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Public Policy Students Take On the Health Care Digital Divide Effort to widen access to telemedicine is one of 15 immersive projects aimed at developing policy solutions for real-world clients

By Mary Braswell

When Sophia Li decided to apply to graduate school to pursue her interest in health policy, she could not have known that the field would soon be upended by a protracted global health emergency.

Along with most of her peers in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs’ master of public policy program, Li began her studies in September 2020, when COVID-19 had already taken more than 1 million lives worldwide and the arrival of vaccines was still months away.

When the time came to embark on the public policy program’s exacting capstone project, Li chose to focus on an inequity brought into sharp focus by the pandemic: As they isolated in their homes, more people turned to telemedicine for their health care needs — but that option was not available to people who lacked computers, smart phones and internet service.

“The pandemic really did shine a light on the possibilities that telemedicine brings,” Li said, “but it also showed that, while the upper half are benefiting from this, what does this mean for the lower half that have these barriers to access?”

Li was part of a team that explored this question on behalf of their client, the nonprofit Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County. On an evening in May, Li and teammates Stacy Songco, who is earning a master of public policy and a doctorate in medicine, Xinyuan Qi, Ziyi Wei and Yixuan Yu boiled down a year’s worth of policy research and analysis into a 20-minute summary.

They were among nearly 70 second-year students to complete 15 applied policy projects this year, a rite of passage before receiving their UCLA master of public policy degrees. The capstone projects challenge students to find solutions to real-life policy dilemmas on behalf of clients in Los Angeles, across the state and nation, and around the world.

Networking with UCLA Luskin alumni had connected Li with the Community Clinic Association, which supports 65 neighborhood clinics in underserved areas. At the time, the nonprofit was “just dipping their toes into the digital divide issue,” she said.

The team spent months speaking with medical staff, local policymakers, internet service providers and, of course, the patients themselves. The conversations took place via Zoom because of COVID restrictions, but also in person, to make sure those without the means to gather virtually would be heard.

By year’s end, the team had developed more than a dozen recommendations, including the creation of a new role of digital navigator — a clinic staff member trained to guide individuals through the often-confounding world of broadband access, as well as benefits they may be entitled to, which change from ZIP code to ZIP code.

The students proposed a mechanism to receive federal funds for this new position. They stressed that information should be provided in multiple languages, and not just online but in printable formats, for those unable to access the internet. And they quickly determined that unlocking digital doors would open up a world of services and opportunities beyond telemedicine.

One of their focus groups spoke of their experiences with the California Lifeline program, which provides discounted landline and cell phone services to low-income households. While some found it confusing, “we had one unhoused individual who said, ‘Actually, you know what? I can walk you through all the paperwork, I can talk to you about how to use this,’” Li said.

“If people from the community could tap their experiences to guide others and receive compensation as a digital navigator, imagine the possibilities.”

The project culminated in a full published report for the Community Clinic Association and a formal presentation before Luskin faculty, staff and students, including the team’s advisor, Public Policy chair Martin Gilens.

Other capstone projects completed by the class of 2022 dealt with how to protect the rights of car wash workers, whether to expand the number of seats on the Los Angeles City Council, how to balance public health and humane treatment of asylum seekers at the border, as well as homelessness, mass transit, criminal justice and more.

“It’s an immersive experience. The students value that, and the marketplace also values that,” said Wesley Yin, an associate professor of public policy and economics who has served as coordinator and advisor in the applied policy projects program.

“There’s a professionalism that makes it much more than a class project,” Yin said. “It equips students with the rich experience and knowledge to seamlessly integrate into an organization.”

Li said her team emerged with unexpected areas of expertise. “The digital divide is a really complicated issue that has everything from some little niche funding source that you need to know about, to complex infrastructure issues and these really technical things that you need to understand,” she said.

As she looks toward graduation, Li reflects on the turns in her education that brought her to this point.

She transferred from Chaffey College to UC Merced, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in public health, then managed the rigors of earning her master of public policy at a time of pandemic. Selected as a Presidential Management Fellow, Li will spend the next two years in a program that helps train young scholars to become the next generation of leaders in federal government.

“It’s been a lot of these 90-degree turns that keep putting me on the right path,” Li said. “So let’s go explore new things.”

View photos of this year’s applied policy project presentations on Flickr.

Applied Policy Projects 2022

Yaroslavsky on Inflation’s Fallout on Local Elections

Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA Luskin, spoke to KPCC’s “AirTalk” about the impact of Southern California’s widening economic gap on upcoming elections. Yaroslavsky cited results of the 2022 UCLA Quality of Life Index, which found a steep drop in residents’ satisfaction with life in L.A. County, largely due to concerns over inflation and public safety. “What stands out is that people are unhappy, they’re anxious, they’re angry, they’re concerned,” Yaroslavsky said. Lower-income households, hard hit by lost wages and rising inflation, have been slower to rebound from the financial shock of the COVID-19 era, the survey showed. “We are the ground zero in this country of the economic divide,” Yaroslavsky said. The Quality of Life Index also showed a decline in approval ratings of many local government officials. “Inflation, I think, is the most pernicious thing economically that we have in our society,” Yaroslavsky said. “That will have a political bite like nothing else.”

‘A Book Can Save a Life:’ UCLA Luskin Alumna Starts Library at L.A. County Jail Ahmanise Sanati is named Social Welfare Alumna of the Year

By Madeline Adamo

Social worker Ahmanise Sanati was stuck. Five weeks into her therapy sessions with a man incarcerated at the Los Angeles County Twin Towers Correctional Facility, and he still wouldn’t say a word.

Then Sanati started talking with him about the popular philosophy book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and he finally opened.

“Asking them what kind of books they like sparks their interest, because it might be one of the only interactions they have with another person who has taken an interest in them,” said Sanati, an alumna of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs’ graduate program in social welfare and a mental health clinical supervisor with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

“They love reading for just the same reasons any one of us love reading,” she said. “This is a time when a book can really save a life.”

‘When we stand up for something, we never know how much we are affecting other people who are watching.’ — Ahmanise Sanati, MSW ’10

Sanati has worked at the Twin Towers for 11 years, during which time she’s brought in books and articles for the people who are incarcerated there. But in 2020, as COVID-19 tore through prisons and jails in the United States, including Twin Towers, the already dehumanizing environment of jail got much worse, Sanati said. In response, she started a “passion project,” expanding her book exchange into a catalogued system with 16 mobile bookshelves that would be dispersed throughout the jail. Then came the donations.

“It’s just spiraled out of control, because people care,” said Sanati, who has accumulated about 5,000 books, which rotate on and off the shelves, thanks to collection drives and strangers reaching out with donations. Sanati said she was most surprised by support she got from the Rotary Club of Westchester, as well as a crowdsourcing campaign for the cause started by Skylight Books in Los Feliz. The Skylight campaign raised more than $11,000 and went toward purchasing new books.

“When we stand up for something, we never know how much we are affecting other people who are watching,” Sanati said.

Most of the book requests have been either mysteries and science fiction titles, but a few outlier requests have touched Sanati, including one person who devoured the “Harry Potter” books and another who was into “Game of Thrones.” She said that many of the incarcerated individuals who cannot read have asked for graphic novels, which she is working hard to source along with books in Spanish.

For this amazing work, Sanati has been chosen as the Joseph A. Nunn Social Welfare Alumna of the Year. The award recognizes social work professionals who have contributed leadership and service to the school, university or community, and who have distinguished themselves through commitment and dedication to a particular area of social work.

The award is named after Nunn, who received his master’s in social welfare from UCLA in 1970 and his doctorate in 1990, and has been given out since 2007. Nunn was also former director of field education and vice chair of UCLA Social Welfare. Sanati, who was selected as the social welfare student of the year while a graduate student, was recognized at a May 12 ceremony at UCLA.

An innate desire to challenge social injustice put Sanati on the path to becoming a social worker soon after graduating from the University of Massachusetts Boston. Sanati said she saw a graduate program in social welfare as an opportunity to nurture the “dignity and worth of human connection” in the name of change.

Having grown up in L.A., Sanati said UCLA was her natural choice for higher education, but also a “long shot” for someone who, up until that point, hadn’t known much about master’s programs. “I just didn’t know that I could do it,” said Sanati, who got accepted to UCLA and received her master’s in social welfare in 2010.

During the MSW program, Sanati completed her field placement at the Twin Towers and her second-year placement as a school social worker. But having loved her experience working with people who are incarcerated, Sanati returned and has been there ever since. That’s not to say things have always been easy. In 2020, Sanati reached out to elected officials with her concerns about the jail not providing personal protective equipment to its staff and inmates to fight against the spread of COVID-19.

“This is what I signed up for,” she said. “This is part of the good trouble I have to get involved with and the only way to make change.”

The Twin Towers Correctional Facility, located in downtown Los Angeles, is the nation’s largest mental health facility, according to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

Unlike prison, people in the jail are confined to their cells at all times, with people at risk for suicide often facing solitary confinement for their own safety, Sanati said. When a book is the only item an incarcerated person can have, she said the jail ought to provide it.

Sanati has remained active at the Luskin School, where she works with current UCLA students as the California Region H director of the National Association of Social Workers. She served as student liaison for the region during her master’s program, attending the association’s legislative lobby days (an annual two-day trip to Sacramento that provides college students across the region the opportunity to meet with legislators and speak about different bills important to social welfare).

Sanati is now serving her second term in the role and mentoring social welfare students, some of whom are expanding her vision of correctional facility libraries. One Cal State LA student, who is not affiliated with UCLA, reached out to Sanati on social media expressing her desire to start a library at a youth detention center.

“I want to continue to help speak to and represent our profession,” Sanati said, “and I want to do whatever I can to help foster and support social workers not only in school, but moving forward into our communities.”

For more information on the mobile library, please contact: libraryproject.lacountyjail@gmail.com

View a Flickr album of photos from the 2022 Social Welfare alumni reception.

Social Welfare Alumni Reception 2022

Yaroslavsky on Worrisome Survey of L.A. County Residents

Worrisome findings from this year’s UCLA Quality of Life Index drew coverage from several print, online, television and radio news outlets. The index, a project of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA Luskin, found that L.A. County residents’ satisfaction with the overall quality of their lives is at its lowest level since the survey was launched in 2016. “What the pandemic couldn’t do over the last two years, inflation and increases in violent and property crime succeeded in doing,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative. Still, nearly 70% of respondents said that COVID-19 has fundamentally changed their lives. “This finding — that life has been permanently altered — may be the most profound,” Yaroslavsky said. News outlets covering the 2022 Quality of Life Index include the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine and La Opinión; television stations ABC7, CBS2, FOX11, KNBC, KTLA and Telemundo 52; and radio stations KFI and KNX1070.


 

‘COVID Compassion Is Over,’ Roy Says

Ananya Roy, director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy (II&D), spoke about her research on urban poverty from Los Angeles to Kolkata, India, as the featured guest on the podcast “J.T. the L.A. Storyteller.” Roy spoke of the expiring protections for people who have struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s not that the pandemic is over. But COVID compassion is over,” she said. Roy also described II&D’s research partnership with activists working on behalf of the unhoused, which emerged after authorities in Los Angeles cleared an encampment at Echo Park Lake in March 2021 — “really a searing moment in L.A.’s collective memory,” she said. Roy described Los Angeles as a “battleground that makes visible the forced removal of people of color,” but she added, “L.A. has also been a place where communities have fought for their future. … That’s a very inspiring part of L.A. movement histories that continue until today.”


 

Callahan on Pursuing Clean Energy and Equity in California

LAist spoke to Colleen Callahan, co-executive director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, about the California Climate Credit, one piece of the state’s larger strategy to address the climate crisis. Under the program, many consumers received a credit on their utility bills, funded by a cap-and-trade system that requires industries to pay for the pollution they emit. The credit is meant to offset the costs that fall on the public as California transitions from energy generated by fossil fuels to cleaner energy like wind and solar. Callahan said it may be time to rethink a universal credit, especially as low- and middle-income Californians continue to be disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising inflation. “If the goal is to increase energy affordability for low-income Californians during a transition to a clean, low-carbon economy, then other strategies that the state are using should probably receive more emphasis in the future,” she said.

‘A Sense of Real Possibility for the City of L.A.’ Faced with a monumental housing crisis, we must think creatively and push harder, Councilwoman Nithya Raman tells a UCLA audience

By Mary Braswell

Nithya Raman was elected to the Los Angeles City Council on a platform focused on tackling the region’s dual crises of homelessness and sky-high housing costs. Sixteen months after taking office, she came to UCLA to provide an update on how the fight is going.

Citing lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, Raman said the key to sheltering unhoused Angelenos is a culture of saying yes to creative living solutions of all types, as long as they offer dignity and privacy — not just a bed in a crowded facility.

“That could be motel or hotel rooms, that could be tiny homes, that could be shared apartments where you have a separate bedroom and a shared kitchen — any place where you have a room with a door,” Raman said. “When you offer someone who is experiencing homelessness the ability to go to a room with a door, the experience is really transformative.”

The successes and shortcomings of pandemic-era housing interventions was one topic in a wide-ranging talk by Raman, who came to UCLA’s Kerckhoff Hall on April 14 as part of the University of California Regents’ Lecturer program.

In a conversation moderated by UCLA Luskin Urban Planning chair Chris Tilly, Raman spoke about Los Angeles’ complicated history of land use, which led to the city’s current struggle to provide its residents with safe and affordable housing.

And as an urban planner by training, she stressed the importance of reliable data — including the results of a countywide homeless count, due to be finalized this summer — to gauge the impact of programs and investments and map a path forward. 

“What I’m seeing is something really different from what I saw when I was out of City Hall, which is a moment when people are actually getting indoors,” said Raman, who represents L.A.’s District 4, stretching from Los Feliz to Reseda.

“But we don’t have the data to show, did they actually move in enough numbers so that we chipped away at this massive amount of homelessness that we faced in our district? Or did we not do enough during this period of the pandemic?

“I really want to make sure that we’re moving forward with that data in hand and with a sense of real possibility for the city of L.A.”

Raman’s lecture was part of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning’s commemoration of its 50-year anniversary. Her audience included several UCLA Luskin alumni, plus undergraduate and graduate students who may aspire to careers in public service.

Ensuring that Los Angeles’ housing stock continues to grow to meet demand requires saying yes to many approaches all at once, she said.

Cities or nonprofits could lease entire buildings and rent each apartment to voucher holders. Lifting the requirement to include parking in a new development could lead to the construction of smaller, less expensive living spaces attractive to transit riders such as students and young professionals. And developers should be pressed to include more affordable units in high-end properties, she said.

“One of the ways in which we’ve increased affordable housing is actually by creating density bonus programs for market-rate development,” Raman said. “And yet, I hear you. It is galling to see homelessness on our streets and luxury apartments going up, right next to each other.”

Repeating a phrase used throughout the lecture, Raman said the city should push harder. Push to require more of developers who receive lucrative incentives. Push to streamline a permitting process that has put a drag on the construction of housing. And push to ensure that residents aren’t priced out of their own neighborhoods.

“You can build more while still being totally dedicated to protecting tenants who are currently in their housing. And we can do that if we try,” she said.

Raman, the first challenger in 17 years to unseat an incumbent L.A. City Council member, described her experiences working as an outsider to effect change from within the halls of government.

“It’s the daily struggle,” she said. “How do you operate within a system — many aspects of which you find fundamentally unjust — while still moving that system towards change?”

She spoke of choosing her battles, sometimes speaking out forcefully but other times opting for quiet diplomacy to push her top legislative priorities.

“The more people who come in that share a set of values around what L.A. can be and should look like, I think the less you’ll have to make those kinds of choices.”

With their overwhelming support for taxes and bond measures to pay for the fight against homelessness, the people of Los Angeles have proclaimed a “widespread sentiment of ‘yes,’ ” she said.

“We all actually want it. I feel like that’s what every single conversation I have with people shows,” Raman said. “We can build it, we can build it right. We can do this, we can do it right. We can treat people with dignity and help them to get indoors.

“Everyone says, ‘Hell, yes, that’s what I want.’ ”

View photos and video of the lecture. 

Ong on Nuances of U.S. Census Count

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, spoke to the Associated Press about the U.S. Census Bureau’s report that the nation’s Asian population was overcounted by 2.6% in 2020. Overcounts occur when people are counted twice, such as college students being counted on campus and at their parents’ homes. Another explanation is that biracial and multiracial residents may have identified as Asian in larger numbers than in the past. Some multiracial people who previously indicated on the census form that they were white, Black or another race may have selected Asian in 2020 amid a rise in anti-Asian attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ong said. “When that happens, people who are multiracial go in two directions: They reject their minority identity or they embrace it,” he said. “With the rise of anti-Asian hostility, it forced some multiracial Asians to select a single identity.”

Astor on Aggression Targeting School Staff

Several media outlets reached out to Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor to provide context to a new report by the American Psychological Association (APA) on the alarming levels of harassment and threats experienced by school staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Astor, a member of the APA task force that conducted the research, spoke to NPR’s Morning Edition, CBS Los Angeles, K-12 Dive and The 74 about the “pressure-cooker” atmosphere in the nation’s schools. “Schools were and still are a battleground,” he said. “COVID is symbolic of all these larger cultural layers that filter into every classroom, every school in the country.” Astor also appeared at a March 17 congressional briefing on the study, and noted that school staffs are “just underfunded, understaffed and do not have enough help organizationally to create a positive, healthy environment.” The report, which received national attention from NBC News and EdWeek, among other outlets, recommended comprehensive research-based solutions to improve the campus environment for both students and staff.


 

School Personnel Report Threats, Harassment During Pandemic

Professor Ron Avi Astor and a team from UCLA Luskin Social Welfare contributed to research on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on teachers and other school staff as part of a task force launched by the American Psychological Association. In a report released today, the task force found that approximately one-third of teachers surveyed said they had experienced at least one incident of verbal harassment or threat of violence from students during the pandemic. Almost 50% of the teachers expressed a plan or desire to quit or transfer jobs, according to the report, based on a nationwide survey of 14,966 teachers, administrators, school psychologists, social workers and other pre-K through 12th grade school staff. “This was one of the first studies we know of that looked at how both COVID-19 and issues of school safety impacted all school personnel,” said Astor, who holds a joint appointment with the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. “School staff such as bus drivers, janitors, secretaries, yard aides, crossing guards and cafeteria workers are often left out of these large national studies. Their voices are so important and commonly ignored.” The APA task force will present its findings at a congressional briefing today at 2 p.m. EDT,  joined by several national co-sponsoring organizations. The UCLA team that contributed to the findings included Hector Palencia of the Social Welfare field education faculty and doctoral students Laura Liévano-Karim, Natalie Fensterstock, Chaoyue Wu, Kate Watson and Sawyer Hogenkamp. Gordon Capp of CSU Fullerton was also part of the UCLA team. — Joanie Harmon

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Read the APA report

Register to view the congressional briefing