Alumni Notes


Norma Edith García-Gonzalez BA ’95, MA UP ’99 is the new director of Los Angeles County Regional Parks and Open Space District, becoming the first woman and first person of color to serve in this capacity.

As parks director, García-Gonzalez’s position touches all corners of Los Angeles. She is responsible for the department’s operations, including a $232-million budget, more than 2,000 employees, 183 parks, 70,079 acres of parkland, more than 210 miles of trails, five equestrian centers, 14 lakes, 475 sports amenities, 42 swimming pools, 15 wildlife sanctuaries and 10 nature centers that serve as a refuge for more than 200 animals. And then there’s a handful of county-operated arboreta and botanic gardens, outdoor performance venues like the Hollywood Bowl, plus the largest municipal golf system in the nation, which consists of 20 courses.

García-Gonzalez brings 17 years of experience working for the county. During her time as acting director of parks, she led efforts to keep the parks available to Angelenos during the COVID-19 crisis. As director, she will continue to lead the department during emergencies and natural disasters, providing support for communities when gyms, regional facilities and local parks are needed as shelters for residents and livestock.

In 2016, García-Gonzalez helped with an equity ballot measure in L.A. County aimed at directing resources to refurbish park amenities in high-need neighborhoods, particularly in low-income communities of color.

In a Parks and Recreation news release, García-Gonzalez said, “Our parks are the backyard of Los Angeles County residents, and I look forward to leading the department with empathy, a vision for equity, an unwavering commitment in serving our communities and working with the Board of Supervisors to create a pathway for Los Angeles County’s recovery.”



Tim Casey MPA ’77, the retired city manager of Laguna Niguel, kept notes of some of the funnier and most memorable moments throughout his professional journey, always hoping to document those moments in a book. The time is now here.

The Mayor Married Who?” is a fun insider’s look at the daily challenges, unexpected curveballs, occasionally embarrassing failures, and successful triumphs that local elected officials and professional administrators face every day in our city halls and county halls of administration.

Through short stories capturing a 40-year management career, Casey’s sense of humor, passion for public service and compassion for others permeate every chapter.

His work is now available in paperback and digital form through Amazon. The book is also featured among publications from the International City/County Management Association.


After 35 years, Dennis Murata MSW ’84 retired from his role as deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

Murata was a longtime advocate for underserved communities, as well as cultural and ethnic diversity and inclusion.

After graduating from UCLA, his first county role was psychiatric social worker. In addition to his role as deputy director, he held positions such as acting chief deputy director and served in a leadership role in many of the department’s major initiatives, including implementation of the Mental Health Services Act.

Murata was selected as the Joseph A. Nunn Social Welfare Alumnus of the Year in 2007 at UCLA.


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


UCLA Luskin’s student body includes a sizable number of undocumented individuals, some of whom are first-generation or come from low-income families. Over the summer, alumni, faculty and staff contributed to a fund launched to support undocumented master’s and Ph.D. students at the School.

These students already faced adversity, and the pandemic has hit them harder than ever. Many have lost jobs yet do not benefit from government stimulus programs. Undocumented students are not eligible to receive federal financial aid. And in addition to supporting themselves, some also contribute financially to their households.

The UCLA Luskin community has come together to provide funds for those with the most need, but more help is needed. Your support can help these talented master’s and doctoral students bridge the gap during this particularly challenging time, allowing them to purchase books, pay for tuition and fees, and manage the high cost of living in Los Angeles.

If you would like to help make an impact, please contact Associate Director of Development Laura Scarano at

Scholarship recipients Devina Ortega, left, and Sylvia Hopkins chat remotely with benefactor Laura Shell.


Third-year public affairs majors Devina Ortega and Sylvia Hopkins are the inaugural recipients of the Shell Family Centennial Scholarship, which was launched to benefit the Luskin School’s undergraduate program.

Laura Shell, a member of the UCLA Luskin Board of Advisors, and her husband, Jeff, established the endowed scholarship in 2019 to support students who have declared the public affairs major and have demonstrated financial need.

It was among the first awards established to support UCLA Luskin’s undergraduate students and was matched by the UCLA Chancellor’s Centennial Scholars Match Initiative. The initiative matches gifts for such scholarships at 50%.

The Shells met Hopkins and Ortega over Zoom this fall to engage in a conversation about their futures in policy work. The students also had an opportunity to talk about their experiences as UCLA students who are civically engaged even during a pandemic.


UCLA Luskin is grateful to all of its donors, but we are especially proud of the alumni who have been donating for 10 years or more. So, we spoke with them about why philanthropy is important. Here are their stories.

Astrid Beigel MA ’67, Ph.D. ’69 is one of the Luskin School’s most loyal donors, with 23 consecutive years of giving. In 1996, Beigel helped establish an award in memory of her friend and former professor of urban planning, Julie Roque. She hopes that, with her award, students are able to treat themselves to something fun that they normally wouldn’t consider doing. That is what her friend Julie would have wanted. Beigel believes it is not important how much you give, but that you simply do it, and carry on the memory of others.

Elaine Leader BA ’68, MSW ’70 says giving back has always been part of her culture, instilled by her parents from an early age. Inspired by their commitment to helping others in need, Leader founded a nonprofit called Teen Line to assist distressed youths dealing with troubled relationships; verbal, emotional or physical abuse; substance abuse; peer pressure; and other challenges. Leader continues helping others as one of the Luskin School’s most loyal donors, with 26 years of giving combined. She encourages others to give back because it not only helps the giver feel good but is even more meaningful to the receiver.

Celia Yniguez BA ’88, MA UP ’90 lives in Sacramento and has given to the Luskin School for nearly 20 years. As an alumni volunteer, she was involved with reviewing UCLA scholarship applications and saw firsthand the great need for student support. Yniguez received a
full scholarship to what is now UCLA Luskin and believes it is her duty to give back. In Sacramento, she often encounters others from the Graduate School of Architecture and from the Luskin School of Public Affairs, and she is impressed by their passion and desire to implement change. The students she encounters always energize her, and she feels that alumni need to do whatever they can to support them.

Kara Heffernan MA UP ’00, now based in New York City, loved studying planning at UCLA and engaging with complex issues in various neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles. Heffernan works for the City University of New York (CUNY). As an insider of higher education, she knows firsthand the constraints public universities face, as well as the importance of giving back. When Heffernan was in school, she knew that many students did not have the resources or access to achieve their greatest potential. That is why she is compelled each year to help current students with financial need succeed.

Scott Kutner BA ’81, MA UP ’85 and Linda Kutner BA ’84, MSW ’88 received their professional degrees before their schools merged to become part of the School of Public Affairs. Both received fellowships as students and now pay it forward by supporting UCLA Luskin. Scott Kutner believes that people do what they can based on their own circumstances but, for them, feeling like they are part of something larger than themselves is important and meaningful. Although the Kutners have increased their giving over the years, the gratification they feel from being a donor was just as strong in the beginning as now.

John Petrilla MPP ’09 and his wife, Bree, donate annually. John Petrilla quips that he has a personal debt to UCLA Luskin because he landed his first job out of school through the connections he made on campus. He says even if a person doesn’t feel personally indebted, it still benefits them to give back because more funding helps attract the best students through scholarships. Then, the reputation of one’s alma mater increases and that can benefit alumni too. By donating each year, he wants to ensure that others will have an experience that is just as good or even better than he had.

Ricardo Quintero


Few students would recognize him, but Ricardo Quintero is among the most crucial people supporting students at UCLA Luskin.

As director of development, Quintero is responsible for raising funds for the School and its many programs, faculty, research initiatives and scholarships. His role is critical to UCLA Luskin’s mission to train change agents at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

So who is Quintero and what drives him to work to improve the UCLA Luskin student experience? We let him tell his story.

Where are you from?

I was born in Queens, New York, and I grew up in Statesville, N.C., a small town just north of Charlotte. My family relocated there when I was 5 years old and I’ve lived in Los Angeles since 2007.

How long have you been at UCLA Luskin?

I’ve been at Luskin for four years, and I have 13 years of fundraising experience at UCLA overall.

Tell us a little bit about your personal history. Why does higher education mean so much to you?

I was a first-generation college student so higher education has always been important to me. It was my pathway to success, and the experience was deeply and personally rewarding. However, I wasn’t ready to attend a four-year university straight out of high school due to financial and other personal reasons. But I knew a college education was essential for my future. So to get there, I enlisted in the Marine Corps and utilized my GI Bill and a scholarship to pay for school after leaving the service.

What motivates you most to do what you do for Luskin?

I believe in our mission and supporting our amazing students. I’m always impressed by the caliber of their work and the impact our graduates are having in their communities and beyond. People establish scholarships and fellowships for many reasons, and each one is heartfelt, for the donor as well as for us at UCLA Luskin. These gifts help us compete for top students, provide unique opportunities and better prepare our graduates for career success.

Is there a particular student or a donor who has inspired you in your time at Luskin?

I have so many, but they all share a through-line: connecting donors with the students who benefit from their support. It is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. Donors get to see the direct impact of their investment, and our students learn, as recipients of someone else’s philanthropy, the importance of paying it forward.


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

Formerly with Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, Tina Ahmed MSW ’17 transitioned to the position of psychiatric social worker for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Everado Alvizo BA ’03, MA UP ’08 works as the HIV/STD strategic implementation specialist for Long Beach.

Shakari (Cameron) Byerly MPP ’05, a Ph.D. candidate in UCLA political science, was selected as the Rev. James Lawson Teaching Fellow for UCLA Labor and Workplace Studies during the 2020-21 academic year. She will teach two seminars next year on the dignity and value of Black workers. She also works as managing partner and lead opinion researcher at EVITARUS, an opinion research and strategy consulting services firm.

Shana Charles MPP ’01, Ph.D. ’09 has been awarded tenure
at Cal State Fullerton’s department of health science.

Thomson F. Dryjanski MURP ’19 and Yue Shen MURP ’20 have joined many other alumni as associates at Estolano Advisors, an urban planning and policy firm based in Los Angeles.

Simon Fraser MA UP ’01 is now the director of project management at Hunt Capital.

Matt O’Keefe MPP ’10 started a new position as global vice president of sales for Opower at Oracle Utilities. He is one
of many MPP alums who work in the energy sector, and in utilities in particular.

Congratulations to Naseem Golestani MPP ’19, who is now a regulatory analyst at the California Public Utilities Commission. She is back in California, at the CPUC location in San Francisco, joining two other MPP alumni who hold the same title there: Tom Gariffo MPP ’13 and Jenneille Hsu MPP ’11, Ph.D. ’17.

Moira Kenney MA UP ’91, Ph.D. ’94 is based in the Bay Area and started a new position as network director of California at Unite Us, an organization that standardizes how health and social care providers can communicate and track outcomes together.

Sasha Wisotsky Kergan MA UP ’10 started a new role as data and research unit chief for housing policy at California’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

Congratulations to Joanna Mackie MPP ’06, a public health doctoral candidate at University of South Florida. Mackie was promoted to research associate for the Florida Office of Early Learning’s Child Mental Health Project, and she is one of many MPP alums pursuing a doctorate in public health.

Abby McClelland JD ’02, MPP ’12 is now director of analytics and reporting at Boulder County Department of Housing and Human Services in Colorado. McClelland advocates for the poor, people with disabilities, immigrants and victims of intimate partner violence. She came to UCLA Luskin with her JD and also earned a master’s in social psychology with a certificate in quantitative methods for behavioral sciences.

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.

Dean’s Message

Well. That happened.

The year 2020 is etched in our memories forever. And we will be living with the consequences for a long time to come. For years, UCLA has built a brand around optimism, and there is no question that we needed some these last few months.

As things improve in 2021 — as I hope and expect they will — we will have a lot of people to thank. Some are visionaries, some are people of action, some do what they have always done but with more urgency and at greater risk, and some do what has never been done before.

Experiences, no matter how bitter, can be instructive. And this one is no exception. I have learned a great deal these last few months …

  1. Science is not the answer to every question. But the rejection of science, opposition to reason and evidence, is deadly.
  2. Pandemics are social scientific problems. Yes, they are public health and medical problems, and (laboratory) scientific problems, but genuine solutions require understanding why people think what they think and why people do what they do.
  3. The American people are, on average, undereducated in science and in civics. Every high school graduate should have a working knowledge of American government and a basic understanding of the scientific method. Without both, the ability to distinguish fact from fiction is severely undermined.
  4. Accurate information is essential to democracy and to prosperity. Misinformation intentionally flooded into the conversation is devastating and deadly. The crises of 2020 were fueled by media actors making statements they knew were false as they said them. Yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater is not free speech.
  5. Citizens of a democracy should hold strong commitment to core principles: belief in fundamental equality of all citizens; equality of justice under the law; freedom to speak one’s mind without threat of violence; commitment to the common good; the sanctity and universality of the right to vote, and an embrace of fully fair elections that includes a willingness to recognize the winner as legitimate. Unfortunately, these principles are far from universal.
  6. American political institutions are flawed and can be profoundly weak, but they have survived in part because of adherence to norms. Failing such adherence, our institutions may not be up to the task. We have seen entire clauses of the Constitution be made unenforceable and the “co-equal” nature of the elected branches swept away through judicial fiat. The power of the presidency has grown wildly beyond the intended constraints of the anti-monarchical framers.

So, yes, all that happened. But this happened too:

  1. There is still room for American exceptionalism. An astounding 154 million Americans cast votes in an election whose administration required unprecedented adaptation and courage. The 2020 election proceeded without violence or serious organizational breakdown.
  2. UCLA is an institution of startling capacity. Amid the pandemic, this institution has made critical contributions in health care and public health, crisis management and the relief of human misery, all while the entire campus was re-platformed to ensure continued delivery of a world-class education.
  3. These last 10 months included breathtaking acts of courage and kindness in all corners of society. The dedication to common good and genuine community that permeates our society remains, I believe, the best characteristic of our national character.
  4. The people of UCLA Luskin continue to pursue that common good. We have provided comfort to those in need of support, helped manage public agency responses, litigated to protect the right to vote, studied exhaustively the economic and human crises in the post-pandemic environment, and pushed for equitable treatment during this time of tremendous social stress. Luskin advocates passionately — based on good science — for positive change.

In recent months, our worst and best impulses have been evident simultaneously. At UCLA Luskin, we remain committed to minimizing the former, nurturing the latter, and making progress on the challenges that remain.

To a better year ahead.


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.”

Dreamers and Doers

Building on the “Called to Action” idea introduced in the previous issue of Luskin Forum, this issue focuses on more of the faculty, staff and students who make a difference and whose legacy represents a lasting impact.

The Luskin School is a magnet for scholars and practitioners with a passion to move society toward a better future. Sometimes, the best thing to do is step back, think big thoughts and ask questions. How should cities evolve to become more equitable? What can social programs do to better serve people in need? Which policy changes will improve the most lives? And sometimes the best thing is to roll up our sleeves and just tackle whichever challenges come next.

Challenges like the coronavirus pandemic.

Finding solutions to big problems requires inspiration and action. You need planning and practice. In recent months, an abundance of important work has come out of the Luskin School, and in the pages that follow, we present a cross-section of memorable things done by admirable people. Our dreamers and doers.