‘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 drew 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.

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

 

Social Welfare Rises to Top 8 in U.S. News Rankings Luskin School also continues to rank among the nation’s top graduate schools overall in public affairs

UCLA Luskin’s overall ranking this year remains among the top public affairs graduate schools in the nation based on the latest U.S. News & World Report ratings released today, including a boost in ranking among social work programs to No. 8.

The School’s Social Welfare program moved up a notch nationwide, sharing its No. 8 position with Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas, Austin. Among public universities, the UCLA Luskin Social Welfare program is now one of the top 5 nationwide and remains among the top 2 in California.

“It is an honor to be rated so highly by our peer institutions for our master’s in social welfare program, and that our ranking continues to climb,” said UCLA Luskin Social Welfare Professor Laura Abrams, who has served as chair for the past seven years. “Our program’s mixture of pedagogy, cutting-edge research and opportunities for leadership continue to attract an amazing group of motivated MSW students. I am very proud to see our program acknowledged on the national stage.”

The School — with graduate departments in Public Policy, Social Welfare and Urban Planning, and a Public Affairs undergraduate program — also received high marks for subcategories that include urban policy (No. 7), social policy (No. 6) and public policy analysis (No. 14).

“Our rank among top Public Affairs schools in the nation is a reflection of our commitment to excellence in research, teaching, and service to the community,” said UCLA Luskin Interim Dean Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris.

These latest rankings are calculated from qualitative ratings on academic quality submitted by top officials at colleges and universities. U.S. News surveyed deans, directors and department chairs representing 271 master’s programs in public affairs and administration, and more than 300 social work programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of the Council on Social Work Education. The National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work supplied U.S. News with the lists of accredited social work schools and programs, plus the respondents’ names.

See the full list of the 2024 U.S. News & World Report Best Graduate Schools. Read more about the public affairs ranking methodology.

The Power of Lived Experiences Three alumni share the personal stories that impact their policy efforts on homelessness — ‘the greatest moral and humanitarian crisis of our lifetime’ 

By Les Dunseith

Lourdes Castro Ramírez entered college as one of nine children from a tight-knit working-class family that had migrated from Mexico when she was 4. She had no idea how that background would guide her career as a policymaker focusing on housing affordability. 

“As a first-generation college graduate, I did not intend to get into this field,” Castro Ramírez recalled March 7 during a Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture Series event that included State Sen. Caroline Menjivar MSW ’18 and Assemblymember Isaac Bryan MPP ’18. “In fact, I didn’t even know that this field existed.”

Now Castro Ramírez is the point person for Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass on housing and homelessness, working on an issue that has reached crisis proportions after too little national policy attention for decades.

“I do feel that there is hope. We are now finally seeing housing policy in action, getting the attention that it requires,” the 1996 UCLA urban planning master’s graduate told faculty, students, alumni and others at the Luskin Conference Center.

“Homelessness is the greatest moral and humanitarian crisis of our lifetime,” Bryan said. “We’re at a crisis position even though [California has] more billionaires than anywhere in the world. But that is the Los Angeles that we have created. 

“And it didn’t just happen. I don’t want to believe it was on purpose because it would be too painful to believe that somebody wanted tens of thousands of poor and disproportionately Black people sleeping on our streets,” he said. “I don’t want to believe that it was intentional. But neglect isn’t an excuse to not make it right.”

Bryan represents a district near the 405 and 10 freeways mostly to the east and south of UCLA that includes some of the L.A.’s wealthiest neighborhoods — and some of its poorest. He talked about the irony of needing to raise money by speaking to rich donors in the mansions of Beverly Hills and then returning to his rented apartment in a modest-but-affordable neighborhood just a few miles away. 

He has experienced housing precarity first-hand, including during his UCLA education. 

“I remember walking across the stage on graduation day. I was very proud. I was very excited,” Bryan recalled. “And there was a faculty member in the audience who knew that I couldn’t pay my rent that month. And she wrote the personal check to make sure that I could stay afloat till I found a job.”

Bryan was able to get his UCLA degree in part because he received a grant from the David Bohnett Foundation, which seeks to improve society through social activism and since 2007 has been providing awards that include a position in the L.A. Mayor’s Office for three selected fellows. Longtime adjunct instructor and UCLA Luskin Board of Advisors member Michael Fleming is the founding director of the Bohnett Foundation. He served as the moderator for a Q&A with Castro Ramírez, Bryan and Menjivar, who like Bryan is a former Bohnett fellow and a master’s degree recipient from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. All three talked about income disparity and how their personal experiences relate to affordable housing issues in California.  

Menjivar said her large family of Salvadoran immigrants struggled to make ends meet while living in one- or two-bedroom apartments in low- to middle-income communities like Tarzana. Her mother worked as a house cleaner. 

“I would commute to school and sometimes get a ride from my mom,” Menjivar recalled. “She would drop me off — her firstborn, first-generation student at UCLA, the No. 1 public university in the world — and then she would go down the street to clean a mansion.”

That perspective is never far from her mind.

“Now, I represent 1 million people in the state legislature, looking to bring more affordable housing,” said Menjivar, whose district includes Burbank and many working-class neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley. “So, when [policymakers] talk about eviction protections and housing affordability, I don’t just speak on it. I’ve lived through that.”

Their lived experiences affect the decisions that Menjivar and Bryan are making and the issues they choose to advance as elected officials in Sacramento. Both have been involved in efforts tied to their backgrounds in public policy and social services. (Menjivar noted that, like herself, Mayor Bass was educated as a social worker.) 

In prepared remarks that preceded the panel discussion, Castro Ramírez spoke about her fondness for UCLA and why she was happy to accept the speaking invitation.

“Just walking into this space and seeing UCLA in the background, and seeing so many people I know here, just makes me really proud of my parents, where I come from and this university that invested in me,” she told an audience that included current colleagues on the Luskin School’s Board of Advisors.

It was a UCLA professor who first encouraged her to look into affordable housing as a potential career path, she said, and that led to roles as a practitioner and policymaker at the municipal level in Ventura and San Antonio, at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama administration, and later in Sacramento as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s secretary of the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency. 

“And now I’m back in L.A., back to my hometown … and working on the issues that are really important and critical to our city, to our state, and to our country as chief of housing and homelessness solutions,” she said.

Castro Ramírez spoke about harmonizing federal, state and local government efforts, a process that the mayor’s office characterizes as “locking arms” to address the housing crisis.

The overall number of people falling into homelessness continues to outpace the number who are being housed, but this is not because individual efforts have been unsuccessful. 

“In fact, there are incredible nonprofit organizations, housing authorities, housing groups who are doing amazing work,” she said, noting that a supportive housing approval process that used to take six months now takes an average of 43 days. Almost 14,000 affordable units have been approved for Los Angeles. 

“This is what the intersection of policy and programming implementation looks like, being able to move with a sense of urgency, being able to implement the idea that having a place to call home is fundamental,” Castro Ramírez said. 

Public service can be frustrating work, charged with philosophical disagreement and subject to constant second-guessing often motivated by political opportunism. Fleming asked the panel what makes the aggravation worthwhile. 

“I want to make my community, my city, my state, my country better. And that is an awesome privilege that I try to never take for granted,” said Bryan, noting that his chief of staff is another Class of 2018 UCLA Luskin graduate, Caleb Rabinowitz. “And when we walk out of the Capitol, we can kind of ask ourselves, ‘Is the state better this week because we were here?’” 

Menjivar said she is motivated by her family history. 

“My mom came to this country for a better future for her kids not knowing that the future for our family tree would lead from house cleaner to state senator in one generation,” she said.

But there have been hurdles along the way, and that’s also a motivation.

“I was born with what I call the Triple L — a lady, a Latina and a lesbian. So you can imagine I have a handful of stories around discrimination, around facing barriers and overcoming them, and I know that others helped in getting me to the point that I am now.” 

Her lived experiences are vital to her success.

“I think about every barrier that I went through to get to this point, every ‘No’ that I got, even when I was running for office. And for every “No’ that I was given, I’m here now to ensure that other people like me don’t get those ‘Nos’ anymore.”

Castro Ramírez said she is grateful to have gone “to an amazing university and to step into a role that I never thought that I was prepared to step into.”  Glancing at her fellow alumni, she continued, “And I’ve been able to see the power of our collective ability to make change and to make a difference.”

She paused for a moment, then spoke again, softly. 

“I guess the last thing — and the reason I’m hesitating is because, you know, this is a very personal reason for me — I am the mother of three children. I had a son; he was 11 years old when he passed away due to cancer. He was really an incredible, talented individual who craved … leaving his mark in this world. And that didn’t happen.

“And I feel like every day that I wake up, every day that I show up to work, show up to address the work that needs doing, I feel like I’m showing up for him.”

The UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs hosts the Luskin Lecture Series to enhance public discourse on topics relevant to the betterment of society. This presentation was also part of an ongoing series of events in the 2023-24 academic year to commemorate 25 years since the first graduating class from UCLA Luskin Public Policy was sent into the world equipped to make changes for the better.

View photos of the event. 

Luskin Lawmakers

UCLA Hosts Its Largest Activist-in-Residence Cohort Five advocates for social change will be on campus through May to ‘turn the university inside out’

By Les Dunseith

The UCLA Activist-in-Residence program welcomed five more changemakers — the largest cohort in the program’s seven-year history — to campus with a reception Jan. 24 at DeCafe in Perloff Hall.

The UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, which has selected at least one activist since 2017, is hosting community organizer Ron Collins II and revolutionary writer Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia during this academic year. 

The UCLA Asian American Studies Center, also a longtime participant in the program, is hosting writer and social justice educator Shengxiao “Sole” Yu

In its second year with the Activist-in-Residence program, cityLAB-UCLA is hosting Robert A. Clarke, a designer and educator practicing at the intersection of culture, identity and architecture. 

A new addition to the program for 2024 is the UCLA Center for the Study of Women|Barbra Streisand Center, which is hosting Narges Zagub B.A. Anthropology ’20, a movement worker and facilitator.

Opening remarks for the reception were provided by UCLA Luskin Professor Ananya Roy, who created the residency program soon after arriving at UCLA as the director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy

She conceptualized the program as a sabbatical for participants, allowing them time and space to reflect, envision new projects, and connect with UCLA faculty, students and staff. 

“More than ever, I am reminded, in these difficult times, that the residency is our effort to turn the university inside out,” Roy told the crowd. “At the Institute, we organize knowledge within, against and beyond the university. The Activist-in-Residence program brings to the university the movement scholars and public intellectuals who are teachers and guides for this praxis.”

Roy and other representatives of the four UCLA sponsors then introduced the individual activists, each of whom spoke briefly about their previous experiences and their plans for the next few months. 

The first activist to speak this year was Gray-Garcia, who is a formerly unhoused and incarcerated poverty scholar who prefers to keep their face covered in public. Their rousing remarks were presented in the form of spoken word poetry.

The next activist to speak was Collins, a native of South Los Angeles who is has experience as a social justice strategist and movement builder. Collins’ work advances racial and social justice with a particular focus on Black, LGBTQ and environmental justice issues.

Yu is the creator of Nectar, an online space where she provides political education and healing justice workshops. She spoke of her efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation, particularly when it targets the Chinese-speaking community such as. harmful narratives attacking affirmative action and Black-on-Asian crime tropes during the COVID pandemic.

In his work with cityLAB-UCLA, Clarke said he aims to further efforts to canonize Black aesthetics, helping to authenticate it as a lens through which to practice architecture. Clarke is co-founder of a design practice that explores ways to unearth new aesthetics specific to African American culture, experience and identity.

Narges is a UCLA alumna who gained experience in student and community organizing as part of her undergraduate activities. Their background as a Muslim, queer person from an immigrant family from Libya has helped shape their understanding of community. 

Find out more about this year’s activists and their plans.

View photos from the reception on Flickr.

Activists-in-Residence 2024

Data to the People Data experts like Jianchao Lai SW PhD ’23 of the UCLA Agile Visual Analytics Lab strive to make information accessible and meaningful for all

By Les Dunseith

Connecting people to data.

That’s the mission of a team of data experts at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs known as the UCLA Agile Visual Analytics Lab, or AVAL. For almost a decade, the faculty, staff and student innovators at AVAL have been reimagining how vital information is put into the hands of people whose decisions impact the lives of others.

AVAL’s efforts have been funded by over $24 million in contracts and grants, and recently, the AVAL team was awarded $9.4 million from the Children’s Bureau, an office within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to establish, by cooperative agreement, a Quality Improvement Center on Workforce Analytics. The effort, led by AVAL and in partnership with three other universities and several private consultants, will work with at least six public or tribal child welfare agencies to advance their use of data in addressing child welfare workforce needs.

The AVAL team strives to help academic and community partners engage with data in meaningful ways, streamlining the data collection process and creating interactive visualizations of the results. Among the team of innovators is Jianchao Lai, who has been crunching numbers and helping to visualize data at AVAL since 2019, all while working toward the PhD in Social Welfare she earned in June 2023.

a group of women chat during an event at UCLA

“People have different backgrounds and ideas about how to do research and what’s the best for their community. We’re bridging these differences and letting the data tell the story.”
—Jianchao Lai, center

Lai, who was hired upon graduation as a full-time staff member by AVAL, did not envision this career for herself when she first left China to pursue an education abroad. That changed when she met Todd Franke, professor of social welfare and co-founder of AVAL.

“The first professor I met at the UCLA Welcome Day was Todd,” recalled Lai, who had written to Franke with questions about resources available to her on campus and asking how she might contribute to the educational community. “And since then, he has been helping me through the whole PhD process, through the ups and downs.”

Franke and co-founder Robert Blagg were motivated to create AVAL in 2014 based on their experiences writing lengthy research reports and then seeing that the findings didn’t get used by stakeholders.

“The context in which programs, policies and practices are implemented is constantly changing, and too often lengthy written reports get filed away after someone skims through the executive summary,” Franke said. “Narrative reports don’t allow diverse stakeholders to easily explore findings from unique perspectives. AVAL was created to ensure stakeholders have the vital information they need — and ultimately use — to make more timely and sound decisions.”

Data vizualiztion

An example of a data visualization developed for a previous child welfare workforce project. Image courtesy of Agile Visual Analytics Lab Click here to see an interactive version.

The AVAL team strives to help academic and community partners engage with data in meaningful ways, streamlining the data collection process and creating interactive visualizations of the results.

Read more about the grant on UCLA Newsroom

As part of their work with the Children’s Bureau’s previous Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development, the AVAL team partnered with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families to develop an interactive dashboard describing characteristics of their workforce and key indicators such as staff turnover and retention.

The new federal funding will further support efforts to build upon the innovations developed by AVAL and other partners through their work with the Children’s Bureau. It will provide funding across five years for work to be completed in cooperation with researchers at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln; the University of Washington; the University of Pittsburgh; and several nationally recognized private consultants. Franke will be the principal investigator, with Blagg as the co-PI.

portrait photo of Jianchao Lai“When your evidence is not digestible to practitioners, it’s not going to lead to any changes. Charts, graphs and diagrams help them to see the process and use the data in a very interactive and timely manner.”
—Jianchao Lai

 

 

Educators today often talk about evidence-based practice and data-driven decision-making. “But when your evidence is not digestible to practitioners, it’s not going to lead to any changes,” Lai said. “Charts, graphs and diagrams help them to see the process and use the data in a very interactive and timely manner.”

When data presentations are visually appealing, they can enhance immediate understanding. “I’m that way about data visualization myself,” Lai said. “Sometimes, I don’t want to read through all of the numbers — just show me the graphs first.”

Data crunching is an acquired skill for Lai, who earned a bachelor’s from Nanjing University in China and a master’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in social work. The topics for her work at AVAL can be wide-ranging, but she noted that some projects have coincided with her academic interest in children and her prior experience working with child services organizations.

“I kind of understand from doing micro social work that involves families and children that, you know, three hours of therapy per week for that family is never enough,” said Lai, noting that is particularly true for marginalized populations such as new immigrants and families living in poverty.

“We need to change the system before we can make a real impact.”

Changing a system sometimes begins with challenging widely held perceptions.

During her doctoral program at UCLA, for example, Lai pursued a research interest in the underreporting and underservice of child maltreatment and gender-based violence in Asian American communities. Lai’s dissertation explored the experiences of Asian American families in California’s child welfare system from a quantitative perspective. And in a qualitative research component, she interviewed Asian American young adults who had experienced abuse in their childhoods that was never reported to Child Protective Services.

“The experience was so intense,” Lai said. “And it’s a problem that is kind of invisible. It’s like, ‘Why focus on Asians? They’re OK. They’re a model minority.’ ”

Lai said incidents of hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic may have helped change some people’s misconceptions. “It’s sad to say, but this was a good timing for people to realize something has been going on for a long time.”

At AVAL, Lai has worked with organizations and agency officials to ensure that time-sensitive data is collected and processed in a timely, consistent manner that allows it to be viewed through interactive online dashboards and updated with the latest information.

“Imagine a massive data table — it’s very difficult for people to see trends. So, we transform those dry tables into pictures that are easy to understand and unlock new insights,” Lai explained. “Let’s say they want to see the differences year by year, or by age group, we can design these pictures so users can engage with the data and find answers to their questions faster.”

Applied research of this type is most effective when it accounts for the fact that data users come from all walks of life.

“People have different backgrounds and ideas about how to do research and what’s the best for their community,” Lai said. “We’re bridging these differences and letting the data tell the story.”

Data visualization

A data visualization example relating to a previous child welfare workforce project. Image courtesy of Agile Visual Analytics Lab Click here to see an interactive version.

Informative and engaging data visualizations help stakeholders make decisions, said Jonathan Litt, deputy director of AVAL. As part of the Children’s Bureau’s Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development, the AVAL team analyzed data on workforce needs and created interactive dashboards for eight child welfare agencies in a national study of frontline child welfare workers.

“These dashboards enabled each agency to explore underlying factors for high turnover rates,” said Litt, noting that the agencies then were able to target strategies at addressing those factors directly. In early September, the AVAL team was awarded a new grant of $9.4 million to build upon the innovations developed by AVAL and other partners through their previous work with the Children’s Bureau.

A hiring challenge for AVAL, Litt said, is finding people whose skill sets encompass the three areas they seek — an understanding of human services fields, an applied research orientation and an aptitude for technical work.

Few potential staff members possess all three, he said. “Dr. Lai is an example of someone who came in with a human services background and research training, and she has embraced opportunities to expand technical skills with data processing and analytics tools beyond her formal education,” Litt said.

Although Lai often works on tasks independently, she treasures the human interaction that comes with collaborative research projects at AVAL.

“The fascinating aspect for me is transitioning from a purely academic background to engaging in more practical and applied research,” she said. “A traditional academic might argue there’s only one interpretation for a particular kind of information. But with our work, you realize that people think so differently.”

The more she talks with other researchers or engages with clients and other partners, Lai said, the more she understands herself.

“I want to make an impact on other people’s lives, to do something to help them fulfill their promise, just like they’ve been helping me, directly or indirectly,” she said. “Fundamentally, the work I’m part of makes me feel constantly empowered. I think, ‘Wow. As a community, we can do so much.’ Let’s carry on the work!”