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Black Lives Matter Pioneer Named 2021 Commencement Speaker Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the global movement, is an author, educator and artist who has dedicated her life to racial justice

By Zoe Day

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, will deliver the 2021 Commencement address for the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Cullors, an educator, artist and best-selling author who has been on the front lines of community organizing for 20 years, will appear at the June 11 Commencement celebration on an online platform due to COVID-19 health concerns.

In 2013, the UCLA alumna created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter, which grew into an international movement for racial justice and reform. Last year, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in 2020.

“Patrisse Cullors is at the heart — and the foundation — of a movement for human rights, social change and genuine equality under the law,” UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura said. “Her work and the work of those who follow is way past due.

“The time has long since come for our society to come to a reckoning regarding the violence and abuse we visit on Black Americans,” Segura said. “She is the ideal person to deliver a message of mission to our 2021 graduates.”

As a teenager, Cullors became interested in activism and joined the Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group that fought for increased funding for bus systems in Los Angeles. She later started Dignity and Power Now, a coalition formed to shed light on brutality by sheriff’s deputies in county jails.

She has also led the JusticeLA and Reform L.A. Jails coalitions, helping them to win progressive ballot measures, fight against a $3.5 billion jail expansion plan in Los Angeles County, and implement the first Civilian Oversight Commission of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

Her activism has been informed by her studies of revolutionaries, critical theory and social movements around the world. She earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from UCLA in 2012 and received her master’s in fine arts from USC.

In 2013, Cullors co-founded the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi in response to an acquittal in the killing of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Today, the organization supports Black-led movements in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada and has been nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2018, Cullors and co-author Asha Bandele published “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir,” which became a New York Times best-seller.

In 2020, Cullors co-produced the 12-part YouTube series “Resist,” which chronicles the fight against Los Angeles County’s jail expansion plan. She also signed a multi-year production deal with Warner Bros. and has said she intends to use the contract to continue to uplift Black stories, talent and creators.

Cullors serves as the faculty director of Arizona’s Prescott College, where she designed the curriculum for a new master’s of fine arts program focusing on the intersection of art, social justice and community organizing.

It’s Like Reliving History, Yaroslavsky Says

Thirty years after the video of the brutal police beating of Rodney King went viral, Los Angeles Initiative Director Zev Yaroslavsky spoke to USA Today about the killing of George Floyd and the jarring similarities between the two events. A group of white police officers who beat King in March 1991 were acquitted the following year by a mostly white jury in Los Angeles, prompting massive unrest and calls for social reforms. At the time, Yaroslavsky was a Los Angeles city councilman. Last year, Floyd’s death in Minneapolis prompted protests led by the Black Lives Matter social justice movement, and the police officer involved is now on trial for murder. “What happened that instant, on that sidewalk, at that moment, that was not a one-off. It’s a story that has replayed itself for decades, over and over again,” Yaroslavsky said of Floyd’s death. “When I look at what’s happening in Minneapolis, I see L.A. in 1992, so it’s like reliving history again.”


Umemoto on Preserving Asian American History

Karen Umemoto, urban planning professor and director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, was featured in an NBC News article about the role of ethnic studies programs in preserving Asian American history. Many of the activists who led the Asian American movement in the 1960s for representation in politics, scholarship and culture are now passing away. The loss has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re at an important point in history where we have to record their stories,” Umemoto said. “There are so many rich life lessons that we can learn from their involvement in movements for social change.” It has been more than 50 years since the first Asian American studies curricula were established in California colleges, but only a handful of post-secondary institutions offer degrees in the field. Even within those programs, the story of the Asian American civil rights movement and the people who built it is often given short shrift, Umemoto said.


Roy on the Intersection of Scholarship and Activism

Professor of Social Welfare and Urban Planning Ananya Roy was featured on a Quarantine Tapes podcast episode exploring the shared struggles of scholars and activists. Roy’s research focuses on the relationship between property, personhood and the police, as well as the ways in which inequality and power fixate in space. Roy, director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, explained how universities as elite institutions continue to reproduce racial harm and discussed her recent experiences calling for UCLA to divest from the police. “We’ve become very good at gestures,” she said. “We’re not very good at actually nurturing students and faculty who come from the communities most impacted by racial harm.” She argued that “we must challenge the university as an institution if we are to produce scholarship to accompany movements,” emphasizing the importance of journeying with and learning from the movements and communities on the front lines in a shared space of scholarship.


Report Rooted in Pandemic’s Unequal Impacts Proposes Sweeping Reforms to Advance Racial Justice in L.A.

A dramatic agenda for regional change is outlined in a new report that attacks systemic racism and lays out a roadmap for transformation centered in racial equity. “No Going Back: Together for an Equitable and Inclusive Los Angeles” offers 10 guiding principles on issues such as housing, economic justice, mental and physical health, youth and immigration. It includes dozens of policy recommendations that include:

  • establishing high-speed internet as a civil right;
  • equal access to services regardless of immigration status;
  • a housing-for-all strategy to end homelessness in Los Angeles.

“Many of us have spent our careers enabling broken, racist systems, and this moment calls us to create something better,” said Miguel Santana, chair of the Committee for Greater LA, a diverse group of civic and community leaders who joined with a joint USC/UCLA research team, backed by local philanthropy, to address the racial disparities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The report, written by Dean Gary Segura of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and Manuel Pastor of USC’s Equity Research Institute, seeks solutions that will advance racial equity, increase accountability and spark a broad civic conversation about L.A.’s future. “This is uncharted territory,” Segura said. “We can’t use the structures of the past as a basis for the future. We need new systems, better accountability and a clear vision of the Los Angeles that we want to become.”

Protests Bring Lasting Change, Zepeda-Millán Says

Associate Professor of Public Policy Chris Zepeda-Millán spoke to AP News about the long-term impact of protests. Studies estimate that over 15 million Americans have taken part in demonstrations decrying racial injustice following the death of George Floyd. While it’s too early to gauge the impact of current protests, a look at the history of U.S. activist movements — including calls for women’s suffrage and civil rights — highlights the victories that have been achieved through protesting. Zepeda-Millán weighed in on a 2006 bill seeking to classify undocumented immigrants as felons and penalizing anyone who assisted them. The bill was shut down in the Senate after millions turned out to protest against it. Zepeda-Millán credits the protests for both stopping the bill and encouraging voter registration among Latinos. However, he said the protests also intensified congressional polarization, dimming prospects for any immigration overhaul and citizenship for undocumented immigrants. 


Vacant Tourist Hotels Should Be Repurposed to House Homeless, Report Urges

A new UCLA report calls for the increased conversion of hotel rooms to provide shelter for thousands of people in Los Angeles who are predicted to lose their housing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report makes the case for an effort dubbed by the authors as (More) Hotels as Housing to repurpose tourist hotel and motel rooms that have become vacant during a downturn in global tourism that may extend for many years as a result of the health crisis. “We advocate shifting property use from hospitality to housing through the large-scale public acquisition of tourist hotels and motels,” write the report’s authors, who include Gary Blasi, a UCLA professor emeritus of law, and Professor Ananya Roy, the director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy. The report urges public officials to act quickly to protect thousands of newly unemployed workers who will soon face eviction for unpaid rent and are likely to become homeless as a result. The authors note that Los Angeles has a long history of building luxury hotels for which developers have benefited from public subsidies and land assembly. “It is time to redirect public resources and public purpose tools such as eminent domain for low-income and extremely low-income housing, especially in Black and Brown communities where public investment has primarily taken the form of policing,” according to Blasi, Roy and their co-authors, writer and grassroots organizer Jonny Coleman and housing justice activist and researcher Elana Eden.

Zepeda-Millán Sees BLM Protests as Inspiration for Latino Activists

Associate Professor of Public Policy Chris Zepeda-Millán was featured in a New York Times article about the role that Latinos have taken on in the Black Lives Matter movement. Both Black and Latino communities have been affected by police violence and systemic racism, even though the national focus of ongoing protests has chiefly been about the impact on Black Americans and the ways white Americans are responding to it. A recent poll by the New York Times and Siena College found that 21% of Hispanic voters said they had participated in Black Lives Matter protests, nearly identical to the 22% of Black voters who said they had done so. “Many Latino youth, they are making the connection, they are pressing their families to have difficult conversations,” Zepeda-Millán explained. For many liberal Latino activists, the Black Lives Matter movement and current wave of protests serve as a model and an inspiration.


A Celebration of the Extraordinary Amid once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, UCLA Luskin honors the Class of 2020

By Les Dunseith

It was a UCLA Luskin commencement ceremony unlike any other — delivered remotely by keynote speaker John A. Pérez to honor 281 graduates scattered across the nation and around the world amid a pandemic. 

“Clearly, these are not ordinary times,” Pérez said in his remarks, which remain available online and had been seen by a total of 1,265 new graduates and their loved ones as of midday Monday after the ceremony. The impact of the COVID-19 health crisis was obvious in the virtual setting, but Pérez, chair of the University of California Board of Regents and former speaker of the California Assembly, also took note of the political upheaval that has led hundreds of thousands of protesters worldwide to march for racial justice in recent weeks.

“My message to you today is also going to be somewhat different than usual. It has to be,” Pérez said. “It has to be different for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Stephon Clark and Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. For Sean Monterrosa and Manuel Ellis. And for Emmett Till and James Chaney and countless others — known and unknown — whose lives have been taken by the systemic racism that is the original sin and ongoing shame of our great nation.”

The new social welfare, planning and policy graduates earned their graduate degrees in extraordinary circumstances at a time that UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura views as a pivotal moment in the country’s history. He congratulated the Class of 2020 and also noted the high expectations they carry into their futures.

“This celebration is partly about what you have accomplished, but it is also about what you have yet to do,” said Segura, thanking the new graduates “for all that we expect you to do with all that you’ve learned.”

The virtual platform incorporated several wrinkles that set the 2020 celebration apart from previous UCLA Luskin graduations. In addition to the recorded remarks by Segura and Pérez, video presentations from California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, UC President Janet Napolitano and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block were woven into the online presentation that was made available to all graduates.

Other aspects of the ceremony were able to be customized for each of the three departments that awarded degrees. So, Chair Laura S. Abrams spoke to the Social Welfare graduates, Chair Vinit Mukhija addressed the Urban Planning Class of 2020, and Chair Martin Gilens offered advice and congratulations to the new Public Policy alumni.

Instead of the past tradition in which names of individual graduates were read as they walked across the stage at Royce Hall to be handed a diploma, this year’s graduating students got a few moments of dedicated screen time to themselves. Each graduate’s name appeared on screen as part of the departmental ceremony, often accompanied by a photo and a personal message of thanks or inspiration provided by the graduating student as a text message or a video clip — or both. And an online “Kudobard” allowed family and friends to offer messages of congratulations to the Class of 2020.

The presentations by the student speakers were also unique to each department this year. All three spoke of the memorable circumstances that they and their classmates experienced while wrapping up their graduate degrees during such an extraordinary time in history.

“No one wanted this. No one wants to live in this type of world,” said Social Welfare speaker Akinyi Shapiro, who views her graduation as a time for both celebration and reflection. “Listen to those who are being attacked for nothing other than the color of their skin. Decide who we want to be as social workers, how we’re going to change our communities and commit to anti-oppressive practices that will make this country better.”

Amy Zhou noted that the stay-at-home order in Los Angeles took place just as the winter quarter was winding up at UCLA. “We had no idea that the last time my classmates and I would see each other at the end of the winter quarter would be the last time that we would see each other in person as a graduating class.”

Zhou took advantage of the virtual platform to include a series of video clips that showed her and her classmates pledging solidarity in their dedication to practice planning in a manner that will uplift their communities. “When one falls, we all fall,” they conclude, their voices in unison. “When one rises, we all rise.”

As with any commencement, the virtual ceremony was also an opportunity for the graduating students to acknowledge their mentors — the faculty, friends and, especially, family members who have helped them along their journeys.

Muchisimas gracias,” said Kassandra Hernandez of Public Policy during her commencement remarks. “Thank you, mom and dad, for all that you’ve given me — all the sacrifices you have made for me.”

Hernandez then addressed her peers. “You are ready to take on the world and cause some change because we all know that that’s why we came to Luskin — to cause change.”

In his keynote address, Pérez also spoke of change. He talked about his time as a leader in California’s government, pointing to accomplishments such as health care reform and the creation of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. That financial reserve had grown to about $16 billion by the time of the pandemic, he noted, helping the current Legislature and governor lessen the economic damage from the COVID-19 downturn.

In Pérez’s view, making a meaningful difference to society requires not only a vision, but perseverance. 

“As graduates of one of the nation’s premier schools for progressive planning and policy, you need to be among the leaders. Make ripples. Make waves,” he said. “Push yourself. Push the system. And when you think you’ve pushed enough, take a step, take a pause, and then push some more.”

Umemoto’s ‘Mountain Movers’ Wins Bronze Book Award

“Mountain Movers: Student Activism & the Emergence of Asian American Studies,” a book co-edited by Urban Planning Professor Karen Umemoto, was awarded a bronze medal in the 2020 Independent Publisher Book Awards for “Best Regional Nonfiction” in the West-Pacific region. Umemoto was one of six editors on the team that put together “Mountain Movers,” which chronicles the legacy of student activism at UCLA, UC Berkeley and San Francisco State. Published last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Asian American Studies programs that were established on all three campuses in 1969, the book profiles students who mobilized peers and community members to further the study of Asian American communities on their campuses. The “IPPY” Awards, launched in 1996 by Jenkins Group and IndependentPublisher.com, are designed to increase recognition of deserving but often unsung titles by independent authors and publishers. Established as the first awards program open exclusively to independent, university and self-published titles, over 5,500 “IPPYs” have been awarded in the last 24 years to authors and publishers around the world, recognizing excellence in a broad range of styles and subjects.


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