she said. “So, we have to build.”

Mitchell acknowledged that reality leads to difficult conversations. Want to stir up a political hornet’s nest? There’s no surer way in Los Angeles than going to a community homeowners association and talking about building more densely in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes, she said.   

“People will roll up on me, and it’s, ‘What do you do about the homeless?’ And I say, ‘Well, as soon as you tell me how you are willing to have the composition of your own block change, I’ll tell you what I’ll do about the homeless,’” Mitchell said. 

“It is our moral dilemma,” she said. “And only when we have decided that we are sick and tired of being sick and tired — and that we’re not going to allow people to live like this anymore — can [developers, public agencies and governments] expand and build the diversity of housing that people need.”

View additional photos on Flickr:

UCLA Luskin Lecture With Holly Mitchell

Robert Fairlie Appointed Chair of Public Policy at UCLA Luskin Distinguished scholar has nearly three decades of teaching and research in the University of California system

By Stan Paul

Robert Fairlie, longtime professor of economics at UC Santa Cruz and a distinguished senior scholar, has been recruited to serve as the next chair of UCLA Luskin Public Policy.

Fairlie, a member of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), is a “prominent and prolific scholar who brings with him a strong portfolio of research interests, a record of policy-relevant and impactful research findings, and an overall commitment to social justice,” said Interim Dean Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris in announcing his appointment.

“Robert Fairlie is one of the most productive and most cited economists in the world,” said Mark A. Peterson, a past chair and current interim chair. “He personifies the ideal public policy faculty member, generating robust evidence on major issues of the day using sophisticated and innovative research and communicating directly with policymakers to inform their decision-making.” Peterson is a professor of public policy, political science and law.

Fairlie’s research has been published in leading economic and policy-related journals. Topics include public policy, entrepreneurship, education, information technology, labor economics, developing countries and immigration, typically with close attention to the implications for racial, ethnic and gender inequality.

He has strong ties to the state, arriving in California at age 2 and growing up in San Jose. He attended Stanford University, earning a bachelor’s in economics. He previously held visiting academic positions at Stanford and UC Berkeley. He also serves on the Faculty Council of the UC Sacramento Center.

Outside California, he has held visiting appointments at Yale and Australian National University. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Northwestern University.

A new book on entrepreneurial job creation and survival — seven years in the making — will soon be published with MIT Press. Fairlie and his co-authors at the U.S. Census Bureau created a new dataset to track the universe of startups in the country — the Comprehensive Startup Panel, or CSP.

“We find that startups, on average, create fewer jobs and have lower survival rates than previously documented,” Fairlie said.

The COVID-19 pandemic also has determined the direction of some of his research, which has had substantial academic and policy influence.

“At the start of the pandemic I realized that, from all the work that I had done in the past, I was in a good position to compile and analyze data on the first impacts of COVID-19 on racial and gender inequality in business ownership, unemployment and work effort,” he said.

As the pandemic progressed, Fairlie said he also became interested in the $800 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), examining whether PPP funds were distributed proportionately to communities of color and finding delays in equitable distribution.

Fairlie said he recently has been routinely contacted by both the U.S. President’s Office and Vice President’s Office for an update on his research findings amid the pandemic’s continued impact on racial inequality in entrepreneurship.

“My latest research that goes through December 2022 shows promising improvement in the number of Black, Latinx and Asian business owners,” he said. “For all three groups, business owner levels are higher now than where they were at before the pandemic started. In contrast, the number of white business owners is down from pre-pandemic levels.”

Fairlie’s award-winning research and efforts to inform policymakers in California have also garnered recognition. He has provided testimony before the California State Legislature on several occasions. A joint resolution from the State Assembly and State Senate commended his “innumerable achievements and meritorious service to the State of California and beyond.”

On the national stage, Fairlie has testified before the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Department of the Treasury. He has received funding from the National Science Foundation, National Academies and Russell Sage Foundation, as well as numerous government agencies and foundations. Most recently, his work was cited in the 2023 edition of the “Economic Report of the President.”

Fairlie is regularly interviewed by print and online media about economic, education, small business, inequality and policy issues.

Fairlie’s scholarly work will continue when he takes his new post this summer.

“Luskin is an amazing place with so much timely and important research going on. I look forward to contributing to those efforts as part of the team,” he said. “I am also looking forward to working at one of best and most exciting universities in the world.”

Shining a Light on Hidden Corners of Environmental Injustice Catherine Coleman Flowers fights for the health and dignity of rural communities where water and sanitation systems are failing

By Mary Braswell

Catherine Coleman Flowers calls it “America’s dirty secret” — the lack of decent sanitation systems in many rural communities where residents must live alongside their own sewage.

It’s a public health calamity that takes the highest toll on poor people of color, and Flowers has made it her life’s calling to shed light on these appalling conditions found in one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

Her work, which began in Lowndes County, Alabama, where she grew up, has now become a national movement with echoes around the world, vaulting her into the top tiers of environmental advocacy and U.S. policymaking. Flowers shared the triumphs and frustrations of her journey, and the work yet to be done, with a UCLA audience as part of the Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture Series on April 27.

“Catherine has found that the problems of inadequate water and sanitation infrastructure reach across rural America, including California, and these problems … are tied deeply to systems of racial and class oppression,” said Megan Mullin, professor of public policy and faculty director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, as she introduced Flowers to a packed room at the university’s Kerckhoff Hall.

In addition to founding the nonprofit Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, Flowers has received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and serves as vice chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. A week before her Luskin Lecture, she introduced President Joe Biden as he signed an executive order making environmental equity a priority of federal agencies.

Flowers works with policymakers, researchers and advocates around the country, earning her a spot on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in 2023. But she told the UCLA audience, “I’m better being out in the community because that’s where my strength is, to help people tell their stories when they wouldn’t be listened to otherwise. …

“Who wants to talk about sewage coming back into your home? Most people won’t do that,” she said. “But now we have to because we don’t have a choice.”

‘Is it possible that there could be diseases in the United States that American doctors are not trained to look for? Because we have not even acknowledged that we have a problem of sanitation in this country.’

Flowers told of impoverished rural communities where residents are by law responsible for disposing of their sewage. Some people own septic tanks that have fallen into disrepair, pushing waste back into sinks and bathtubs. Others simply cannot afford the systems and instead pipe their sewage underground or onto nearby land.

At times, those with substandard waste systems are hit with fines or imprisonment in a system that reveals the interplay of economic, health and criminal justice inequities.

The sanitation emergency has been made more acute by climate change, with its flooded coasts and rising water tables, Flowers said. And the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted public health risks that threaten rural and urban areas alike.

“One of the things that COVID has taught us is that we have to deal with these issues or the next disease is not going to come from China and a wet market, it’s going to come from somebody’s wet backyard that has sewage on the ground,” she said.

Flowers told of a rash she developed after being bitten by mosquitos near a pool of untreated sewage. Her doctor and a dermatologist could find no cause and offer no relief, so she contacted an infectious disease expert.

“Is it possible that there could be diseases in the United States that American doctors are not trained to look for?” she asked him. “Because we have not even acknowledged that we have a problem of sanitation in this country.”

The experience led Flowers to partner with researchers on a peer-reviewed study of the health of Lowndes County residents. It revealed that a third of those tested had been infected by hookworm, an intestinal parasite associated with poor sanitation and thought to have been eradicated in the U.S. decades earlier. The findings were covered by media around the world, and the United Nations special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights came to Alabama to investigate.

“The people of Lowndes County, by speaking up and telling the truth, have given a lot of other people permission to talk about these problems as well,” Flowers said.

Her Luskin Lecture was followed by a dialogue with Mullin and Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, who shared both his professional expertise and lived experience as a native of the rural Eastern Coachella Valley.

The panel spoke about the key role of research and data in shaping equitable policies, and the new technologies that could lead to solutions in places where water and sanitation infrastructure is failing.

Esquivel described the state’s decision to pay off hundreds of millions of dollars in water bill debt that built up during the pandemic in low-income households. The stakes were too high to ignore, he said.

“That lack of access to sanitation and drinking water could actually create a system where you could lose your house, you could lose your kids if your water is shut off,” Esquivel said. “There are huge consequences for those at the bottom of the system.”

Flowers said her organization is speaking with NASA engineers to determine whether technologies used to create waste management systems in space could inspire new innovations on the ground.

“We decided that we’re not going to just wait on someone to change policy. We’re going to reengineer the septic tank. And we’re looking to collaborate,” she told the UCLA audience.

“We need your ideas. Because this is not just an Alabama problem. It’s a California problem too.”

View photos from the lecture on Flickr.

 

Coleman Flowers Luskin Lecture