An Institute Whose Name Is Also Its Mission

Upon receiving the naming gift from Meyer and Renee Luskin, the School embarked on a self-examination to codify a path forward. One goal identified a decade ago by the planning task force reads: “position UCLA Luskin as a national leader in analyzing and teaching about the root causes and consequences of inequality in America.” How? Create a research center — and that became the Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, now in its sixth year. That name didn’t spring forth easily, however. Learn that history and more about the Institute, known for providing a voice for activists and advocates, from our former dean, the Institute’s founding director and a doctoral student who has been with the Institute almost since the beginning.

Frank Gilliam, whose tenure as dean at the Luskin School ended in 2015 when he became chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

The Luskins are very interested in inequality and in a just society. It was the thing that they hammered home over and over. 

We started talking about creating a research action center to address that. And we fumbled in the weeds a bit for a couple of years, trying to figure out a name, trying to figure out what the institute would look like and the issues that it would work on.

It was called Institute X for a couple of years because we couldn’t figure out the name. And then, finally, we landed on two big concepts that, as it turns out now, often seem to be under attack. On the one hand, democracy, and on the other hand, equality. 

Ananya Roy, founding director of the Institute and professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography 

You didn’t want to call it the Institute for Social Justice?

Gilliam: We worried that social justice had such heavy quantitative meaning that people wouldn’t be able to give [the Institute] a chance to do the work, even settle on what it ought to be. So, we stayed away from that.

Roy: I think the name is a really interesting provocation. It prompted me to look at the ways in which democracies, inequality persist. How? Why? And what do we do
about that?

I had spent much of my academic career at UC Berkeley. And I was willing to make the move and serve as founding director of this institute because I found this to be such a wonderful and unusual opportunity.

I looked closely at other centers that are focused on inequality at other universities — Harvard, Stanford. And most of them focused on inequality but did not think about democracy simultaneously. None of them thought about space and cities. Almost none had serious relationships with communities and movements, and almost all of them were focused exclusively on the U.S.

Most of them were led by economists, so I said, “OK, we’re going to do something different here” and take very seriously this question of power, political power, or collective action of what a radical meaningful democracy would mean. What it means to actually think about issues such as housing in relation to rights.

We’re going to do this by paying close attention to the spaces in which people actually live their lives and struggle with these forms of inequality. And we are going to recognize the connections across different parts of the world.

What makes us different, even from other centers in the Luskin School and at UCLA, is that we realize that we can’t do this work without building deep relationships of trust with the communities that are actually most impacted by inequality. 

In Los Angeles, this is everything from unhoused communities to working-class communities of color
facing eviction to the communities that are subject to racialized policing.

In my early years as a director, I spent a lot of time getting to know movements in these communities, spending time at community events and with community organizations. I joked early on that L.A. is the sort of city — this was before COVID — that you showed love by showing up. You braved the traffic and you showed up consistently. … And sit in the back of the room and listen and learn.

Now we have research partnerships with movement organizations … the research we do is often “homework” assigned to us by communities in need and by movements that are doing the advocacy work.

I’m very proud … we’ve done our work with integrity. Powerful universities are often mistrusted by communities that are suffering. They’re worried about how academic research almost extracts their stories, puts it on display without giving anything back.

We try very much to do the opposite. I call this research justice. It is about being accountable to the communities most impacted and to those whose futures and whose reality we are writing about. 

Mostly importantly, we believe that they have the right to critique us, to call us out and to say, “You didn’t do this properly. Do it again.”

Hilary Malson, a June 2022 doctoral graduate in urban planning who is among the many students who have worked with Roy or received funding through the Institute

My first introduction to working with the Institute actually started before I set foot on campus. Professor Roy, she reached out to me once I was admitted as a Ph.D. student and asked me to consult on a grant that she was putting together.

I have previous work experience in public history … as a curatorial research assistant at the Smithsonian Institution. From the moment I arrived on campus, I was involved in stewarding that housing justice and unequal city research coordination.

My independent dissertation work … analyzes Black displacement from cities through a critical Black diaspora studies lens. So, instead of quantifying and mapping the losses of gentrification — how many people no longer live here, for instance — I ask, what does community building look like for a people that has faced ongoing, generational displacement and dispersal.

The work that we have undertaken on housing justice is community-based, first and foremost, which means it is fundamentally and primarily accountable to the communities with whom we study and from whom we learn so much.

Gilliam: The work that this center does is extraordinarily important. And I think the thing that separates it — its secret sauce — is that it also translates into action. And that’s the part I’d hoped for.

But it took Professor Roy to make that happen, and I’m so glad it did.

Luskin Center for Innovation and a Case Study of Community-Led Research

One of the cornerstones of many research center efforts at UCLA Luskin is community-driven research. Take, for example, the Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) project, with evaluation spearheaded by the Luskin Center for Innovation. Work at UCLA related to TCC has been going on for many years and in many forms, ranging from policy decision guidance for state officials to on-the-ground documentation of grassroots climate action. The team from the Luskin Center for Innovation is tracking hundreds of millions of dollars invested in local climate action. For example, they’re measuring the impacts of energy efficiency upgrades, like smart thermostats and LED lighting, to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and reduce energy bills. Taking you inside this effort are researchers affiliated with the Luskin Center for Innovation, who are all UCLA Luskin alumni.

Colleen Callahan MA UP ’10, co-executive director; Silvia R. González BA ’09, MURP ’13, UP Ph.D. ’21, director of research, UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative and an LCI-affiliated scholar; Jason Karpman MURP ’16, project director; and graduate researcher Elena Hernandez, MURP and MPH ’22

Tell us about what TCC is and how UCLA got involved.

González: TCC is all about recognizing the strengths of community institutions and individuals who are pushing forward environmental justice policies.

It’s focused on the ground-breaking climate action that’s happening in communities across California, with a focus on disadvantaged communities that have historically experienced disinvestments. Many of these residents are on the front lines of climate change. 

The program encourages their visions for climate resilience by supporting them with power and financial resources. It’s really a leading example of local climate action.

Callahan: We first got involved because the state wanted to understand if the program was on the right track. We were called in as evaluators. And evaluation is really important to tell you a number of things: Like are we setting ourselves up for success? Do we have the right ingredients in place, the right kind of logic model or theory of change established? And are we putting in the right investments to achieve this vision?

The Luskin Center has a long track record of doing policy-applied research and working very closely with state administrators to improve their programs. So, this reputation of creating actionable research, plus the longstanding relationships we’ve had with local community organizations, have been essential.

Can you describe those relationships? 

González: In the case of Pacoima — one of the communities that we’re working with — UCLA Luskin has a long-term relationship with Pacoima Beautiful [a grassroots environmental justice organization], and there’s an established trust. We’ve taken time to build a relationship with communities around us. For instance, Veronica Padilla [executive director of Pacoima Beautiful] graduated from the master’s in urban planning program. Before joining the evaluation team, I had been working with Pacoima Beautiful for years even prior to TCC. 

But long-standing relationships aren’t always the case for researchers. There’s always a lot of mistrust in communities of color with outsiders coming in.

It was really easy to work with community members since we had a long-standing history together. The trust we built over time enabled us to speak directly with residents and staff of community organizations. That access helped us gather new insights in our research that we wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. 

Karpman: To add to that, one of the reasons Pacoima chose us as an evaluator is the collaborative work that UCLA has already been doing in the community, particularly through Silvia, while at the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, and the work that she and Professor Vinit Mukhija did as part of a Luskin MURP comprehensive project class. 

They developed a displacement avoidance plan in collaboration with residents. It was really a generative endeavor that turned into new research projects and partnerships. It’s been cool to see how that project has endured even after the students have graduated.  

Describe examples of what community-led research looks like in the TCC project. 

González: The TCC’s evaluation approach of community-based research isn’t just surface-level. It’s about our research methods, the principles that are guiding the on-the-ground work, and the way the project is amplifying the voices of community members.

Hernandez: For instance, we attend as many in-person events as we can, and we try to attend all of the collation meetings with other local organizations. We’ll go to neighborhood fairs and speak directly to residents. We walk a fine line between being a partner and an evaluator. We’re there to collect data, but also to support the site. 

We also want to make sure that our research deliverables are actually useful, so it’s not an extractive one-way street where researchers get data and then leave. It’s actually beneficial.

Our annual progress reports show impacts of the community’s work, with detailed numbers and profiles of residents. They showcase the community’s accomplishments with TCC.

They’ve been really meaningful to the community members. I always enjoy talking to residents and hearing what’s important to them. It’s fun to see how they light up when they talk about their projects. They’re really proud.

What type of impacts has the research had?

Karpman: It’s really informing active discussions about how to address climate change in an equitable way. Our work as an evaluator is going to help inform the degree to which this model gets replicated across the country.

Callahan: TCC is now part of the national dialogue around making federal climate investments more equitable, and federal agencies are looking at TCC as a model. Our research is documenting the benefits of resourcing and empowering historically underserved communities to realize their visions for community health, well-being and prosperity while combating the climate crisis.

González: Another impact is that it opens up an opportunity to bring in a more diverse set of researchers to UCLA who are interested in equity-focused work, and researchers that come from the front-line communities. 

That’s one of the benefits that I see for the Luskin Center, that now you’re going to have people like me and like Elena, who come with a diverse set of experiences or identities. That will have an impact over the long run.

Karpman: That’s a good point. Since we’ve started working on TCC, the racial and socioeconomic diversity
of our graduate student research pool is really different. 

Hernandez: In this project, I feel seen. This is research that I can be part of and give back to my community. 

At the same time, this is a way to highlight the stories of community members. Because at the end of the day, they’re the ones doing the important work.

The Young and Mighty LPPI

Research centers are born for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s just the right thing for a public research institution like UCLA to do. In the case of the Latino Policy and Politics Institute (formerly Initiative), “it was the single-biggest missing element in the School,” said Gary Segura, who co-founded LPPI soon after he became dean at UCLA Luskin in 2017. “We were a school of public affairs in a state that is 43-44% Latino, and we didn’t have any faculty expertise focused on that area.” Learn more about LPPI, which has attained funding of $13.5 million in just five years of existence,  from its founding director, a current student fellow and an alumna whose time with LPPI has proven crucial to her career.

Sonja Diaz MPP ’10, founding director of LPPI

What are you working on now?

A U.S. Latino data hub will create a portal for the first time of taking government data and disaggregating it by Latino subgroups. So, you’ll get a sense of the differences between Cubans in Florida and Puerto Ricans in Florida. And that, frankly, hasn’t been done across a number of indicators, from housing to the environment to voter registration. The second big project is a summit, and we’re trying to create a programmatic nexus between our scholars, our staff and our different policymaking audiences, lawmakers and researchers who need the support to have a Latino lens. We’re hoping to convene people in Washington, D.C., and establish a national presence for LPPI.

How did your directorship at LPPI come about and what has it meant for you personally?

I was leaving a position with a statewide constitutional officer at a time when we expected a different outcome from our 2016 U.S. presidential election. And it made sense for me to look at UCLA, which is personal to me and my family. My father received a Ph.D. in urban planning here when I was a toddler. Some of his faculty are my colleagues today. And in that way, it’s been one continuous line. What I didn’t expect was to be given the opportunity to marry policy and research. 

Now, after being on this job for a number of years, I am recognizing the impact that we’ve had, not only in the students that have walked through our doors, and even our staff colleagues, but to our community members. It has been mind-blowing. 

Recent successes of note?

Two things happened in ’20-21 that I think were so important for LPPI, but also for the Latino community writ large. The first was our work to advance full representation of Latino politicians to an important body, which is the U.S. Senate. And that was cemented with Gov. [Gavin] Newsom’s appointment of now-Sen. Alex Padilla, the first Latino in over 170 years to occupy that office.

The second thing, and this was happening at the same time, was providing a data lens to the COVID vaccine policy in the state of California that, in many ways, had disenfranchised youthful racial minorities, including Latinos, in the face of the evisceration of Latino households during COVID-19. And our work with over 40 community organizations, based on our data analysis, really changed course for the state and made it so it wasn’t just wealthy and older Californians who had access to the vaccine, but the hardest-hit communities that were working on the front lines.

Bryanna Ruiz Fernandez, an LPPI student fellow who majored in political science and minored in public affairs and Chicano/a studies and who will join the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a policy fellow after graduation

Talk about yourself, your role at LPPI and your future plans.

I am a proud product of immigrants. I come from a mixed-status household. We are from a border town, El Centro, California. I actually grew up in Mexico for part of my childhood, until I was around 8 years old. And then we immigrated to the United States. Spanish is actually my language of birth. And my mom, just recently, I was able to sponsor her for residency, for her green card.

She just became a U.S. resident, and it was a huge deal for the family because of the laws that can be discriminatory and negatively impact one’s life. 

And my dad is in the process. 

I understand immigration policy firsthand, and when it’s not properly researched by people with firsthand experience or who are culturally competent, what kind of impact it can have on communities of color, like my family.

I feel very fortunate to have been a fellow for LPPI for, basically, my entire undergraduate career.

In the classroom, I was learning methods and these broad concepts, but I didn’t really understand, especially as a first-generation college student, how that applies to the real world.

As a fellow, I was able to work with UCLA faculty. I was able to see firsthand how they conduct research, how they write reports. And on the other hand, I was also able to see how that research needs to be amplified. Because if we’re doing research and no one knows about it, then what impact is it actually having?

woman with short hair smiles broadly

MPP and MSW alumna Gabriela Solis Torres

Gabriela Solis Torres, MPP and MSW ’19, a founding student fellow at LPPI who now works as a project leader for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab in Houston, Texas

Please explain your work.

We’re a research and technical assistance organization that provides support to governments who are pursuing ways to combat some of the most complex social challenges. That’s things like trying to reform the criminal justice system or the child welfare system, or trying to address homelessness.

A lot of things have changed because of the pandemic. But a big change in my work came after the murder of George Floyd. Harris County, where Houston is, and a lot of other jurisdictions across the United States started thinking about what their policing looks like and really started exploring, I think, more seriously the alternatives to their emergency response approach.

And now I’m leading our portfolio for alternatives. I provide technical assistance to five jurisdictions across the United States that are implementing alternatives such as sending unarmed teams to 9-1-1 calls. 

Did your experience with LPPI have a direct relationship to what you do now?

For me, I think it really opened my worldview. I came into the Luskin School from a direct service background. I was a case manager doing outreach with folks who were homeless in Venice and Venice Beach, and I thought I wanted to be a clinician. I was going to school to study social work and learn to do therapy.

But I was thinking too much of the macro, always complaining about the rules and the limitations. And I was advised to get a public policy degree. And I didn’t really know anything about public policy. I think being at Luskin and then participating in LPPI really changed my worldview and my whole career track completely.

I like working directly with governments. I grew up in East Los Angeles. I’m first in my family to go to college and have a professional job. My dad used to work in a factory. My mom was a stay-at-home mother. And I had no access to professional spaces. 

Another thing has to do with access. I had never really talked to anyone who was an official, and LPPI was my first exposure to people who had a lot of power or influence. 

I remember when I first came to UCLA Luskin and received the Monica Salinas Fellowship, which was created by a successful marriage and family therapist, and I got to have dinner at their house. And that was, like, so fancy! It was the first time I’d ever been in a space like that. And it was very cool because she was also a Latina and was very supportive of the work. 

Then, with LPPI, I would help organize panels or events, which meant having to manage details with elected officials or work with very high-level stakeholders. It helped me develop confidence that is applied to my job.

Every day now, I work with mayors, city managers, the director of an emergency communications center. Those experiences at UCLA were very pivotal in assuring me,
“I know how to communicate. I know how to write. I know what I’m talking about.”

How did you get involved with LPPI?

I found out that Sonja was opening the shop, and I just went to talk to her in her office. There was no formality. This thing is happening, let’s go. And I think I was the first or second person she hired. 

What I really appreciated from working with her was the true openness to being collaborators, making me feel like my opinion was important, that she actually cared about it. 

Myself, and Sonja, and the other student fellows were a team. And we got real. It was a growth environment where everyone was expected to step up. If you didn’t know something, your mentality was: “I’ll learn how to do it.” 

We understood that we were in a startup environment. … I have very fond memories of that time and just feeling like I was helping to set up something that was big. And I take pride that LPPI is where it is now.

ITS, Lewis Center Have Thrived for Decades

The Institute of Transportation Studies was created within the University of California in 1947 and has been in permanent existence at UCLA since 1994. The Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies marked its 30th year in 2020 with a grand celebration just six days before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. Both remain influential and productive, promoting a faculty-student research relationship that for many is a hallmark of the Luskin School experience. Here are interviews with the two current directors and a handful of alumni. 

Brian Taylor, UCLA double-alumnus, longtime professor and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies

Why are UCLA and ITS the right fit for you?

Oh, I keep coming back to UCLA. I transferred from Berkeley to UCLA as an undergraduate … and went to graduate school at Berkeley. And then I came back to UCLA for my Ph.D. in urban planning, but at the time it was in the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning. I taught [at another university] for a while and then was recruited to come back to UCLA a third time. 

I understand that I was the first faculty member hired in the “School of Public Affairs.” My appointment began July 1st, 1994, and the School began on July 1st, 1994, at midnight. 

What we know today as the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California … was created by the California Legislature in 1947 to examine the growing transportation needs for the state of California after World War II. The original branch was at UC Berkeley, and eventually a branch was opened at UCLA. It existed from the 1950s into, I believe, the early 1970s, primarily in engineering. … They used to crash test cars in what is now the sculpture garden. They had the tracks, and they’d run them up with the dummies in the cars. 

[That version was later moved] from UCLA to Irvine. … In 1994, the branch at UCLA was reestablished, but instead of being in civil engineering, it was established in what’s now the Luskin School of Public Affairs. And the founding director was Professor Martin Wachs. 

Transportation is the thing that everybody’s an expert in. Because they all travel. 

What makes it unique is that transportation is one of the things that connect all of human activity. It’s education, communication. Where we live, where we work, where we shop, where we play, how we relate to friends. We’ve learned what it’s like to do it by Zoom and that’s one way. And the other way is to come together. And if you come together for activities, whether it’s manufacturing, or to socialize, or to see a sporting event or to go shopping, those things all require transportation systems. 

The transportation program at UCLA is fairly unique among universities. … Others tend to have their centers anchored in engineering, and it is very much an infrastructure focus. We are anchored in a school of public affairs. And because of that, our transportation experts, who are known around the world, are not, quote-unquote, transportation experts. They’re people who focus on transportation around some realm. So, take [professor] Donald Shoup. He was basically a land economist who realized that parking had huge effects on urban development and the environment. And as a land economist, he’s become one of the most prominent transportation scholars in the country.

Only the late Marty Wachs and I, and now [recent faculty addition] Tierra Bills as the third, were actually first and foremost transportation people, even though we’re widely considered as one of the top transportation research centers in the country. And because we bring in these experts from these other fields who see the connections to urban design and safety, to the environment and to economic outcomes in poverty, to all of these things connected to transportation, [it] has made us so relevant and so intellectually rich as a result.

How do students benefit from being associated with ITS?

ITS, like many of the other centers, has for years devoted substantial funding to students, offering scholarships to recruit outstanding students, diverse students to the Luskin School. At this point it’s millions of dollars in scholarships. We are the largest single funder of students at UCLA outside of — I have been told this repeatedly — outside of the graduate division in terms of funding our students.

Is there a signature event or a signature activity?

Oh, yes. It’s the UCLA Lake Arrowhead Symposium on the Transportation-Land Use-Environment Connection. We’ve been doing it since ’91. It’s at UCLA’s Lake Arrowhead Conference Center, and we are known internationally for this symposium. It has led to changes in policy at the state and federal level. We have had secretaries of transportation in California, the head of the Federal Transit Administration, and we’ve had prominent academics from around the world
to speak.

Any unmet challenges or missed opportunities over the years?

I think urban planners could have been more intentional about addressing transportation justice and equity issues.

And there is — I hate to use the word disturbing — but the view of transportation in the eyes of many public officials, whether on the right or the left, often involves big projects, concrete and steel. They might favor some projects or oppose others. So, often we are approached and asked, “What can you do to help us? How do I get approval for this project or kill this other project?” But when we engage with public officials, rarely do they just say, “This is a vexing problem. What can we do to address it?”

Urban Planning alumni Andrew Mondschein PhD ’12 of the University of Virginia and Anne Brown MURP ’14, PhD ’18 of the University of Oregon worked with ITS while students; Lance MacNiven MURP ’16 is the national zero-emission lead for WSP USA, a civil engineering firm

How does your career today relate to your time at UCLA?

Mondschein: I’m still really interested in travel behavior and expanding the idea of what accessibility is and how we understand that concept. And that all came from the opportunities, the things that I experienced and the things I got to work on at UCLA. I do work on accessibility, particularly looking at cognitive mapping and understanding how people actually understand the opportunities that are available to them and the way that transportation systems shape that.

MacNiven: Although I never worked for ITS directly, I was very close with Brian [Taylor], and he was kind of a partial advisor with the late, great Marty Wachs for my capstone project. I am the national lead for zero-emission vehicles and fleet planning support and serve as a project manager for
the transition to zero-emission vehicles, primarily for transit and freight.

My capstone was connected to L.A. Metro bus system ridership and basically improving ridership. … I’m back on the bus side primarily with the zero-emission aspect. A lot of my studies and research with ridership and trends definitely inform the duty cycles and other things that we look at on the zero-emission side.

Brown: I’ve always been in transportation equity. Essentially, with the rise of shared mobility during my six years at UCLA, that’s the angle I went. UCLA provided flexibility to pivot into this whole new opening. Back in 2014, we just had no idea what was going on with any of these services.

What stands out about your time at UCLA?

Brown: Brian [Taylor], Evy [Blumenberg] and Marty [Wachs] were some of my primary advisors the entire time
I was at UCLA, kind of like surrogate parents and grandparents in a work context. They all came to my wedding. It’s just a wonderful community.

The support goes beyond the classroom. It’s out of the classroom on research projects. But there’s depth of care that they really invest in you as an individual. And it goes beyond graduation, too. We’re in regular touch. It feels like any time an email pops up or the call comes through, it’s like no time has passed.

Mondschein: Fundamentally, the people at ITS were so supportive and could take anyone that was excited and engaged in transportation and encourage them to think how it might have benefit to society and might be able to change the world.

It was really a special kind of unique environment to be able to talk to like-minded people in a little bit of an educational hothouse. It was a lot of fun.

MacNiven: The professors, you know, it’s full of brainiacs; we could spend all day talking about how smart they are. But it’s the human connection that really draws people in and keeps us tight. 

When I first came to UCLA, reading about [Wachs, Taylor and Shoup], I was intimidated. I was like, “Oh, man, there’s Brian Taylor.” But then you get to know him. And, quite honestly, a lot of the times I’m talking to Brian Taylor it’s about college basketball.

Marty was my capstone advisor. He was busy but he accepted me. And I would go to his house on the weekends, you know, to basically bug him with questions. And there were times when my wife had our car, and he would offer to come pick me up to go to his house on a Saturday. 

That stuff sticks with you forever. It really shows the community.

Brown: I think about advice I was given early on but have not yet mastered. It’s to think, “What are the questions? What’s the purpose of doing the research?”

You can use research to answer questions that can better transportation, better society, better connect people to opportunities. 

I can’t look at a new technology without thinking, “Well, what do we do with this? How can we harness this to better the public good? What are its potential pitfalls and how do we avoid those?” In a lot of ways, my professors are the voices in my head that continue to drive my research agenda. They trained me in their own style. And I am forever grateful for that.

MacNiven: There’s no perfect silver bullet to this in terms of which transportation system we should favor. We deal with this a lot on the zero-emissions side because everyone seems to think that zero emission is the silver bullet to solve all our environmental problems.

But we’re always trying to think about the pros, and the cons. Who are the winners? Who are the losers? And let’s
zoom in on those “losers” a little bit to see how we can mitigate those situations.

It’s not just producing great research, but also trying to translate it into practice. 

two men and a woman sit in large white chairs and talk

UCLA Luskin scholars Allen Scott, left, Evelyn Blumenberg and Paul Ong have each led the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies during its three-decade history.

Evelyn Blumenberg MA UP ’90, Ph.D. ’95, a faculty member since 1995 and director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies since 2018

Who works with the Lewis Center and has it changed over its three decades of existence?

I was first involved with the Lewis Center as a student. I did projects through the Lewis Center when I was a doctoral student [when it was still] in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning. 

The overall mission of the Lewis Center has held constant, but within that broader mission, each of the directors put their own stamp on the kinds of policy issues they were engaged in, and on who they were collaborating with.

And the areas of emphasis have evolved with the directors. Currently, we do “live,” “move” and “work” as our three areas. A lot of “live” is focused on affordable housing qualities of neighborhoods. “Move” is the work we do on transportation in the region. And “work” reflects our interest in jobs and the regional economy. 

We work with students in all of the graduate and undergraduate degree programs.

The Lewis Center, like some of the other centers in the Luskin School, helps fund capstone projects in all three departments. And there are also students who get funding from the Lewis Center and write policy briefs that are based on their work.

We also help solicit some of the capstone projects. We do a broad solicitation, but many of [the clients] are alumni. Some of them had been involved in Lewis Center projects when they were students. It’s like, where we try to match our great students with great projects. And that’s one way in which former students who are now alums can participate. 

How do faculty benefit from their association with the Lewis Center?

Faculty are really good at academic research. And they can figure out how to fund academic research. And, you know, they have to produce academic scholarship in order to get promoted. That happens with or without the Lewis Center. 

The Lewis Center allows them to amplify the policy implications of their research. 

Certainly, they apply for funds through the Lewis Center, and that helps their academic portfolio. But the big advantage is that we have the ability to help them promote their findings to communities, to elected officials and to other stakeholders. 

And we do it in a number of ways. We create reports and policy briefs. We have started a podcast around housing and affordable housing. We structure a lot of our events around the scholarship of faculty. They can use those events as a way of getting out their research and the policy and planning recommendations that fall from it.

And being involved with Lewis Center is a vehicle for bringing faculty and students together on topical areas. As an individual faculty member, oftentimes you’re working on your own. The centers offer a collegial place to interact and to creatively think about how to pursue policy interventions. 

We’ve had meetings where all we do is brainstorm. We think about bringing faculty and students together to think about what the next round of research should be. So, it’s
an incubator.

I got into this business to make a difference, right? To improve communities, to make life better for low-income households. This is an opportunity to translate the research into policy, and to do it with others.

(Almost) Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Our Research Centers An introduction to the stories in this edition

Our goal was to create a definitive roundup of UCLA Luskin research centers. Over several months, more than two dozen professors, staff, students and alumni were interviewed, producing 160 pages of transcripts totaling 69,774 words. Did we capture every connection, permutation or interaction? No way. For one, we simply ran out of space. What follows are excerpts from the interviews. Also note that our research centers web page now has a mention of every — we think — research entity with a UCLA Luskin connection. Here are a few facts and notes about the project:

  • Funds that flow into the Luskin School are increasingly tied to a research center, and those numbers have risen as the School has grown in recent years. Research centers received 80% of all contract and grant funding at UCLA Luskin in the last fiscal year, totaling $18.5 million. With four months of 2021-22 to go, the research center tally stood at 82.9% of all awards and $17.9 million.
  • Most full-time faculty, and many part-timers, are associated with at least one research center. The financial benefit is a factor, but interviewees mostly spoke about collaboration and impact.
  • Research units play an integral role in advancing UCLA Luskin’s mission, particularly its community service goals. (Some of the many research-oriented advocacy success stories are told in this edition.)
  • There are a lot of them. In 2009, the Luskin Center for Innovation became the fourth research center at UCLA Luskin. Today, we show 12 research centers on the homepage and list more than a dozen more on the web page mentioned earlier. A couple of non-Luskin-School-based examples are in this issue, but faculty also hold leadership positions or fill scholarly roles in many other research centers housed within another UCLA school, hosted by an off-campus partner or existing as part of a national research consortium or an ad hoc project involving scholars from other universities.
  • Some research centers are — potential funder alert — still in the startup phase; others are firmly established but ready to grow. And two research centers have been bastions of the UCLA Luskin educational experience for decades. These highly respected and influential centers are profiled in chapter 1. 
  • The word center is often used in this project as an umbrella term even though individual entities are actually an institute, initiative, hub or lab. No disrespect is intended. Is there any official difference? We asked UCLA’s vice chancellor for research, Roger Wakamoto: “We do not discriminate a center from an institute or any other term. The names are
    used interchangeably.”
  • The main story in this issue unfolds in oral history form. Some minor rephrasing was needed for clarity’s sake, and trims were made. But the people associated with UCLA Luskin research centers tell their stories primarily in their own words

Akee and Ong on Long-Overdue Tuition Scholarships for Native Students

Associate Professor of Public Policy Randall Akee and Research Professor Paul Ong co-authored a commentary in Indian Country Today about the University of California’s decision to waive tuition for Native American students. “Not only will the plan begin to address some of the education barriers that marginalize American Indian and Alaska Native people, it is also an acknowledgement that UC has benefited enormously from the sale of lands that were stolen through various means from Indigenous peoples,” they wrote. Campuses in the UC system are located on parcels that rightfully belong to tribal nations and communities, they wrote, noting the role of the Morrill Act in the creation of land-grant colleges resourced by the sale of federal lands. The authors hope that the new program will “help to close the persistent educational attainment gap suffered by American Indians and Alaska Natives” and serve as a call to action to other public, land-grant institutions in the United States.

Scholars Issue Call for Evidence-Based Action to Prevent School Violence

A nationwide coalition of scholars who have conducted decades of research into school safety has issued an eight-point plan for immediate government action to reduce gun violence. The coalition, including Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare and education at UCLA, called for a comprehensive public health approach to gun violence that is informed by scientific evidence. The recommendations come days after a shooting rampage at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, left 19 children and two teachers dead. “The recent mass shootings across the country are another painful reminder of failed efforts to stop the kind of gun violence that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly 10 years ago,” according to a statement by the coalition known as the Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence. The researchers called for a new mindset that prioritizes prevention over reaction. “A focus on simply preparing for shootings is insufficient,” they said. “Prevention entails more than security measures and begins long before a gunman comes to school.” Several of the recommendations focus on limiting access to firearms, including a ban on assault-style weapons and comprehensive background checks for gun buyers. The coalition also calls for a national program to train culturally proficient crisis intervention and threat assessment teams at the school and community level, as well as a requirement that schools assess their learning environments to ensure that they are physically and emotionally safe. “It is time for federal and state authorities to take immediate action to enact these proposals,” the coalition said. “We contend that well-executed laws can reduce gun violence while protecting all constitutional rights.”

LPPI Policy Fellows Gain Direct Experience With Advocacy in Sacramento

Policy fellows from the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative (LPPI) recently traveled to Sacramento to gain experience in direct advocacy with the California Legislature. During three days from May 2-4, they presented LPPI research, proposed bills to lawmakers, and met with key policy stakeholders and governmental agencies. The trip culminated in a policy briefing luncheon hosted by LPPI experts. Silvia R. González, Yohualli B. Anaya and Misael Galdámez provided lawmakers with an in-depth look at new research and data insights on housing insecurity, inequities in access to telehealth, the impact of COVID-19 on higher education outcomes and other issues affecting California’s varied Latino communities. Fellows also met with legislators in their Capitol offices to advocate for bills on topics ranging from alternatives to incarceration to Cal Grant system reform. Policy fellows and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients Aimee Benitez and Marcos Ruiz Rojas had an especially powerful experience meeting with Sen. Ben Hueso and seeing people like themselves represented in his staff. “Senator Hueso is a Latino Bruin who has hired people from our community, including other DACA recipients,” Benitez said. “He took the time to talk with us about the trajectory of his career path, saying one day when he is out of office, we’ll be the ones to take over.” LPPI representatives on the Sacramento trip also recognized the Latino Legislative Caucus for its efforts to champion LPPI and secure state funding to enable a transition from an initiative to an institute. — Alise Brillault

Connecting the Dots on Climate Change Environmental scholar Robert Bullard charts a path to a more equitable future — if America can avoid repeating past mistakes  

By Les Dunseith

Robert Bullard has been called professor, dean, author, policy influencer, important thinker, movement starter and the father of environmental justice. But that’s not how he chose to describe himself during a May 12 talk at UCLA.

“I do what’s scientifically called kick-ass sociology,” Bullard said playfully in his opening remarks to a roomful of students, faculty, staff and other interested parties, plus an online audience. “And what I’ve tried to do is to make it simple, make it plain, make it real and connect the dots.”

The renowned scholar from Texas Southern University has written 17 books. “But it’s really just one book — don’t tell anybody,” Bullard said slyly. “The central glue that connects all of those volumes? Fairness, justice and equity.”

He often blended humor into his discussion of serious topics such as America’s history of racial discrimination and the growing global climate crisis. Titled “The Quest for Environmental and Climate Justice,” Bullard spoke and took audience questions for more than an hour in the Bruin Viewpoint Room of Ackerman Union as part of the UCLA Luskin Lecture series. It was presented in conjunction with the Harvey S. Perloff Environmental Thinkers Series and UCLA Urban Planning’s 50th anniversary celebration.

In his introductory remarks, Dean Gary Segura of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs said, “At the Luskin School, we try to have conversations about things that actually matter — climate degradation, environmental degradation and its impact on working class and poor people of color — and for which there is a desperate need for solutions.”

Bullard is known for his courage and “his insights into how questions of race figure into environmental justice,” said the evening’s emcee, Susanna Hecht, a geographer and professor of urban planning who also serves as director of the Brazilian Studies Center at UCLA.

“He is a person who has a broad perspective and broad horizons,” Hecht said. “His work has expanded to embrace a range of topics that evolved at the center of environmental, civil rights, human rights and the question of race and vulnerability under climate change, as well as patterns of pollution in both urban and industrial landscapes.”

So, what is environmental justice?

Bullard sees it as an essential notion that all people and communities are entitled to equal protection to ensure they have adequate housing, quality health care, and access to the energy and transportation they need in their daily lives. Civil rights and human rights.

The reality rarely matches the ideal, however. He cited as an example a study that showed government relief after a natural disaster going primarily to wealthier, predominantly white communities rather than to poorer, predominantly Black areas.

“We know that all communities are not created equal,” Bullard said. “There are some that are more equal than others.”

Without action, disparities are likely to grow as industrial pollution further degrades our planet, he said.

“Climate change will make it worse on the populations that are already suffering,” Bullard said. “Those who have contributed the least to the problem will suffer the most. That’s the inequity that we’re talking about. You can’t have your basic human rights if even the right to breathe has been taken away from you.”

Despite decades of experience documenting human nature at its worst, Bullard has not given in to despair.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that we can get this right. I’ve been working on this for 40 years, but we don’t have another 40 years. We only have, maybe, a dozen to get this right,” Bullard said.

He cited California as a leader in environmental equity and climate change responses and noted the state’s history of finding out-of-the-box solutions in technology and government, as well as its highly regarded universities.

“Let California be California. That’s my answer. Push the envelope as far as you can,” Bullard said.

“And so, I’m looking to young people. I’m looking at your faces,” he told his audience of mostly young scholars. “You are the majority now. I’m a boomer and proud of it. But millennials, zoomers, Gen X, Y and Z — you outnumber my generation. Take the power.”

View photos from the event on Flickr.

Robert Bullard Luskin Lecture

Message From the Dean: Grappling With the Tragedy in Buffalo Some thoughts in the aftermath of a mass shooting in which Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, were targeted

To the Luskin Community:

Let me echo the Chancellor’s comments in this BruinPost regarding the events in Buffalo. More than a dozen people shot, 10 killed, in another explicitly racist attack by a gunman intent on killing African Americans. And let me augment the chancellor’s remarks by reminding us all that just three days earlier, in Dallas’ Koreatown, three Asian women were injured in a mass shooting that is now ruled part of a string of anti-Asian hate attacks on Asian-run businesses across Dallas, and a growing record of anti-Asian hate up more than 300% in the last year.

These attacks occur at the intersection of two of America’s most grievous plagues — the ongoing scar of racism in too many forms to count, and the seemingly endless capacity for gun violence. I am angry. Perhaps you are too. I am angry because neither of these struggles is occurring by chance, in a social vacuum, emerging un-prompted from other social phenomena. Rather, these emerge from explicit ideologies of white supremacy and entitlement to the means of deadly force which are promoted — previously with a wink and a nod and increasingly with shameless embrace — by political forces who think they can manipulate these evils to their own political gain.

I will not stay silent in these moments. The parroting of racist conspiracy theories by elected officials inspire, encourage, and provide emotional justification for the evil and the disturbed in our society to carry out these attacks. They are not isolated social phenomena and we should never treat them as such.

I do not have the right words of comfort here, other than to remind you that there are services available on campus (see links in the Chancellor’s message) for those of you grappling with these events. And I want you to take comfort in each other in knowing that the forces of light — those of us who would resist, battle, engage the forces of divisiveness and hate — are stronger. The good outweighs the bad, those motivated to peace and coexistence have right on our side. Our work at Luskin is explicitly dedicated to empowering those with solutions and stopping those interested only in destruction and nursing their resentments. Meet violence with determination for change. Speak out. Shout out. Work harder to create justice.

In solidarity and sadness,

— Gary

Gary M. Segura
Professor and Dean