To Hold Governments Accountable, Researchers Take Some Heat

By Stan Paul and Les Dunseith

In June 2022, UCLA Luskin announced the results of a groundbreaking analysis of the effectiveness of governments in more than 140 nations known as the Berggruen Governance Index, a collaborative project with the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute.

Four months later, an international who’s who of governance scholars came to UCLA or weighed in remotely to point out every possible flaw and shortcoming of the index they could find.

And that was exactly the point.

“The Berggruen Governance Index is an ambitious new approach that involves complex data structures and analyses,” said principal investigator Helmut Anheier, UCLA adjunct professor of social welfare and public policy, as well as the former president of the Hertie School in Germany, which also played a role in the report. “Therefore, it was important to invite leading experts on global data systems to come to the Luskin School to review and discuss the index.”

Joining other UCLA, Hertie School and Berggruen Institute representatives at the conference were scholars and data experts from global locations like Austria, Switzerland, Japan, Ghana and Great Britain, and U.S. institutions like Yale, Princeton, Notre Dame and Columbia. Over two days of presentations and panel discussions, they dissected the study methodology. They pondered whether a nation-level perspective is inherently superficial. And they discussed, sometimes in spirited language, whether the whole idea unfairly reflects a pro-democracy, pro-wealthy-nation Western bias.

“It was a very productive meeting that generated many important ideas,” Anheier said. “This was the first time that such a large and diverse groups of experts on global data and indicator systems met to explore how they can work together. The 2022 conference will certainly go down as a landmark event.”

The idea of measuring governance on a global scale is not new to academia, but the specific approach of the index is rooted in efforts at the Berggruen Institute that originated during a “chaotic and concerning time” for democracy in the U.S. and other parts of the world, said Dawn Nakagawa, executive vice president of the Berggruen Institute.

When the institute “began about a dozen years ago, it was with the idea that we will work on issues of governance, because governance matters,” said investor and philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen during a Q&A with UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura during the conference.

“I grew up in Europe, then I came to America, and I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to travel the world,” Berggruen said. “One of the things that I learned is culture and governance really make a difference to how countries progress and how citizens fare within the countries.”

Berggruen, Nakagawa, Anheier and others directly involved in the project have come to realize that trusting the data can challenge preconceptions.

For example, one might presume the United States and other pro-democracy countries would do well in the analysis. And some do. But the index found a dramatic drop in the quality of government and quality of democracy in the United States over the past 20 years.

At the same time, some nations with less-democratic approaches showed measurable improvements in their provision of public goods like education, health care and environmental protection, particularly in Africa.

After reading the report and exploring the data in an online platform built expressly for that purpose, Berggruen saw that reality does not always match expectations.

“At the end of the day, we almost have to take our ideological hats off and say, ‘Let’s look at the reality of the data and whether governments deliver for citizens as a service.’ And you’ve seen that, in some countries, well, they’ve done better than we would suspect from simply an ideological standpoint.”

Berggruen told the 30 invited attendees to keep in mind that “governance is not just an idea, an ideology or a system of government. We’ve learned through the index how important it is not just to have principles of governance, but also the ability to translate that into reality. That means bringing the resources to a country to execute. That means administration. It means people. It means laws. And it means a culture
at the end.”

Berggruen thanked the assembled scholars for their diligence and their sometimes-blunt analysis. “Perfecting the index is a way we can, hopefully, help countries and governments better serve their citizens.”

Watch a video highlighting the conference and its purpose

Berggruen 2022 Conference at UCLA from UCLA Luskin on Vimeo.

Nancy Pelosi Addresses Undergraduates at UCLA Luskin Commencement Speaker of the House offers keynote remarks during School’s in-person ceremony

Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a member of Congress for more than three decades, gave the keynote address at the 2022 undergraduate commencement ceremony at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. 

Now in her fourth term as speaker, Pelosi made history in 2007 when she was the first woman elected to serve in that role. After serving as speaker for four years, she was House minority leader for eight years beginning in 2011. She returned to the position of speaker in 2019, when Democrats regained the House majority.  

Pelosi spoke during the UCLA Luskin ceremony that started at 3 p.m. on June 10 on the patio outside of UCLA’s Kerckhoff Hall. A crowd of up to 1,000 graduating students, family members and other invited guests had been anticipated.  

“Nancy Pelosi is a renowned leader who has skillfully guided California and the nation through some trials and tribulations — and many triumphs — during her long career as a public servant,” said Gary Segura, dean of the Luskin School. “She has also been a trailblazer in Congress and a role model for those who, like many of our students, may aspire to hold public office someday.  

“I know she will inspire our graduates to continue their quest to make a meaningful difference in the world.”  

As House speaker, Pelosi has championed legislation that has helped to lower health care costs, increase workers’ pay and promote the nation’s economic growth.  

She has represented California’s 12th District in San Francisco as a member of Congress since 1987. She has led House Democrats for 19 years and previously served as House Democratic whip. 

In 2013, Pelosi was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Seneca Falls, New York, the birthplace of the American women’s rights movement. 

Working with then-President Barack Obama, who called Pelosi “an extraordinary leader for the American people,” she led the House’s passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in early 2009 to create and save millions of American jobs in the wake of a worldwide recession. Pelosi also led the passage through Congress of the landmark Affordable Care Act.  

She has promoted legislation related to banking reform, consumer protection and funding for students. She has fought for women’s rights and sought to end pay discrimination. Pelosi’s many legislative accomplishments also include efforts to promote better nutrition for children and food safety. 

Many of her efforts align with UCLA Luskin’s mission to promote social justice, including her efforts to repeal discriminatory policies such as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” prohibition against gay and lesbian people serving openly in the military. 

The Luskin School is known for turning research into action, conducting academic studies that often lead to policy solutions. Many faculty, for example, are engaged in seeking ways to mitigate the growing effects of climate change. Pelosi has long been active in environmental causes, and she is known for 1989’s “Pelosi amendment,” which has become a tool to assess the potential environmental effects of development globally.  

Pelosi graduated from Trinity College in Washington, D.C. She and her husband, Paul Pelosi, a native of San Francisco, have five children and nine grandchildren. 

The Luskin School also hosted commencement for students earning graduate degrees at 9 a.m. on June 10. Actor, activist and UCLA alumnus George Takei was the keynote speaker. 

Learn more about the 2022 Commencements at UCLA Luskin.

George Takei Delivers Keynote Address at Commencement for UCLA Luskin Graduate Students The pioneering actor, bestselling author and advocate for human rights spoke at a June 10 ceremony for the School’s master’s and doctoral students

Actor, social justice activist and bestselling author George Takei gave the keynote address at the 2022 commencement ceremony for graduate students at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

With decades of success on screen and stage, along with a natural eloquence and sharp wit, Takei has used his platform to advocate for civil rights and LGBTQ equality, and to educate his audience about U.S. internment camps for Japanese Americans, where he and his family were held during World War II.

Takei’s commencement address took place inside UCLA’s Royce Hall at a ceremony beginning at 9 a.m. on Friday, June 10. Master’s and doctoral degrees were conferred on the Luskin School’s public policy, social welfare and urban planning graduates.

“George Takei is a pioneer,” said Gary Segura, dean of the Luskin School. “His life story is one of perseverance amid the darkest forces of discrimination. Not only did he prevail, he used his voice to speak out on behalf of others facing deep injustices.”

Takei, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theater at UCLA in the 1960s, has appeared in more than 40 feature films and hundreds of television roles. He is best known for his role as Lt. Hikaru Sulu in “Star Trek,” the groundbreaking sci-fi series that featured a multiethnic cast and a plot centered on peace among all peoples.

Takei is also the author of several books, including the New York Times bestselling graphic memoir “They Called Us Enemy,” released in 2019. The book gives a wrenching account of the thousands of Japanese American families, including his own, who were uprooted from their lives and forced into internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Takei also inspired and starred in the Broadway musical “Allegiance” about his family’s experience under internment.

Long an activist in the Asian American community, Takei is chairman emeritus and a trustee of the Japanese American National Museum, and has served as cultural affairs chairman of the Japanese American Citizens League. Former President Bill Clinton appointed him to the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, and the government of Japan awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, for his contribution to U.S.-Japanese relations.

A leading advocate for LGBTQ rights and marriage equality, Takei has served as the spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign’s Coming Out Project. Takei and his husband, Brad Altman, made television history in 2009 when they became the first gay couple to appear on “The Newlywed Game.”

Takei has an enormous following on social media, which he uses as a platform to share his humor, weigh in on current events, and advocate for civil and human rights.

Among his current media enterprises is the web series “It Takeis Two,” which takes viewers into the personal lives of Takei and his husband. He also hosts the AARP-produced YouTube series “Takei’s Take,” exploring the world of technology, trends and pop culture, and is the subject of the documentary “To Be Takei.”

Learn more about the 2022 Commencements at UCLA Luskin.

Defending the Right to Vote

By Mary Braswell

The mission of the UCLA Voting Rights Project (VRP) is straightforward: creating an accessible and equitable system of voting for all Americans.

The U.S. election of 2020, just two years after VRP was launched, showed how critical this mission had become.

Housed at the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, the project has always had a strong public service ethos with an emphasis on scholarship. It seeks to train young lawyers and expert witnesses, develop new social science theories for voting rights cases, and advance the right to free and fair balloting through national and local public policy.

In the run-up to the Nov. 3 presidential election, the project’s leaders spent considerable time in the courtroom as well as the classroom, as voter suppression cases cropped up across the country.

In Texas, civil rights attorney Chad Dunn, VRP’s director of litigation, led a number of legal efforts to protect the rights of voters. Dunn defended the drive-through voting option in largely Democratic Harris County, which survived a series of Republican-led challenges.

Dunn also appeared in federal court to argue against the Texas governor’s attempt to limit ballot boxes to one per county. Professor Matt Barreto, VRP faculty director, co-authored a data-rich report showing that the rule would particularly burden disabled, elderly and minority voters, but the governor’s order was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court.

In Pennsylvania, Barreto submitted an expert report arguing against efforts by President Trump’s reelection campaign to place several restrictions on voting. These included eliminating ballot drop boxes and creating new rules for disqualifying ballots.

Some of the cases continued to be litigated well past Election Day.

A Launchpad Into the Working World

By Mary Braswell

Candler Weinberg started his internship with the U.S. Forest Service in the fall of 2020, just as record-setting wildfires spreading across the West provided a grim illustration of the growing threat of climate change.

The position was a perfect fit for the public affairs major, a licensed EMT who aspires to enter the field of emergency management — and who has himself come face to face with natural disaster.

Weinberg’s family home was among hundreds destroyed during the 2017 wildfires in the Sonoma Valley winemaking region.

“It was just completely devastating,” said Weinberg, describing the fast-moving flames that overwhelmed fire department resources and the lack of planning that could have saved lives.

“It’s going to keep happening. And unless we learn from our mistakes and try to plan for the future, it’s just going to be this vicious cycle that never ends,” he said.

So Weinberg is taking full advantage of UCLA Luskin resources to build research, policy and planning skills to help other communities withstand disasters sparked by climate change.

His Forest Service internship is one step in that journey, made possible through his participation in the University of California’s Washington Center, or UCDC.

Over the summer and fall, a total of 17 public affairs majors and pre-majors took advantage of courses and internships through UCDC and its California-based counterpart, UC Sacramento, said Kevin Medina, who coordinates the Experiential Learning Capstone and other internship opportunities for the undergraduate program.

Learning by doing is a hallmark of the UCLA Luskin bachelor’s degree. The 72 members of this year’s inaugural graduating class will be the first to complete the yearlong senior capstone, which calls on students to immerse themselves in an organization, assess its needs and create a solution.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all the internships will be conducted remotely, which creates both challenges and opportunities, Medina said.

As with any virtual connection, students may encounter technological difficulties and they will miss the in-office experience of working on a team. But one upside, Medina said, is that “the remote internships allowed us to think beyond a geographic restriction and paved the way for partnerships beyond the Los Angeles region.” He added that those without access to reliable transportation will be spared the added time and expense of commuting to a work site.

“The supervisors at our inaugural internship sites are dedicated to providing an intentional and high-quality experience where our public affairs majors can learn and contribute their knowledge,” Medina said. “Given this unprecedented time, our students are receiving the quality training they need to enter professional public service roles and graduate programs.”

Since transferring into the major in 2019, Weinberg has embraced the program’s hands-on opportunities. For his capstone experience, he will work with the Van Nuys office of Bob Hertzberg, majority leader of the California State Senate, while continuing his full-year Forest Service internship.

Last spring, he petitioned to conduct a research project for course credit under the direction of Professor Fernando Torres-Gil, head of the Luskin School’s Center for Policy Research on Aging. Weinberg reviewed case studies of fires, mudslides and other disasters and found an alarming lack of planning in place to meet the needs of the state’s senior population.

“Those policies are practically non-existent,” he discovered.

At another internship, Weinberg helped share the stories of those who fought in World War II and other U.S. conflicts. During the summer-long position with the Veterans Administration, he verified service records and tracked down family members to help collect and preserve the soldiers’ legacies.

And in his Forest Service internship, Weinberg is analyzing data on injuries to firefighters, law enforcement officers and visitors to help build a comprehensive emergency services plan to replace the patchwork of practices in federal forests and grasslands around the country. He’s also crafting congressional briefs on the importance of urban forestry, the green spaces that bring health and economic benefits to a community.

As an emergency medical technician, Weinberg has provided critical care on rural 911 routes and other locations, but he said he realized he could make a greater impact by helping shape disaster management policy.

When he discovered the Luskin School’s new public affairs major, “I realized that UCLA was going to be the best place for me as a research-heavy institution with a lot of academic freedom,” he said. “The breadth of professors and classes is really world-class and I think unmatched for an undergraduate program.”

At the Luskin School and beyond, Weinberg aspires to help overlooked communities create a sustainable living environment in the face of a warming climate.

“I’ve always been passionate about helping vulnerable populations,” he said. “That’s really what drew me to public health and then to policy, to be a voice for people who might not have much of a voice.”

Social Welfare Seeks to Dismantle Anti-Blackness

By Zoe Day

Social Welfare faculty, students and alumni joined forces over the summer to craft an Action Plan to Address Anti-Blackness and Racism in response to political turmoil across the country following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black Americans.

“This summer has been extremely challenging given the global pandemic, continual murders of Black folks and the looming economic crisis. Through these circumstances, Black students at Luskin pushed to ensure that our department would begin to transform and enact sustainable and lasting changes to its curriculum, culture and more,” said Victoria Copeland MSW ’19, who is now pursuing her Ph.D.

Copeland was part of the team that worked with Social Welfare Chair Laura Abrams and faculty members Latoya Small and Gerry Laviña to draft a set of action items addressing racial disparities within the department and across social welfare education. The faculty voted unanimously to endorse the effort in June, and the plan was finalized in July. In October, the action plan was the focus of a virtual event drawing about 120 students, alumni, faculty and friends of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare.


“For many years, Black faculty and students have impressed upon us as a community to confront racism and anti-Blackness in our program and in the social work profession. Despite these calls, we have not risen to the challenge,” Abrams said.

“We have a ways to go to meet our goals, but we are most certainly at a threshold of change,” she said. “Our plan is concrete and attainable, and the involvement of students, faculty, alumni and staff will be critical to achieving our short- and long-term goals in all areas of the plan.”

Those goals include increasing the visibility, recruitment and funding of Black students and ensuring that the curriculum embraces Black scholars and thought.

Small credited Social Welfare’s students with sparking the call for change. “This is only the beginning of the journey that involves people throughout our department,” she said.

The team, including members of the Luskin Black Student Caucus, highlighted the need to educate students in anti-racist social work practices to reaffirm the department’s commitment to addressing racial disparities and anti-Blackness.

“I am appreciative of the department’s willingness to listen and actively implement the Social Welfare Action Plan,” MSW student Jameelah Howard said. “It has truly been a meaningful and powerful experience working with the administration on addressing anti-Blackness and racism.”

Doctoral student Dominique Mikell called the team’s efforts over the summer “a challenging but essential process to ensure our department can move toward dismantling racist and anti-Black practice within our own school and ultimately within social work.”

“The plan is really the start of a much longer process to ensure that our department adequately prepares its students to confront white supremacy and anti-Blackness in all institutions they interact with, including Luskin,” Mikell explained. “Despite this work being emotionally and mentally taxing, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to participate in it to make our department and the field of social work more just.”

The working group that collaborated on the plan also included MSW student Nana Sarkodee-Adoo, Ph.D. student Jason Plummer and alumni Nicole Vazquez MSW/MPP ’09 and Evin Capel MSW ’17.

Copeland said she is grateful to her peers and colleagues who spent hours over the summer, often meeting numerous times a week, to hammer out the action plan and “demand and ensure that we would be heard.”

With the plan now in place, “I imagine a program that not only accepts and retains more Black students and faculty but uplifts and empowers them as well,” Copeland said. “A Public Affairs school that centers Black thought and Black scholarship is needed, and Luskin can work toward it.” …

“I know that this is only the beginning of a departmental and school-wide transformation that was desperately needed.”

Advisory Boards Provide Inspiration, Perspective

By Les Dunseith

At a university, the roles are generally understood. Faculty educate and engage in research. Students learn from and assist faculty. Staff take care of administrative details. Donors, many of them alumni, provide supplemental funds and act as mentors. The dean sets priorities and fosters a vision.

Less understood, however, are the volunteer leaders from business, government and the nonprofit sectors who provide guidance to deans and academic directors — the boards of advisors.

Several such boards exist at the School, either working directly with Dean Gary Segura and his staff or offering advice to individual research centers. As interested observers, they are less likely to get mired in day-to-day minutia and instead think about the big picture, dreaming of how things could be better at the School, within academia or in society as a whole.

“Our commitment to the School is, obviously, to be ambassadors but also to be active participants,” said Jeffrey Seymour, a longtime member of the UCLA Luskin Board of Advisors who is currently serving as chair. That participation means attending meetings and serving on subcommittees that deal with aspects such as event planning, philanthropy or mentorship. It also involves building bridges.

“We’ve been aggressive this year with efforts to reach out to local government, bringing elected and appointed decisionmakers to Luskin with the goal of creating partnerships between us,” explained Seymour, noting recent engagements with the city and county of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and others.

“This provides opportunities both for Luskin and for the public sector to access the scholarly resources coming from Luskin and UCLA,” he said. Seymour is well-versed in such academic-government partnerships thanks to a 40-year career in government relations and his tenures with the University of California Regents, UC Alumni Associations and UCLA Alumni Association. He is a former president of both alumni groups.

Connecting scholars to government and community leaders is at the heart of the Luskin Summit, which focuses on timely policy issues during discussions led by faculty experts. The idea originated with the Board of Advisors and a subcommittee helps set the agenda.

The first Luskin Summit in 2019 exceeded expectations, drawing about 300 people to the UCLA campus. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and the second Summit had to suddenly change to a virtual series of discussions. The impact? More than 10,000 participants.

Future summits are likely to continue having a virtual element.

“No matter what happens after COVID, we obviously have great resources here on campus, and we’ve proven that we can virtually expand the audience for this kind of program,” Seymour said.

Other advisory boards at UCLA Luskin also have successfully helped faculty and staff evolve programming to meeting changing needs. For example, JR DeShazo, director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation (LCI), was moved to act after witnessing how wildfires, heat waves and storms disproportionately impact marginalized communities. He envisioned a gathering of top climate researchers to forge a path forward.

So he sought out assistance from LCI Advisory Board members such as Cynthia Hirschhorn, founder of the Women’s Civic Action Network, or Civicas; Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Resolve; and Alfredo Gonzales, Southern California director of the Resources Legacy Fund.

These leaders and their organizations helped LCI plan and execute the first-of-its-kind Climate Adaptation Research Symposium in September. Also pivoting from an in-person gathering because of the pandemic, the symposium ultimately drew 2,000 people from 47 U.S. states and 58 countries to hear 70 of the nation’s climate adaptation leaders present 17 virtual sessions in a single day.

At the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS), guidance from both the Advisory Board and a Steering Committee that draws from transit agencies, environmental groups, urban planners and other stakeholders helped event organizers recast a signature symposium not only as a virtual experience but also one with an enhanced focus on racial equity.

For nearly three decades, the annual UCLA Lake Arrowhead Symposium has brought researchers together with practitioners, elected officials and private sector stakeholders to zero in on issues related to transportation, land use and the environment. Under the theme “Not ‘Back to Normal’ – Mapping a Just Transportation Recovery from COVID-19,” this year’s online series made strategic equity a priority, an approach that is being adopted throughout the ITS operation.

The capacity to support the Luskin School and its research centers is a central tenet for people like Seymour, who has overseen a recent evolution of the Board of Advisors itself.

“We have implemented a board rotation, allowing us the opportunity to enlist new talent onto the board,” Seymour said.

The changes were implemented at the board’s October meeting, held virtually.

“We said thanks to some of our very longstanding board members who had provided much guidance and leadership,” said Nicole Payton, executive director of external relations at UCLA Luskin, “and they’ll be members of our board emeritus.”

New members “are very engaged in the community and provide broader representation and diversity. It was one of our key areas that we wanted to grow,” Payton said.

“We’ve been very lucky through the years to have really good people interested in being involved with Luskin,” Seymour said. “And one of the reasons why we implemented the rotation is that there are so many other people who want to get involved.”

The four new board members:

  • Attorney Kafi Blumenfield Law ’97 is an expert on philanthropy and social justice who helped found Discovery Cube LA and has been president and CEO of Liberty Hill Foundation.
  • Attorney Tom McLain specializes in international business transactions with an emphasis on intellectual property licensing related to the entertainment industry.
  • Cynthia McClain Hill, also an attorney, earned her UCLA degree in political science in 1978 and her juris doctorate in ’81. McClain Hill founded her own law practice in the mid-1990s and has served on the Los Angeles Police Commission since 2016.
  • Jacqueline Waggoner holds a UCLA degree in sociology and earned her master’s in urban planning at UCLA Luskin in 1996. She is the president of the Solutions division at Enterprise Community Partners, which operates 11 market offices across the country and delivers program, policy, advisory and capacity-building support at the national, state and local levels. Waggoner was also a member of the Committee for Greater LA, whose report reimagining Los Angeles from a racial equity perspective is highlighted elsewhere in this issue.

Tapping People’s Passions to do Something Good

By Les Dunseith

By mid-March, the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic, UCLA classes had moved online and university employees in non-essential roles were working remotely. Soon after, on April 1, the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, or CNK, based at UCLA Luskin issued its first research report about the health crisis.

By late September, researchers affiliated with CNK had released more than a dozen COVID-related studies on their own or in partnership with other centers at UCLA and elsewhere in academia. Roughly, that works out to an astounding pace of one new study every two weeks.

The first report, “Implications of COVID-19 on At-Risk Workers by Neighborhood in Los Angeles,” was released in conjunction with the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative. It delved into census information to identify the neighborhoods most vulnerable to economic hardship from the pandemic. Poorer ethnic areas would fare worst, the study predicted.

Two weeks later, a CNK study identified Latino neighborhoods as being less likely to receive federal economic stimulus funds. By mid-May, a CNK report had determined that the census tracts that were lagging behind in the 2020 enumeration were the same areas of L.A. hit hardest by COVID-19. Additional studies soon focused on renter displacement, a shortfall in unemployment coverage for workers in disadvantaged communities and other topics related to equity and social justice amid the pandemic.

Such a prolific output of timely research is impressive, but it’s even more so when you consider that much of the project, known internally as the COVID-19 Equity Research Initiative, was completed without prior funding.

“The way we work is that we tap into people’s passions and commitment to doing good,” said Paul Ong, CNK director.

“I call on my friends, my colleagues and my family, offering them an opportunity to make a contribution and make a difference by producing these analyses and informing the public.”

Ong said he had a sense when he first heard about the novel coronavirus that it might have a huge impact, and as early as February he began hearing from people in the Chinese American community that they were being adversely impacted, including being blamed for the outbreak.

“We heard anecdotal evidence that indicated that, indeed, this might be a very profound crisis emerging,” Ong recalled.

But when he asked for empirical evidence, most people didn’t have any.

“It’s partly that I’m just inquisitive,” Ong said of his nature, but soon he was devoting time and effort to finding ways to investigate what people were saying, looking for data to help document the unfolding crisis.

Delving into the impacts of the pandemic on marginalized populations aligned perfectly with Ong’s reasons for starting CNK in the first place. The research center builds on his background in social welfare and urban planning with the idea of “trying to understand the nature of inequality in our society from a very empirical, quantitative approach,” he said.

“We believe that the way we move forward to a more just society is by fully understanding the challenges before us,” Ong said. “It is good to think about utopia, but the problem with just thinking about utopia is it doesn’t anchor you into the reality of what needs to be addressed.”

The team at CNK is small, numbering between two and two dozen, depending on funding and how many student workers are available. Ong, who retired in 2017 but has continued as a research professor, said the research center has long sought to understand the nature of inequality, how it’s produced and reproduced over generations, and how it takes form in different sectors — housing, employment, education, health.

“Indeed, if [the pandemic] was going to have a profound impact on society and a profound impact on disadvantaged neighborhoods and populations, then we believed that we could make a difference in terms of working to generate additional insights,” Ong said.

Soon, Ong was enlisting help from friends and colleagues, including his wife, Elena, a public health expert, and his son, Jonathan. Both worked pro bono on some reports despite not being directly affiliated with the University of California.

They asked questions: How can we identify the population most at risk? How can we identify those not likely to receive the type of support that’s necessary? Next, without stopping to seek funding, they sought answers.

Ong noted that the grant funding process can take months or years. “But we’re not working in normal times,” he said. “The crisis is unfolding in real time. We’re working during a time where decisionmakers and community leaders and other stakeholders need the data today.”

So, Ong found help wherever he could. In some cases, he was able to obtain funding and research assistance from colleagues at UCLA, including people like Professor Ananya Roy, who leads the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy.

“Amidst difficult times, the scholarship pioneered by Professor Paul Ong and the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge has been a guiding light, demonstrating how and why rigorous research has an important role to play in shining a light on structures of inequality and making the case for the policies that must address such oppression,” Roy wrote about her team’s involvement in several of the pandemic-related reports.

As the pandemic continues, so will the research by CNK.

Ong is hopeful, knowing that a vaccine will be widely available soon and that society will regain some sense of normalcy thereafter. But the work will not be done.

“What I’m concerned about is that the legacy of the damages from the pandemic is not going to disappear,” Ong said. “We’re going to have to live with those inequalities. It has had profound impacts on people and households.”

Some impacts are obvious and visible. Others, such as the likely census undercount in low-income communities, will have repercussions that may not materialize until years later.

If there’s an upside of the pandemic for Ong, it’s taking gratification in the collective effort.

“In these dark days, it’s great seeing people being willing to volunteer and do the hard work and not receive compensation for it,” Ong said. “I am very grateful to our partners at other centers who were willing to step forward to help us.”

With a wry smile, Ong summed up his formula for success: “We depend on the kindness of strangers.”

After the Pandemic, a Focus on Transportation Equity

An article in the Hill on the post-pandemic future of public transportation featured research presented at this year’s UCLA Lake Arrowhead Symposium. The virtual learning series, hosted by the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, explored how the transportation sector can recover from the economic shock of COVID-19 in an equitable manner. The Hill cited two scholars who presented research during the symposium. Deborah Salon of Arizona State University shared results from a survey finding that many employees may prefer to continue working from home even after pandemic restrictions are lifted, decreasing commuter demand for transit options. Giovanni Circella of UC Davis pointed to a “massive shift” toward car travel among those who have reduced their reliance on public transit. “In the other direction, among those reducing driving, pretty much nobody is increasing the use of transit,” he said. 


Message From the Dean

My Friends:

It is with tremendous sadness that I share with you the terrible news that our colleague and friend, VC Powe, passed away suddenly overnight. Her husband reached out to us this morning.

VC was a pivotal figure in the history of the School of Public Affairs. She has been with the School since shortly after its founding, and with UCLA for 30 years! She advised a generation of Luskin grads. As executive director of external programs and career services, VC oversaw counseling, internships and fellowships, the Bohnett Fellows Program and the Senior Fellows Program, and she developed long and deep ties to the community and its leadership — political, civic and philanthropic. In my four years as Dean, as I have traveled around Los Angeles and its institutions, there is no single name associated with the School more widely known and more favorably commented upon than VC’s. She was a passionate advocate for our students and alums. She will be deeply missed.

I will share more details when they are available, including arrangements. In the interim, we will reach out to her husband Keith on behalf of the School.

With great sadness…


Gary M. Segura
Professor and Dean

A longer remembrance of VC Powe will be published soon.