UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura joined colleagues from three other University of California public affairs schools to defend the interdisciplinary field of critical race theory against attacks from the Trump Administration. “Becoming anti-racist is a core tenet of the American creed. … America is still trying to perfect itself, and scholars in our schools use multiple perspectives, including critical race theory, to understand racism and racial oppression in America,” said the statement signed by Segura and deans of the public policy schools at UC Berkeley, UC Riverside and UC San Diego. The statement came in response to a recent U.S. Office of Management and Budget memorandum calling for an end to training sessions for federal employees that draw on critical race theory, which the memo termed divisive, false, demeaning and un-American. The deans’ statement countered that exposure to critical race theory “helps our students have a deeper understanding of what is required for America to live up to its promise of equality for all.” Noting that many public affairs students go on to work in government, the deans said, “An understanding of the ongoing role of race in America is important for them to be successful public sector employees. We believe that critical race theory and other academic research helps them to develop this understanding.” Deans from UCLA Law and four other UC law schools issued a separate statement expressing deep distress at the Trump Administration’s attack on critical race theory.
On Aug. 26, Paul Luna of HELIOS Foundation wrapped up a summer series of brown bag talks that provided guidance to the undergraduate and graduate fellows of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA Luskin.
The sessions, which took place over Zoom this year, continued a tradition in which community leaders connect with the policy initiative’s students to discuss career paths and the importance of making an impact.
“I learned that career trajectories are not often a linear progression but instead a culmination of unexpected turns where purpose meets passion,” said policy fellow Diana Garcia, who is studying for her master of public policy at UCLA Luskin.
The brown bag series “allowed me to expose myself to the plethora of career paths available, which will allow me to give back to my Latino community,” said policy fellow Bryanna Ruiz, a political science and Chicana and Chicano Studies major at UCLA.
Each conversation ended with the same question. Here’s that question and how some of the summer speakers chose to answer:
Q: The fellows are an essential part of UCLA LPPI’s strategy to invest in leaders dedicated to making an impact. Returning to the normalcy we remember is no longer an option. We must reimagine a world that centers the needs of the most vulnerable communities and advocates opportunity for all. In a time that asks that we invest in new leadership, what does leadership look like amid COVID-19 and in a world after COVID-19?
Luis Perez, legal services director, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA): We’re not talking about helping out individuals anymore, but systemic change. That’s the framing that people need to start adopting. Helping one person at a time has not changed the systems of oppression that we experience. This is the right time to start reframing the model of systemic change. Systemic change, in many ways, reflects policy change. The Supreme Court looks to society’s expectations of one another as much as they are looking into laws. Laws need to reflect what people think, and they change with society. What are the ways in which we can change the system?
Francela Chi de Chinchilla, vice president of partnerships at Equis Labs: There has been a reframing on what work can be and what to value because of this pandemic. There is a lot of writing already on what leadership in a workplace should look like because of COVID-19. I am grateful that the companies I have worked for have recognized the importance of valuing the whole person and work-life balance, but now I have a baby and I can’t work all day long. I have to stop working and take care of her. This time has allowed me to be more patient and forgiving with myself.
Noerena Limón, senior vice president of public policy and industry relations at the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals: The bolder you are, the farther you’ll get. This is the time where you form coalitions. I have found that the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed me and housing experts to forge some of the best coalition work that I have ever seen happen, because we don’t have to travel to meetings, we are constantly checking in with each other, constantly giving each other the latest information. I would say that we need to ensure that we are working in coalitions and to be bold.
Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF: The good news is that there are multiple examples of excellent leadership happening on the ground. I have seen it in a lot of my criminal justice work with LatinoJustice. I have seen people of all age groups create intersectional conversation about the systems. I see incredible promise about immigration enforcement and criminal justice enforcement in the same breath. I encourage it. I promote it. I have a lot of hope because I have always been an optimistic person. I am not going to let the same barriers that challenged who I was when I was young, when I was picked up for no reason by police, challenge my identity. I refuse to let all of those obstacles get in the way of: I know exactly why I’m here. I’m here to help gente. My optimism extends to today. My optimism took a hit with the outrageousness of body after body being killed on tape. But then again, I talk to people, listen to people and promote people that have better ways of analyzing and connecting with others than I do. They give me a lot of hope. Keep doing what you’re doing. Be honest with yourself about your hard work.
Paul J. Luna, president and CEO of HELIOS Foundation: A great leader has a vision for the future and brings a new or clearer vision or understanding, especially during a time when we need one. In times of change and in times that we are living through today, we look to our leaders to bring that vision, to provide that guidance and, with their knowledge and understanding, to help us make the right decisions. Secondly, a great leader understands the present. We cannot have decisions that are being made for political reasons, and not for the general welfare and health for our community and citizens — especially during this pandemic when we know that communities of color and low-income communities are more directly impacted. Thirdly, a great leader has an appreciation for the history and the past and can acknowledge who came before them. For any leader to think that they are uniquely in the position to lead because of who and what they are or how uniquely bright and talented they are — and don’t appreciate that there are people who came before them and who paid dues and made sacrifices so that they can have the opportunity to lead — if they don’t appreciate that, they will never truly be able to lead successfully and into the future. Honor the past and those who came before you, acknowledge their contributions. I would not have gotten to Stanford University if my dad was not willing to work at a copper mine for 45 years. Leadership will look different than it did before, and the people who are given the opportunity to lead will hopefully involve more women and people of color and from different backgrounds. You all reflect and represent the great future.
Professor Fernando Torres-Gil, director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at UCLA Luskin, received the 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Award from his alma mater, the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. The school honored Torres-Gil, an expert on health and long-term care, disability, entitlement reform and the politics of aging, for his multifaceted career spanning the academic, professional and policy arenas. The professor of social welfare and public policy has advised presidents from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama as well as state and local governments and agencies, and has conducted research around the world, particularly in Asia and Latin America. In one segment of a wide-ranging interview, Torres-Gil described his role as a young White House fellow summoned to the Situation Room to weigh in on the Carter Administration’s response to the flood of refugees fleeing Vietnam. “Many years later, I met individuals who were rescued in the late ’70s by the U.S. Navy. I take great pride that I had a direct role, in the right position at the right time, with the decision making,” he recalled. Torres-Gil, who earned his MSW and Ph.D. at the Heller School, said an invitation to attend the White House Conference on Aging in 1971 sparked a lifelong interest in gerontology and demographics, culminating in his most recent book, “The Politics of a Majority-Minority Nation: Aging, Diversity, and Immigration.” Torres-Gil is one of 15 recipients of the 2020 Heller Alumni Award, which honors individuals who have produced positive change through the rigor, creativity and innovation of their work.
A 2018 article about anti-development attitudes, authored by UCLA Luskin’s Paavo Monkkonen and Michael Manville, is mentioned by the Libertarian magazine Reason in an essay that focuses on the propensity of Hollywood to portray real estate developers as bad guys. The essay traces the movie trope of an evil developer as far back as Frank Capra and his Depression-era movies like the 1946 Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That movie presents one of the best-known rich-guy villains in movie history: Mr. Potter. Such characters reflect circumstances explored by Manville and Monkkonen when they wrote about how the high cost of land and the complexity of regulations can make real estate development difficult. Reason quotes directly from the UCLA article, saying, “These circumstances could select for developers who are both affluent and out-of-step with conventional ways of behaving: Only deep-pocketed, hard-charging and confrontational people will be willing and able to lobby elected officials and get rules changed in order to build.”
Los Angeles Initiative Director Zev Yaroslavksy spoke with KPCC’s Airtalk about the process of redistricting in relation to recent corruption charges against suspended City Council member Jose Huizar. Every 10 years, district lines are redrawn to reflect changes in population based on the census, and some have noted that the shuffling of districts gave Huizar a large swath of Los Angeles’ asset-rich downtown. “There’s nothing uglier or more difficult than the redistricting process every 10 years,” said Yaroslavsky, who described the political and sentimental factors at play. Most elected officials “want to keep as much of their district as they can” and some have close ties to the neighborhoods and constituents they may have represented for a decade or more. When politicians redistrict for themselves, self-interest can play a role, but Yaroslavsky also noted that there are “unintended consequences of so-called independent commissions.” He concluded, “There is no perfect system for redistricting.”
Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens spoke to the Los Angeles Times about Americans’ shifting opinions about government-funded social safety nets. During the health and economic crisis spurred by COVID-19, a wide range of individuals and businesses have benefited from U.S. stimulus spending, and this could shift the national discourse about the role Americans want government to play in their lives. “COVID is such a potentially transformational experience,” Gilens said. While he cautioned that views may change once the economy improves, he noted, “If there is a broader reckoning with the failures of our government, then maybe that will extend to how we deal with inequality and poverty, and we’ll be entertaining something that looks a little more like a European welfare state.”
At UCLA, the coronavirus crisis washed away all sense of normalcy by March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Soon, people worldwide were either stuck at home or doing their best to stay safe as an essential worker.
The crisis affected everyone, everywhere, and it’s impossible to document all of the ways that someone associated with the Luskin School rose to the moment amid the pandemic and the groundswell for racial justice that also surfaced this spring. In the summaries that follow, however, we highlight a few examples.
IN-PERSON CLASSES WERE RECONFIGURED AS ONLINE-ONLY SESSIONS within days. Among those impacted was Zev Yaroslavky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA Luskin, who turned his public policy graduate course into a forum for elected officials on the front lines of leadership during the crisis.
Appearing via Zoom were county supervisors and Los Angeles’ superintendent of schools. Then Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti found time between press briefings to drop in for a virtual chat.
“Being in Zev’s class this spring gave us incredible access and insights into the unimaginable challenges that our city and county leaders are facing through this pandemic,” said then-student and now MPP graduate Dulce Vasquez.
THE FIRST POST ABOUT COVID-19 ON THE UCLA LUSKIN WEBSITE went live March 17, two days before California’s shutdown order. Three months later, more than 100 posts about coronavirus or COVID-19 were live on the site.
The tally includes faculty interviews with news outlets, but readers can also find at least a dozen stories about research conducted in response to the pandemic. Those studies include the impact of the coronavirus on disadvantaged communities and health policy, an analysis of a shortfall in responses to the U.S. Census, and a warning about a looming crisis amid newly unemployed renters who would soon face eviction.
The response by UCLA-affiliated research entities was widespread and timely. For example, the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies announced funding for new projects related to COVID-19 just two weeks after the statewide shutdown order.
PRACTICE-ORIENTED FIELD PLACEMENTS WITH AGENCIES form an essential part of the educational experience for the future social work professionals at UCLA Luskin. But the quarantine meant that students had to be pulled from their placements, said Gerry Laviña, director of field education.
Thankfully, the vast majority of partners were able to accommodate MSW students’ ability to continue agency activities remotely, Laviña said. “Our agencies pivoted incredibly to offer telehealth and other remote services to clients and communities.”
MANY SOCIAL WORKERS CONTINUE TO BE IN THE FIELD during the lockdown, offering services to those who need them despite challenging circumstances.
“On a personal level, these social workers are making sacrifices of their own health, and potentially the health of their families, in order to continue to serve,” said Laura Abrams, professor and chair of social welfare.
Abrams reached out to several UCLA Luskin alumni via Zoom, and one of her first interviewees was Lavit Maas MSW ’10, who works for a team at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health that provides care on L.A.’s Skid Row for homeless people with severe mental illness.
“There’s a lot of elderly on Skid Row,” Maas told Abrams. “There’s a lot of people with medical conditions. It’s terrifying because we don’t know what to do [for them]. It makes me sad.”
Abrams learned a lot from the alumni interviews. For example, she was initially surprised to discover that some facilities and social services were being underutilized. The reason? Calls to crisis hotlines and referrals from mandatory reporters at public schools declined sharply because of the quarantine.
“We know that things like abuse and other family problems are probably increasing, but calls … are decreasing so dramatically,” Abrams said. “Child protection is basically falling apart because there’s no window to the outside world.”
LUSKIN VOICES JOINED THE CONVERSATION ABOUT SYSTEMIC RACISM in the United States after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, shedding light on its roots and leading calls to move toward true justice.
Students, faculty, staff and alumni joined protest marches. The UCLA Luskin community flooded social media, and they talked with news outlets that shared their insights near and far.
Professor Ananya Roy, director of the Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, raised questions about police tactics in Los Angeles and even at UCLA. She organized a faculty response, urging people to stand in solidarity with communities of color and “continue the unfinished work of liberation.”
EVENTS WERE TRANSFORMED INTO ONLINE CONVENINGS with sizable audiences. One prominent example was the Luskin Summit, an annual conference that leverages UCLA Luskin’s research power to tackle the region’s most pressing problems. As a virtual event, it drew more than 9,000 views to 14 sessions over eight weeks.
Coping with COVID-19’s health, economic and social justice ramifications became the Summit’s unifying theme. In the opening session, Dean Gary Segura and Fielding School of Public Health Dean Ron Brookmeyer shared their expertise about the pandemic’s policy implications.
Segura was also on hand for the Summit’s closing session, in which leading California philanthropists spoke with conviction about the steps needed to tear down inequities and build a region that safeguards all its people.
During the series, UCLA Luskin faculty and research centers led cross-sector conversations about the pandemic’s sweeping impact on housing, transit and health care; educating children and protecting them from abuse; immigration and voting rights; and rebuilding the economy through a sustainability lens.
THE ANNUAL SUPER QUIZ BOWL WAS RECHRISTENED as a virtual trivia night in late May, and nearly 250 competitors participated via home computers and cellphones.
“From this mighty group, we had 19 faculty and staff, 110 students and 119 alumni,” said organizer Tammy Borrero, the School’s director of events. “This was our highest participation since its inception eight years ago.”
A COMMENCEMENT CELEBRATION UNLIKE ANY OTHER wrapped up the academic year with a virtual keynote address by UC Regent John A. Pérez to honor 281 graduates scattered around the world.
“Clearly, these are not ordinary times,” Pérez said in his remarks, which were seen by more than 1,200 new graduates and their loved ones within a few days of the ceremony.
The virtual platform incorporated several new features. Each graduate got a few moments of dedicated screen time, with their name and photo often accompanied by a personal message of thanks or inspiration or a video clip — or both.
Urban Planning student speaker Amy Zhou took advantage of the virtual platform with a video in which she and classmates pledge solidarity to practice planning in a manner that will uplift communities. “When one falls, we all fall,” they conclude in unison. “When one rises, we all rise.”
We can make people’s lives better.
This central idea underlies everything at the Luskin School. In recent months, holding tight to that core philosophy has been of vital importance. This crucial election year began with countless opportunities for political engagement to help redirect our society in a new, more equitable direction. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, threatening our ability to deliver a high-quality education unless we could adapt quickly — and smartly — to the sudden shift to remote learning.
Through it all, UCLA Luskin has persevered. What is the most essential element of our continued success? Our people — including our amazing students.
The graduate and undergraduate students of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs are both dreamers and doers, people who see a need, then fill that need.
In the profiles that follow, we introduce you to some of the many UCLA Luskin students who are already making a difference in the world. They are dedicated. They are driven. To them, it’s not just about pursuing an education. It’s a calling — a call to action!
MAKING HIGHER EDUCATION AN ACHIEVABLE GOAL FOR ALL
Sam Haddad wants to make sure California students of all backgrounds know they have a path to college — and the younger the better.
“I think it really starts with getting to them as early as possible and encouraging them to orient themselves in a way where they would want this,” said Haddad, who has worked with many students who had never considered higher education as a realistic goal.
“The world is very small when you’re in middle school, it gets a little bit bigger in high school, and it gets a lot bigger as an undergrad,” the UCLA Luskin public affairs major said. “So you just have to show them that there’s a lot of opportunities beyond what they’ve been accustomed to.”
Haddad is a coordinator for UCLA’s Bruin Ambassadors, a team of undergraduates who connect with prospective students at high schools, college fairs and on-campus events.
“We get kids excited about what it means to be at an institution like UCLA — that it’s possible, and how to afford it. We are their resource throughout the admission process,” he said.
He is also a founding member of the Luskin Undergraduate Students Association (LUSA), which focuses on networking and mobilizing in the community. Last fall, several LUSA members traveled to Kid City, a nonprofit providing leadership development for youth in South Los Angeles, to assist students with their college applications. Working one-on-one, the undergrads helped the students shape their personal essays for the greatest impact.
“These students have really, really rich stories that they may not know how to verbalize yet. It’s hard to structure your narrative when you’re in the middle of making your narrative,” Haddad said. “LUSA helped them put it all into perspective and edit their essays to a level that would make them more competitive.”
Haddad said his eagerness to encourage students to work toward a college education comes from his own experience finding a path to UCLA. He feels a connection with first-generation students, even though his parents were largely educated in Amman, Jordan, before moving to Southern California before he was born.
“It’s a very, very different landscape to be educated in the Middle East than to be educated in the United States,” he
said, noting that his family was not familiar with UCLA or the rest of the California university system.
“The person who really helped me understand that there were opportunities beyond what was around me was my brother,” who shared advice and resources from his excellent high school counselors, he said.
With an interest in politics and policy, Haddad has interned in his congressman’s office and plans to complete an internship through the University of California’s Washington Center. After graduation, he hopes to jointly pursue advanced degrees in law and public policy.
For now, Haddad plans to continue spreading the word, particularly in disadvantaged communities, that hard work during the high school years can put top-rated universities within reach.
“The more students we have coming from these backgrounds, the more they can reach back into their own communities to allow more students to prosper,” he said.
In 2016, Olivia Miller was living and working in Ecuador when a massive earthquake killed 668 people on the country’s coast. Miller took it as a call to action and headed to the decimated region in hopes of providing support. That decision set her on a path that eventually led to UCLA Luskin and research grounded squarely in community empowerment.
“I started working with this wonderful project called Comparte Ecuador, which means “share Ecuador.” It was this really beautiful sort of grassroots community organization model that worked in what they called community reactivation.”
The idea of Comparte Ecuador is to do more than just provide emergency housing or supplies.
There are lots of Non-Governmental Organizations, or NGOs, on site after a natural disaster. “There’s this flood of NGOs that show up to the scene and donate a bunch of items, like mattresses and food and whatever. And then all of a sudden, they disappear,” Miller explained. “But my organization was really focused on asking, ‘Well, what do people want in this community to be self-sustainable so that they are not forever depending on outside organizations to give them things?’”
Miller’s drive to help others without reinforcing a dependency model led her to seek out like-minded peers and professors at UCLA like Amy Ritterbusch, an assistant professor who shares Miller’s interest in working internationally with communities facing violence. Ritterbusch connected Miller to a group of trans activists in Bogotá, Colombia, who were fighting against state violence. Last summer, Miller conducted field work in Colombia that formed the basis of her capstone project at UCLA Luskin.
Miller acknowledges that she is accountable to her professors and to the realities of academic research, but during her capstone she sought to stay true to her belief in community empowerment.
“How do you solve homelessness when you’re not asking the people who are experiencing homelessness? Who are the experts on homelessness?” she said, then continued with the analogy. “It’s the people who are living in homelessness every day.”
Miller’s goal is to pursue work built around that concept. “It’s about smashing those walls that divide us and that put people in boxes and tell them where they belong and what they can or can’t have as an opinion,” she said.
In her capstone, Miller hoped to “reimagine the relationship between street-based social work support and people facing structural violence in a real way, especially people whose livelihoods are connected to the street. It’s about how we can reimagine that, utilizing best practices of the people who have been figuring this out for themselves for a long time.” The way to solve social problems, Miller thinks, is to listen.
“It’s not about me, coming in from UCLA. I love having these conversations with [the people she met in Latin America] because it is so powerful to listen to them reflect on their movement. At the end of the day, the activists I work with are the ones who are changing their situation.”
SERVING AS A ROLE MODEL FOR THE FORMERLY INCARCERATED
Empower the powerless. Give a voice to the voiceless. Change a life.
For Romen Lopez, such phrases are more than platitudes. They describe his life.
Today, Lopez is a 2020 UCLA Master of Social Welfare recipient, a deeply engaged single father raising three children, and a leader of multiple efforts to direct youths from disadvantaged circumstances toward potentially life-altering educational opportunities.
But a dozen years ago? Romen Lopez was a convicted gang member cycling in and out of prison, seemingly on a path to self-destruction.
“I never in a million years thought I would be doing a master’s at UCLA,” Lopez said of his younger self. “That would have made no sense to me.”
Having followed a path to redemption via higher education, Lopez has seized the opportunity to turn his personal journey into a call to action for others in similar circumstances.
Lopez was part of a team of Social Welfare students who researched the Reintegration Academy at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, which points formerly incarcerated youth toward community college educations. Lopez’s similar path began at East L.A. College, then UCLA as an undergraduate
and on to graduate study at UCLA Luskin.
He also founded a UCLA organization called Reforming Education to Diminish Incarceration (REDI), which encourages formerly incarcerated students applying for admission to highlight their experiences in the justice system as “a form of empowerment and not a disability.”
Growing up in East Los Angeles, Lopez said, the best he could imagine was a menial job to pay the bills. His mother urged him to stay in school, but by his freshman year, he had joined a street gang.
When police caught him with a gun, he wound up in the parole-to-prison pipeline, which continued after he aged out of the juvenile system. “I went to prison five times from the age of 19 to my mid-20s,” he recalled.
The turning point for Lopez was Homeboy Industries, founded in 1988 by Father Gregory Boyle to improve the lives of former gang members in East Los Angeles. But it wasn’t a quick fix. Lopez started working at Homeboy in 2009, sweeping sidewalks and cleaning windows, but was arrested on a vandalism charge that sent him back to prison for two more years.
In prison, he earned his high school equivalency degree, and when he was released in 2011, Lopez began remaking his life. A lawyer at Homeboy Industries helped him clear up debts. He completed mandated substance abuse classes. He resolved a DUI to restore his driver’s license. And he began the legal process to obtain visitation rights — and eventually full custody — of his children.
The next step was East L.A. College, where he wound up working for the campus’ student government and, eventually, became student body president.
“I got to experience things I had never experienced before in my life,” said Lopez, including flying on a plane for the first time to attend conferences in places like Texas and New York.
Lopez’s decision to attend UCLA after finishing community college centered around his children, now aged 16, 14 and 8. The university had offered family housing, and “that’s an automatic no-brainer,” Lopez said with a laugh.
“My kids get to live out here in West L.A. now, and they get to see the campus. They know how to navigate higher education,” he said. “That’s something that I never knew.”
As his UCLA Luskin graduation neared, Lopez was both excited and apprehensive. “I’m kind of scared about it because I’ve been in school for the last seven-and-a-half years,” Lopez said. “Now I am going to need to find another spot for me and my kids to live.”
The next step in the remarkable journey of Romen Lopez is not yet certain. But he’s educated now and is eyeing a career in mental health. Plus, he has trusted advisers at Homeboy Industries and UCLA faculty like Jorja Leap in his corner. He’ll figure it out.
After all, the Romen Lopez of today has power, he has a voice, and his life has forever changed.
HARMONIZING TO FOSTER EMPATHY
Building a healthy community requires strong public policies as well as buy-in from the people on the ground. And a little music couldn’t hurt.
That’s the approach Noreen Ahmed is adopting in her post on the North Westwood Neighborhood Council, where she has taken on homelessness, gentrification and other issues important to UCLA and its neighbors.
“Everybody’s paying attention to homelessness right now, but there are these frustrations about the speed of how things are going. I just think there are opportunities to get more creative,” said Ahmed, a freshly minted MPP who was interviewed before the COVID-19 lockdown.
She envisions a musical celebration at Westwood Park, south of campus, where homeless encampments have created a divide among neighbors. By sharing their artistic talents in a common space, she believes students, residents and the unhoused would see one another in a new light.
“A lot of events that happen are a one-way thing — we serve you and we give you these resources. But I think there can be ways to elevate the conversation,” Ahmed said. “I think that the timing is just right to pull all these people together.”
Los Angeles is perfectly situated to bridge policymaking, technology and the arts, she said, adding that the students of UCLA are primed to accelerate change.
“My big goal is figuring out how to harness the UCLA voice. … It’s amazing to see the advocacy that’s happening, especially in the undergraduate community,” said Ahmed, who served on the board of directors of the Associated Students of UCLA, the largest student organization in the country.
On her way to Westwood, Ahmed took a winding path, both geographically and philosophically. Growing up in Maryland, she attended Catholic schools but supported her family’s Muslim faith, especially after 9/11. Her love of music led her to Boston University, where she studied to become an executive in the record industry. But she eventually realized that she was called to a different life.
“I just became a much more grateful person. And I wanted to give back in a way that I personally did not know how to do through the record industry,” she said.
So Ahmed joined the Peace Corps. After a tour in the West African nation of Mali, she spent years working in Baltimore and Denver with nonprofits devoted to community development and educating young adults who had dropped out of high school.
“I was in that social work role, though I didn’t have training and I was kind of learning as I went. That was one of the things that really drove me to get into public policy — just trying to get resources for students and seeing the challenges, hearing their stories and knowing how much was on their shoulders,” she said.
“I realized that I wanted to get myself into a place of power to be able to change some of these things,” Ahmed said. And she was pulled further west to complete that mission.
“UCLA is the only school that I wanted to go to, anywhere. It just felt like it was like the people’s school,” she said. “Diversity was really one of the key things for me. I wanted to go to a school that encourages new voices and different voices, and so that’s what attracted me to this program specifically. And it just intuitively felt right.”
After a life moving from place to place, Ahmed is now an established Angeleno. “This is the first place I’ve ever lived where I know I’m going to be for a long time.”
She has made the most of her time in the city, with internships in the offices of Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, as well as with the governmental public relations firm Cerrell Associates. She
also spent several months campaigning for an L.A. City Council candidate.
Ahmed plans to serve out her three-year term on the North Westwood Neighborhood Council, working diligently for the community — with tunes, whenever possible.
“I literally have harmonicas in my pocket,” said the lifelong music-lover, who approaches guitarists on campus and on the streets and offers to play accompaniment. “I look at it as part of this vision where there’s something more powerful happening than just playing music. It’s about harmonizing, but in a bigger way.”
HELPING THE VISUALLY IMPAIRED GET HEALTHIER
First, Joseph Burton decided that his degenerative visual condition would not prevent him from improving his health. He began exercising more and eating better, and Burton lost weight and his fitness markedly improved. So he took that success as a call to action and began helping others in similar circumstances do the same.
Burton is the founder of Hearts for Sight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to break down barriers to health and fitness among the blind and visually impaired.
The organization had been ramping up its activities prior to the coronavirus pandemic by offering bike rides, a yoga series and group hikes in cooperation with the Sierra Club. During one of those hikes at Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in late January, the group recorded a promotional video about the experience that can be viewed on YouTube. It shows sighted guides helping blind participants navigate trails as they make their way through scenic locations in the hills northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
“My focus and passion right now is working with people with visual impairments,” Burton said. “I find that they are some of the most vulnerable populations, and people who often get overlooked.”
Burton, who is entering his second year as a master’s student in social welfare at UCLA Luskin, has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that impacts vision in low light and reduces his peripheral eyesight. Eventually, he may lose his vision altogether.
Since founding Hearts for Sight in 2016, Burton has been gathering support from others in similar situations — the members of the Advisory Board of Hearts for Sight are all people facing vision challenges. They work together to “eliminate barriers that prevent the blind and other people who are visually impaired from participating in physical activity,” he said. “What we want to do is promote … the full health, wellness, and mental, physical and emotional well-being for our population.”
An eventual goal of Hearts for Sight is the creation of a wellness center with a gym where people with visual impairments can work out without fear of hazards.
“That’s just a huge challenge,” Burton explained. “I have a high degree of vision still. But when I go to a gym, I’m constantly having to navigate slowly, just to make sure that I’m not tripping over somebody’s leftover weights.”
Nutrition counseling is another need.
“A lot of our population, they resort to fast food or canned foods,” said Burton, pointing out that many people with visual impairments find navigating a kitchen particularly difficult. Some don’t use their kitchens at all. “It’s been a goal this year, actually, to find partners who can help us provide workshops so that we can really teach folks how to navigate their kitchen spaces and develop wholesome meals.”
Burton’s interest in social work is connected to his experiences as a foster child while growing up in San Diego. He started Hearts for Sight while an undergraduate student at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Because his career interests relate to nonprofit development to benefit underprivileged populations, he had long dreamed of attending UCLA, an elite university with a strong focus on social justice.
“I am an African American. I’m young. I was a foster youth. Credibility has always been something that I’ve really wanted,” Burton said. “I knew coming here would really be advantageous for me in terms of bridging relationships with the right people who can help me further my organizations’ mission and vision.”
While a full-time student at UCLA, Burton has worked as a case manager for homeless men at Society of St. Vincent DePaul. And he has started laying the foundation for a capstone research project about the barriers to physical activity faced by the visually impaired that he will complete during his second year at UCLA Luskin Social Welfare.
What’s next after the master’s degree?
“I would love to become Dr. Burton,” he said with a broad smile. Earning his Ph.D. would be personally gratifying, of course, but Joseph Burton is someone who believes that accomplishments become more meaningful when they are shared.
“As a former foster youth who’s been a part of social programs my whole entire life, to be on the other side of it and being able to give back to others, that’s something I feel strongly about,” he said.
LIFTING UP HER NEIGHBORS
Neighborhood is important to Kimberly Fabian. So wherever she goes, she makes connections with people who remind her of home.
“I’m from Koreatown, and that place is beautiful,” she said. “I grew up with a lot of immigrants and a lot of low-income people, and it was just the most amazing experience.”
Fabian learned the meaning of community in that richly diverse pocket of Los Angeles, but she also witnessed a deep communications divide.
“The people themselves, they got along really well. … But the community was sort of disconnected from the institutions that were in place there,” she said. Dealing with landlords or school officials did not come easy for many, she said, and “I’ve never known a lot of people who voted.”
Now a fourth-year public affairs major, Fabian has found a multitude of ways to bridge that divide, both on campus and all across the city she loves.
Earlier this year, Fabian spent time in Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles to get out the Latino vote. Joining other UCLA students staffing tables on behalf of the nonprofit Voto Latino, she shared information about strengthening communities through the ballot box.
“Someone told us something really heartfelt. They were saying that Latinx families trust Latinx women the most,” she said. “I like knowing that they’re hearing this information from us, instead of some random city official that they might have no reason to trust.”
Fabian also underwent months of training to become IRS-certified to assist people struggling to fill out their tax returns. She recalled a session at Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, where she helped an older woman who spoke no English and had a disabled husband at home. Other tax services had given the woman bad information or asked for substantial fees, but Fabian was able to guide her through the filing process at no charge.
“She was so happy, she wanted to tip me, and I said, ‘No, no.’ Then she came back that afternoon with a bag of avocados, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll take some avocados,’ ” Fabian said. “There were a lot of things going on with her story and with her life, and I was really happy that I was the one who got to help her.”
At UCLA, Fabian has benefited from the Academic Advancement Program, which provides resources to low-income or underrepresented students. Now, she is one of the program’s paid peer tutors, providing help in microeconomics while building relationships and trust.
The program is “very intentional about wanting to relate to students by using people who come from the students’ same backgrounds,” she said. “Some peers talk about imposter syndrome with me, and it’s like we’re at the No. 1 public institution in the country and it’s super great, but then you’re struggling because microecon can be hard.”
In the coming year, Fabian will complete a senior capstone project for her public affairs B.A. She aims to immerse herself in an inner-city college access program for kids to study which factors lead to success. She has also worked with data that guide policies for education reform as an intern with the Los Angeles Education Research Institute, co-founded by Associate Professor Meredith Phillips of UCLA Luskin Public Policy. And she hopes to one day pursue a graduate degree in sociology so she can continue to lift up communities like the one where she was raised.
“Every time I’m helping these people, even if I don’t know them, it feels like I’m helping my neighbor, it feels like I’m helping someone I grew up with,” Fabian said.
CRUNCHING NUMBERS TO BENEFIT MARGINALIZED COMMUNITIES
When Michael Rios first arrived at UCLA to pursue his Master of Public Policy, he was intrigued by a course that had just launched in the fall of 2018.
“Voting Rights Policy and Law” promised to take graduate students on a yearlong journey, from theory and methodology to a real-world court challenge at a place where the right to vote was under threat.
“The most attractive thing about it was the fact that it was so hands-on,” Rios said of the course, taught by Matt Barreto, professor of political science and Chicano/a studies, and civil rights lawyer Chad Dunn.
“They had made it known that, at the end of the year, they wanted to open up several lawsuits against certain jurisdictions — and that it would all be from our work,” Rios said.
“You come to Luskin, in general, to help people and give back to marginalized communities, and this was a major way to do it.”
By year’s end, Rios had studied case law, learned to crunch population data, helped shine a light on balloting irregularities in Washington state — then realized he was not ready to give up the voting rights fight.
Fortunately, that first innovative public policy course was blossoming into a new advocacy group, the UCLA Voting Rights Project housed at the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative based at UCLA Luskin, and Barreto and Dunn brought Rios aboard as a policy fellow.
“The objective is to figure out where voters are being marginalized. And if people aren’t allowed the right to have their voices heard, then how do we hold the official mechanisms of government accountable?” said Rios, who also researched and co-authored a memo, at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, on the health protections afforded by vote-by-mail balloting.
Rios has a particular affinity for mapping tools and quantitative analysis. “Through the Voting Rights Project, I’ve really been inspired to work with data,” particularly to benefit people, he said.
He has spent hours poring over heat maps and complex columns of data in an attempt to identify places where elected officials look markedly different from their constituents. That’s a sign that voting rights may be diluted or denied.
The research tools Rios has mastered have also been put to use in his Applied Policy Project, the capstone of the UCLA Luskin MPP program. Rios’ team is working for the city and county of Honolulu, which is considering a vacancy tax or some other policy to reduce the number of housing units that stand empty.
“I’ve been collecting 10 years’ worth of American Community Survey data on everything from why units are vacant to people’s education rates to who lives where, and parsing through all that to figure out the best policy option for them,” he said.
With accessibility to information and education one of his top priorities, Rios also initiated a partnership between UCLA Luskin and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, a nonprofit aimed at cultivating young Latino leaders. Because of Rios’ efforts, beginning this fall, the institute will provide a stipend to graduates of its fellowship program if they choose to pursue a master’s degree at the Luskin School.
For his own educational path, Rios is considering a doctoral program that melds policy and quantitative methodology, with the aim of making data-driven research accessible to a wider public.
“It’s a certain type of skill for someone to be able to look at these huge data sets and figure out what’s the most strategic approach, then interpret the results and put them in layman’s terms so anyone could understand it,” he said.
“So that’s the attractive side of it: How do we ask important questions, and how do we use the data that’s available to us to figure those things out, and how do we tell it to ordinary people?”
ADVOCATING FOR SURVIVORS OF SEXUAL ABUSE
In the fall of 2017, the #MeToo movement was gaining steam, with more women opening up about experiencing harassment and assault.
At the same time, Atreyi Mitra arrived at UCLA, and her ongoing support for gender equity took an urgent and personal turn. Hearing story after painful story about classmates who had survived sexual abuse, she felt she had to act.
“That’s when I first joined Bruin Consent Coalition,” a student-led group formed to support survivors and educate the community, said Mitra, a double-major in public affairs and human biology and society. “And in joining that space, I
saw so many people that I had formed such close connections with who were so very impacted by these issues.”
As she began to grasp the scope of the problem, she also learned a hard truth: While all University of California schools had created Campus Assault Resources & Education (CARE) offices to provide support, healing and advocacy, “they are understaffed, under-resourced and underfunded,” Mitra said.
So she began to dig for data to make the case that survivors and survivor advocates deserve more support.
Mitra collected data from CARE offices across the system, as well as documents from the UC Office of the President. She interviewed CARE staffers and activists against sexual violence, and conducted student surveys to gauge the campus climate. With this foundation, she began to build a case for additional resources.
One example: In 2017-2018, UCLA’s CARE office handled 770 cases with just two advocates. The Chancellor’s office has since funded two additional advocates, and the UC Office of the President has launched a systemwide assessment of CARE resources.
Spending time in different arenas of activism — front-line survivor support and behind-the-scenes data-mining — Mitra also discovered insights about her own strengths and limitations as an advocate.
“As I got more involved, I could feel myself becoming emotionally exhausted. I found that I no longer had an off switch,” she said. With grassroots organizing taking a toll on schoolwork, as well as her own well-being, she decided to step back from the Bruin Consent Coalition and funnel her energy into research.
“I have to say that that entire shift was not something that came easily,” she said. “It came out of a lot of pain, but I think it was better for me.”
Mitra is now pursuing an independent project through UC Speaks Up, a network of public health researchers from UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara, all working to combat sexual violence on campuses.
Her goal is to identify barriers to accessing the UC’s CARE resources. Her research has shown they include straightforward factors such as office hours and location, but also more nuanced concerns such as fears that confidentiality will be breached or seeing few people of color on staff.
Mitra also serves as a student representative on the UC Committee on Research Policy, which advises the UC president on research matters and coordinates policies and procedures across all campuses. And she makes her voice heard as part of UCLA’s Student Fee Advisory Committee, which guides decisions about the allocation of funds on campus.
“I think none of us like to admit this, but money is power. If you truly want to support change, a lot of that support at the end of the day comes fiscally,” she said.
After graduation, Mitra aspires to work at the intersection of research, policy and advocacy, possibly in law, education or nonprofit work.
“I now know that I’ve always preferred to work through academia and bureaucratic structures to create the kinds of changes I want to see,” she said.
PLANNING FOR SOMETHING BIGGER THAN HIMSELF
As a newly admitted graduate student in 2018, Bradley Bounds II said he wanted to make a local impact.
“I want to work on building up my community,” said the Compton resident, who was already working as a planning intern for Long Beach when he came to UCLA Luskin.
Two years later, he’s doing just that. Juggling a demanding school and work schedule, Bounds completed his Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree in cooperation with classmates who developed aspects of a new General Plan for Culver City — one that will impact the city’s built environment and the lives of its residents for decades to come.
Bounds’ participation in the project was part of a comprehensive capstone course led by Paavo Monkkonen, associate professor of urban planning and public policy.
“It’s rare that the General Plan would be updated all at the same time,” Monkkonen explained. “What happens usually in planning is certain parts of it are updated periodically and, in Culver City’s case, some parts have not been updated since 1962.”
The city was originally incorporated in 1917, only a year after the enactment of the nation’s first zoning ordinance.
“There’s a lot of parts that haven’t been modified, so it’s been a big deal,” Monkkonen said. Unlike past councils, the governing body in Culver City today is much more progressive.
Monkkonen said the idea to engage with UCLA Luskin on the client project came from alumnus and Culver City council member Daniel Lee MSW ’15, who was elected in 2018 and is the first African American ever to serve there.
Bounds was part of a 15-student class that worked in six subgroups. They connected with city leaders and staff, developers and other stakeholders on such topics as transportation, housing, urban design, environmental impacts and community development.
A city and its consultants must work within certain constraints, but students, who are exploring various concentrations within urban planning, can be bolder and support things that city officials find interesting but don’t have time to study in detail themselves.
“I’m amazed they are attempting to do it,” said Bounds about Culver City officials. “If they succeed, it’s going to be amazing. Whether anyone likes it or not, I’m proud of Culver City for even attempting it and making headway on it.”
Bounds and his subgroup tackled public participation and engagement, a tough task already that became even more challenging amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Interviews over the phone are OK, but it’s way better to interview in person,” Bounds said during an interview that took place while the county was under stay-at-home restrictions. “Now we’re trying to figure out how we can get people to actually respond to us and participate in interviews.”
Just before the lockdown, Bounds and his classmates had taken their proposals to the Culver City Council for a public presentation. They asked questions that focused on barriers to greater participation by various constituencies within the city. They also wanted to know how the city planned to become more inclusive.
“We’ve met with different planning departments, and we’ve interviewed stakeholders and some developers,” Bounds said. “Projects that do well are those that get a lot of stakeholder feedback. We have to make magic happen.”
Bounds emphasized that figuring out how to engage different constituencies now is more important than ever, “because now you don’t have the benefit of being able to go by complete word-of-mouth.”
As graduation neared, Bounds was hoping to find a full-time planning job close to home.
“I’ve always wanted to work in government because I’ve always felt myself called to participate in something bigger than myself,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do something where I was a public servant.”
Perhaps he can even become a planning commissioner for Compton, his hometown.
Bounds hopes to extend progressive planning ideas beyond Los Angeles and toward Long Beach, Compton and other underserved areas. “That’s my dream,” he said. “Maybe I can come back and push for that.”
— Stan Paul
The Latino Policy and Politics Initiative’s release of an ambitious policy agenda to promote equity and opportunity for Latino communities nationwide received widespread media coverage. The 38-page document, titled Shaping a 21st Century Latino Agenda, was created after LPPI convened 80 prominent Latino leaders to discuss the biggest issues facing U.S. Latinos amid the coronavirus crisis. The agenda lays out recommendations for action on climate change, voting rights, health, immigrant rights, education, housing, criminal justice and economic opportunity. “Part of this exercise was really identifying ways that we can promote Black-brown unity but also identify ways that policy can actually include communities of color instead of leaving us further behind,” Sonja Diaz, LPPI’s founding executive director, told Fox40 News. Other news outlets covering the agenda’s release include the Sacramento Bee, Telemundo and Voice of San Diego.
Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, moderated the July 6 webinar “Buying Black: Reframing Urbanism and Economics,” a conversation with three experts on the intersection of consumer behavior, city planning and efforts to dismantle systemic racism. A virtual audience of more than 350 tuned in to hear the dialogue on the importance of generating economic opportunities within the Black community. Author and advocate Maggie Anderson, CEO of the Empowerment Experiment Foundation, challenged viewers to make a commitment to supporting Black-owned businesses, saying, “We cannot keep fighting against racism in the streets with our protests if we’re going to keep enabling racism in the stores with our purchases.” A Kouture, president of the International Black Restaurant and Hospitality Association, described her efforts to use data on Black commerce to win support from investors, developers and government agencies in metropolitan areas around the country. And Matthew Miller, a cultural geographer at the University of Pennsylvania, described his research into Black business corridors, including in South Los Angeles, which are “not just a place for job creation and wealth accumulation” but also “community anchors for people to confront marginalization both within the Black community and outside of it.” Said Lens, “We are at this amazing and painful moment of racial awakening. Everybody’s lining up to make statements and say nice things, but we have long gotten past the point at which specific, concrete actions need to be made.” The panelists planned to reconnect to plan further collaboration following the webinar, which can be viewed on demand or on Facebook.
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