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Charting the Rise of Latino Empowerment UCLA Luskin Lecture brings together political forces who forged a path for the next generation of leaders

By Mary Braswell

Leading Los Angeles political figures who paved the way for Latino empowerment over the last half-century took the stage at UCLA to share their strategies and personal stories — and underscore that the work is not finished.

To longtime Angelenos, their names were familiar: Alatorre, Cedillo, Molina, Polanco and Villaraigosa. Collectively, their influence has been felt far beyond Southern California.

The speakers are among 10 L.A.-based pioneers profiled in the book “Power Shift: How Latinos in California Transformed Politics in America.” Authors George Pla and David Ayón joined the May 14 conversation in the Ackerman Grand Ballroom as part of the Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture Series.

“There are 60 million Latinos in the United States, 15 million in California. And the panelists are right, they continue to be stereotyped, continue to be invisible,” Pla said. “But ‘Power Shift’ is not about one group over another. It’s an American story about a group of individuals who have made contributions to our entire society in California and the United States.”

Blazing trails carries an immense responsibility, the panelists agreed.

“We had to kick open the door in order to really get in there and set the example,” said Gloria Molina, the first Latina to be elected to the California legislature and to Los Angeles City Council and the first woman on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

“Being the first, everybody was watching. It’s really very important to be at your best all of the time,” she said.

Friends since high school, Gil Cedillo and Antonio Villaraigosa became passionate political activists during their years at UCLA in the early 1970s. Cedillo went on to serve in the state legislature and now sits on the L.A. City Council. Villaraigosa spent decades in public service, including as speaker of the California Assembly and mayor of Los Angeles.

Also in the 1970s, Richard Alatorre was elected to the Assembly before becoming, in 1985, only the second Latino to serve on the L.A. City Council in the 20th Century.

Richard Polanco completed Alatorre’s Assembly term, launching a 15-year tenure in the legislature that was hailed for increasing Latino representation.

“Tonight is really important to me personally,” said Gary Segura, dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, which hosted the event. Segura’s work in Latino politics began in the 1990s, when California was roiled by two ballot initiatives. Proposition 187, which denied public services to undocumented immigrants, was later found unconstitutional. Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in public hiring and university admissions, is still in place.

“I owe my career, and in many ways my current position, to the mobilization of Latino electorates and leaders that resulted in those wars of the mid-1990s that reshaped California and will reshape, eventually, the United States,” Segura said.

Sonja Diaz, the evening’s moderator, noted that the gathered leaders were anything but single-issue politicians. On health care, LGBTQ issues, voting rights and community development, they effected changes felt far beyond the Latino community, said Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, which is based at UCLA Luskin.

Villaraigosa concurred. “Across the board, all of us, we were not just Latino leaders, we were leaders for the whole state. We were progressives in our time, focusing on issues across the spectrum,” he said.

While coalition-building is important, Cedillo said, “We should be very clear that our community at this very moment is under attack, under siege” by a Trump Administration that has demonized the Latino community. “We should not pause or be shy about organizing ourselves as a community to defend our interests.”

Inspiring the next generation of Latino leaders is key to that effort and part of the reason “Power Shift” was written. The book also profiles political and labor leaders Miguel Contreras, Maria Elena Durazo, Ed Roybal, Art Torres and Esteban Torres.

The Luskin Lecture audience included two UCLA undergraduates who arrived early enough to receive a free copy of “Power Shift.”

Tatiana Velasquez, a chemistry and materials science major, and Patricia Valdezco, a political science major, said they grew up in California but were not aware of the trailblazing history of the evening’s speakers.

“It always goes back to the state curriculum, and what’s being taught is not this,” Velasquez said.

Molina recounted a conversation with her young niece, who read “Power Shift” and asked her classmates to name leaders in the Latino community.

“These sixth-graders had a hard time coming up with a name, but they finally concluded that it was Cesar Chavez and Pitbull,” Molina said. “The children got very angry. … They said, ‘Why aren’t we learning this? Why don’t we know this?’ ”

She added, “We need young people to understand that this isn’t a history that was, oh, way back then and now is now. We need to continue that kind of leadership today. … We are not finished. Our agenda has just begun.”

View photos from the UCLA Luskin Lecture on Flickr.

Power Shift

Census 2020 and Its Impact on Los Angeles Experts and community organizers discuss a potential citizenship question on the U.S. Census and how to prevent undercounts in minority communities

By Gabriela Solis

With the next U.S. Census in 2020 drawing near, political and community leaders are working now to plan strategically and ensure that all communities are accurately counted in Los Angeles.

With that in mind, a recent panel discussion hosted by Sonja Diaz, executive director of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative (LPPI), focused on issues related to the 2020 Census.

The Trump administration has pushed to add a question about respondents’ citizenship status to the 2020 Census, and accurate counts of communities across Los Angeles are threatened, many experts say. According to research by UCLA Professor Matt Barreto, 69.9 percent of Latinos, 39.4 of blacks and 99.9 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders expressed concern that the citizenship question would lead to their immigration status being shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“Community groups need to prepare … With or without a citizenship question, there will remain major concerns and fear among our communities,” Barreto told a crowd on the UCLA campus during an April 24 panel discussion about the Census.

Barreto, who is faculty co-director of LPPI, and other experts have noted that billions of dollars in federal program funding is at stake. The Census also determines the number of representatives for each state in the U.S. House, so an undercount could cost California some political clout.

To ensure this does not happen, community organizations can play a vital role.

Erica Bernal-Martinez is chief operating officer of the National Association of Latino Elected Official (NALEO) Educational Fund, the nation’s leading nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that facilitates full Latino participation in the American political process. Even without a citizenship question, Bernal-Martinez said, many vulnerable communities are often undercounted.

Members of Bernal-Martinez’s organization work closely with community leaders across the United States in an effort dubbed Get Out the Count. This year, children are one of the campaign’s focuses, because “400,000 Latino children were not counted in the 2010 census,” she said.

Los Angeles County represents a fourth of the state’s population, and it is one of California’s hardest-to-count regions, particularly within the county’s most diverse neighborhoods in central and east Los Angeles, and south to Compton. But there are best practices that can increase participation even in communities that often have low civic engagement.

For example, Berenice Nuñez, vice president of government relations at Altamed, shared her agency’s tactic to promote election participation in communities with low-propensity voters. Altamed is the largest federally qualified health center in California, and the organization produced an innovative voter mobilization campaign aimed to inform, empower and mobilize their patients and employees during the November 2018 midterm elections.

The campaign included such strategies as canvassing, registering legal residents to vote, distributing bilingual voter guides, sending phone messages about upcoming elections while patients were on hold, and providing transportation assistance on Election Day.

An analysis conducted by LPPI of Altamed’s campaign found remarkable success for the strategy. The Latino vote increased by 432 percent in South Gate and 330 percent in Boyle Heights, which were two targeted communities.

“I challenge you to join us at the table to make sure our communities are counted,” said Nuñez, who encouraged community leaders in attendance at a UCLA event in April to use the Altamed campaign as a model for future elections — and to ensure participation in minority communities during the 2020 U.S. Census.

Segura Weighs In on California’s Role in the 2020 Race


 

SB50 Would Ease Housing Crisis, Manville Says

Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville weighed in on the controversial Senate Bill 50 in a recent Los Angeles Times column. SB50 aims to relieve the housing shortage, reduce commuting time and combat climate change by requiring cities to allow multi-family complexes to be built in areas near mass transit, among other provisions. Many California residents have expressed concern that SB50 would increase housing density and destroy the integrity and character of their neighborhoods. Manville understands the concerns of residents but believes that everyone must contribute to solving the housing crisis, including those living “smack dab in the middle” of the nation’s second-largest city. “We have people in our city living in tents. They live in their cars. They live under our highway overpasses and they die on our sidewalks,” Manville said. “At a certain point, the pedigree of your house has to matter a little bit less.”


Yaroslavsky Argues for Preservation of Single-Family Housing

Director of the Los Angeles Initiative Zev Yaroslavsky was featured in the Los Angeles Times commenting on Senate Bill 50. According to census data, nearly two-thirds of California residences are single-family homes and between half and three-quarters of the developable land in much of the state is zoned for single-family housing only. Among other provisions, SB50 would allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes to be built on much of the residential land now zoned for only single-family houses. “When people around the world think of L.A., one of the things they think of is a home with a backyard,” Yaroslavsky said. “I think much of it should be preserved.” Doing away with single-family-only zoning would unalterably diminish California for current and future residents, he said.


Former Congresswoman Discusses Path to Political Office

Mimi Walters, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2014 to 2019, shared her personal pathway to political office, “From Orange County to Washington, D.C.,” at a noontime talk May 9 to an audience that included graduate students and undergraduates from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The Republican former lawmaker, who represented California’s 45th district, also served previously in both the California State Senate and State Assembly. Walters talked about what it took to win campaigns from student government in high school to a seat on her local city council in Laguna Niguel to state and federal seats. For Walters, success has come through preparation that included volunteer work, participation in and support for other candidates, and fundraising. “I said, ‘If I really want to do this, I better learn how to campaign.’ So I got involved in other people’s races. I worked on other people’s campaigns. That is how I learned how to run a race.” She added, “The other thing … when you go and volunteer for somebody’s campaign and you someday want to run, they remember.” Navkaran Gurm, a first-year pre-major in Public Affairs, said he was impressed by Walter’s talk and how candid she was about what is required to seek elected office. “It was a good intellectual exchange. She gave us the facts and inside look at the life of a politician,” Gurm said.


 

More Is Less on L.A.’s I-405, Michael Manville Says

Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville is quoted in a StreetsBlog USA article on worsening traffic congestion in and around Los Angeles, especially in the Sepulveda Pass. The completion of the I-405 Sepulveda Pass Improvement Project in 2015 was projected to alleviate congestion, but studies have shown that traffic is worse despite the addition of an extra lane. This phenomenon, known as the law of induced demand, explains how travel time on the pass during rush hour has gone up by 50 percent in the past four years. According to the theory, when the supply of a good (in this case traffic lanes) is increased, more of that good will ultimately be consumed. “So you have a road that is every bit as congested, just wider,” Manville said. On possible fixes for the problem, Manville explained that establishing a toll system may be the best way to combat traffic: “When you do price the road, people switch to transit.” 


 

Pollution Doesn’t Care About Your Politics, de León Writes

Kevin de León, former president pro tempore of the California State Senate and current policymaker-in-residence and senior analyst at UCLA Luskin, co-authored an opinion piece with former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Sacramento Bee stressing the urgency of combating climate change and pollution in California. Air pollution in the Central Valley and Los Angeles has increased asthma attacks, emergency room visits and premature deaths, according to the 20th annual State of the Air report published by the American Lung Association. Despite coming from opposite sides of the political spectrum, de León and Schwarzenegger agree that “asthma and other lung diseases have no party affiliation.” The effects of climate change on air quality can be seen in increasing smog, ozone pollution and frequency of wildfires. Schwarzenegger and de León propose “aggressively cutting transportation pollution,” concluding that “protecting our citizens should be a cause everyone can get behind, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum.”


Institute on Inequality and Democracy Highlighted for Debt Relief Activism

The Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin was featured in a Public Seminar essay that highlighted the institute’s continuing collaborative efforts to support “organizations that conduct critical work on behalf of the dispossessed, including debtors, those displaced by gentrification and the formerly incarcerated.” Student debt and the prospect of tuition-free public universities have lately moved from fringe debate to a mainstream topic of discussion among Democratic presidential candidates. The institute has served as a model for creating reciprocal relationships between academia and debt relief organizations, often giving voice to academics who argue that “educational institutions that run on debt are in conflict with those who critique such models or who are working to concretely transform them.” This is “all the more reason for activists … to work in collaboration with those who may have access to resources but whose institutional affiliations may limit them in other ways,” the essay said.


 

Government Leaders Join Scholars to Discuss Policy Solutions During UCLA Luskin Summit Congresswoman Karen Bass opens the inaugural convening of a research-informed, cross-sector conference about issues facing the region

By Les Dunseith

Elected officials, scholars, civic leaders, and difference-makers in the nonprofit and philanthropic spheres came together April 24 to learn the results of the annual Quality of Life Index and discuss policy issues during a half-day conference put together by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Congresswoman Karen Bass provided the morning’s keynote address for “Luskin Summit 2019: Livable L.A.,” an event that also kicked off the 25th anniversary celebration at the Luskin School.

Bass opened the conference by jokingly telling more than 300 people in attendance at the UCLA Luskin Conference Center that she “wanted to tell you about what we are doing in D.C. because, if you watch some TV news, you have no idea what we are doing in D.C.”

Bass has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2011. She said that “Democrats and Republicans actually do work together” in the nation’s capital.

“We don’t hate each other,” Bass said, smiling broadly. “Our accomplishments unfortunately don’t sustain media attention. So you might hear that we passed legislation on something like gun control … and then somebody tweets, and that’s all you hear about for the next several hours.”

The congresswoman’s remarks set a cooperative tone for the inaugural Luskin Summit, which focused on finding solutions through research and policy change. The conference emphasized a Los Angeles perspective during breakout sessions moderated by UCLA faculty members that focused on issues such as public mobility, climate change, housing and criminal justice.

Providing a framework for those discussions was the unveiling of the fourth Quality of Life Index, a project at UCLA Luskin that is supported by The California Endowment under the direction of longtime Los Angeles political stalwart Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative. The survey asks county residents to rate their quality of life in a range of categories and to answer questions about important issues facing them and the region.

“The cost of living, and particularly the cost of housing, is the single biggest drag on the rating that residents ultimately give to their quality of life in Los Angeles,” Yaroslavsky told Luskin Summit attendees. “The unmistakable takeaway from this project continues to be the crippling impact of the cost of living in Los Angeles County, punctuated by the extraordinary cost of housing.”

The housing affordability crisis was echoed throughout the event and in the days that followed as Yaroslavsky explained details of the survey in coverage by news outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, local radio news programs, and broadcast television reports by the local affiliates for NBC and ABC.

The coverage by KABC (also known as ABC7 Los Angeles) included segments on daily news broadcasts and a follow-up discussion with Yaroslavsky scheduled to air May 26 on the station’s weekly public affairs program, “Eyewitness Newsmakers.” That program is hosted by Adrienne Alpert, a general assignment reporter at ABC7 who served as the moderator for the Luskin Summit.

Alpert also hosted a panel discussion that closed the conference, during which mayors of four cities in Los Angeles County — Emily Gabel-Luddy of Burbank, Thomas Small of Culver City, James Butts of Inglewood and Tim Sandoval of Pomona — spoke frankly about the challenges their cities face in dealing with issues such as the rising cost of housing and its potential to lead to displacement of low-income residents.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a former colleague of Yaroslavsky on the Los Angeles City Council, was also in attendance at the conference. Padilla engaged in a lively exchange about election security and voter registration efforts with UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura during a lunch meeting of panelists, faculty members and sponsors that took place immediately after the summit.

Segura also provided remarks during the morning session, introducing Bass and giving attendees a preview of the day to follow.

“Today you will hear from a series of dedicated public officials who understand that as great as our nation is, it can be better,” Segura said. “And they are taking action to make our country and our city more effective, more innovative, more fair and more inclusive.”

During her remarks, Bass offered her perspective on the recently released investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“One thing that is a responsibility by the Constitution for Congress — we are supposed to provide oversight and investigation of the administration,” Bass said. “Most of the time it’s not that controversial, and you don’t really hear about it. But it’s made to be super-controversial now because we are in a hyper-partisan situation.”

The bitter partisanship prevalent in Washington today does have a positive aspect, she said, in that Americans seem to be paying closer attention to government and political issues.

“I am hoping that this trauma that we have collectively gone through will lead to a change in our American culture,” Bass said, “because as a culture we tend not to be involved politically.”

Bass said that more people seem to have a deeper understanding of political actions related to “immigration, the Muslim ban, the environment — all the kind of negative things that this administration has done,” said Bass, a Democrat who has been critical of many Trump administration policies. “I think he has sparked a new level of awareness and involvement, where we are working across our silos. I think, ultimately, we can take advantage of this period and bring about transformative change.”

The idea of initiating transformative change was a popular notion among many attendees at the Luskin Summit, as was the focus on making Los Angeles a more livable place.

“I can’t think of a better topic than how to make our city more livable and touch on all of these different aspects of life and the built environment and our environment in Los Angeles,” said Nurit Katz MPP/MBA ’08, the chief sustainability officer at UCLA.

Wendy Greuel BA ’83 is a former Los Angeles city controller and past president of the Los Angeles City Council. She noted that the research presented during the Luskin Summit was timely and focused “on issues that matter to Los Angeles, but also to this country and this world.”

Greuel served as the chair of the UCLA Luskin Advisory Board committee that helped plan the Luskin Summit. “I think that UCLA Luskin is at the forefront of really focusing on issues that matter and being able to give us real-life solutions and address the challenges,” she said.

Another UCLA Luskin Advisory Board member is Stephen Cheung BA ’00 MSW ’07, who is president of the World Trade Center Los Angeles and executive vice president at the L.A. County Economic Development Corporation.

“I think anything that has to do with sustainability and the growth of Los Angeles as a whole is very important to the economic vitality of this region,” Cheung said as the event got underway. “So this summit and all the information that’s going to be provided will really set a roadmap in terms of what we need to do, addressing public policies in terms of creating new opportunities for our companies here.”

Jackie Guevarra, executive director of the Quality and Productivity Commission of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, said she attended the Luskin Summit because of her interest in the issues under discussion, including housing affordability.

“Homelessness is a big issue that L.A. County is tackling right now,” Guevarra said. “That is an issue that touches all of us. … The more that we have that conversation, the more people we can get to the same way of thinking about how to address the need — so that maybe we can all say, ‘Yes, we need affordable housing, and it’s OK for it to be here in my community.’”

Misch Anderson is a community activist with the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, a volunteer organization created in 2013 after a series of fatal crashes involving cars, pedestrians and cyclists.

“I was feeling like my activism put me in touch with such a small, kind of silo-ized community mindset, and I really want to break out of that and connect with people on a larger level,” said Anderson about her reason for attending the summit. “I just wanted to get some inspiration.”

Her takeaway from the summit?

“The idea that we need cultural change, essentially. I think the realities of globalism should be forcing us as individuals to think more widely, more as a larger group, and not be so xenophobic,” Anderson said. “I keep hearing about cultural change [at the summit] and thinking about what can I do — what can each of us do.”

Among the UCLA students in attendance was Tam Guy, a second-year Urban Planning Ph.D. candidate who is studying equity in the city, which encompasses housing, transportation and environmental design.

“One thing that interested me about this summit in particular is that they’re bringing in people from outside academia to talk about the issues, people who are actually on the ground dealing with policy day-to-day,” Guy noted.

The Luskin Summit drew a large crowd to the UCLA campus, and several hundred people watched a live stream of selected presentations. It drew interest near and far. A prime example was a group seated together near the back of the vast ballroom during the opening session — high school students from New Zealand!

The youths had been traveling up and down the West Coast with Joanna Speed, international coordinator with Crimson Education, a college admissions consulting service that exposes teens to potential careers and educational opportunities abroad. Coincidentally, the group scheduled its campus tour of UCLA for April 24. When they saw that the summit was happening that day, they asked to attend.

“It’s been an incredible experience for them,” Speed said.

Mary Braswell and Stan Paul also contributed to this story. 

View additional photos from the UCLA Luskin Summit

UCLA Luskin Summit 2019: Livable L.A.

Watch videos recorded during the event: