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In Reparations Debate, UCLA Students Help Amplify Black Californians’ Voices Public policy graduate students use tools of research to help shape history

By Mary Braswell

A small team of UCLA graduate students traveled the state, heard from more than 900 residents, surveyed over 4,400 more and analyzed 1,000-plus pages of transcripts over the past year, all to give ordinary Californians a voice in the conversation about how the government should atone for the devastating legacy of slavery.

The students’ work documented the range of harms that have been suffered by Black Americans over generations and captured viewpoints on what just compensation should look like. In the fall, the team reported its findings at a public meeting of the California Reparations Task Force, which is conducting closely watched deliberations on the best path forward.

The group also just delivered an 80-page report to the state Department of Justice, the culmination of an extraordinary opportunity to use the tools of research to help shape momentous policy decisions in real time.

Through it all, the young Black scholars were deeply affected by the stories they heard and the responsibility they carried.

“I understood the significance of what I was working on,” said Elliot Woods, a second-year master of public policy student at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “And all I could think about was that I don’t want to disappoint our ancestors.”

‘The way it is now, it seems like we’re being pushed out. … We’ve lost family homes. We’ve lost generational homes that have been in our families for years.’

— A Black California resident speaking at a community listening session organized by UCLA’s Black Policy Project

The nine-member Reparations Task Force, commissioned by the California Legislature and seated in 2021, quickly determined that community input was vital to its work. So it turned to the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, where public policy and urban planning professor Michael Stoll directs the Black Policy Project.

The task was immense and the deadline tight. Within months, the panel required a comprehensive and data-backed accounting of public opinion from across the California spectrum: from rural and urban communities, from every economic rung and every walk of life.

Stoll proposed that his group also systematically document stories of racial discrimination and record residents’ viewpoints on how the state should respond. And he enlisted three master’s students he knew he could count on: Jendalyn Coulter, who analyzed conversations from 17 online and in-person community listening sessions across the state; Chinyere Nwonye, who studied recorded testimonies, photos, videos and other submissions before developing full oral histories of seven Californians, ages 38 to 88; and Woods, who supervised two surveys to gauge support for cash and non-cash reparations and to capture opinions on who should be eligible.

“When you see people who are curious, excited, capable and committed, and who have the passion, it was an easy call about how to assemble the team. And the research they conducted was spectacular,” Stoll said. The project was the type of work that doctoral students might normally do, he added, and it was completed in a fraction of the time such a large project would typically require.

‘I felt like, growing up, we were made to be ashamed of who we are as Black Americans. … I feel like a lot of Black Americans, they don’t have a sense of purpose because they don’t value their legacy. They don’t value what their families went through.’

A Hollywood professional interviewed for an oral history

After several weeks of intensive transcribing, coding and analyzing the trove of data they collected, Coulter, Nwonye and Woods worked with Stoll to develop conclusions that will guide the work of the Reparations Task Force. Among them:

  • Black Californians concurred that racial bias in education, policing, housing and the workplace has diminished the quality of their lives, at times leading to emotional trauma and physical ailments.
  • An overwhelming majority of survey respondents from all races expressed support for reparations: 77% favored non-cash financial support such as housing assistance, debt forgiveness, land grants and community investment; 73% supported non-monetary remedies such as reforming the education and criminal justice systems; and 64% favored direct cash payments.
  • Those who were surveyed disagreed somewhat on who should be eligible for reparations: all Black Californians (supported by 30% of respondents); those who can establish that they are the direct descendants of slaves (29%); or those who can demonstrate that they have experienced race-based discrimination (24%).

With the community listening sessions complete, the state task force has asked a team of economists for recommendations on implementing an equitable program of reparations; a final report is due this summer. California lawmakers will then consider how to proceed.

Meanwhile at UCLA, the Black Policy Project has launched a study group to further analyze the findings. Stoll said the results of that new work will not only contribute to the ongoing policy conversation but also give more of the public a chance to parse the findings in different ways.

‘I really do believe if you fix the descendants of slavery in America … it actually allows the U.S. to say and show we were actually willing to clean up our own messes. We were willing to be the country we said that we were when we said liberty and justice for all.’

— An Oakland, California, resident interviewed for an oral history

After the group had delivered its report, Woods reflected on the opportunity to play a part in shaping history.

“We are in this unique and very, very privileged position to work on this as students at UCLA,” he said. “It feels like a lot of weight to carry because we know we have a lot of the nation paying attention to what we’re doing.”

For Nwonye, the experience prompted self-examination about researchers’ role when the subject is personal.

“You always want to maintain that level of professionalism that comes from a sense of objectivity. And there were days when I had to step away from it,” Nwonye said.

“But at the same time, I don’t know that we would have found the things that we found if we were not a Black research team. I don’t know that people would have been as open about telling their stories.”

Coulter, who earned dual master’s degrees in public policy and social welfare in 2022, recalled the anguish she found in the pages of transcripts from months of community listening sessions.

“I can’t even begin to fathom the collective trauma and the stress and just the pain that has been inflicted on the community for so long,” she said. “And it was heartbreaking, as a Black person, to hear the distrust and the hesitancy around the purpose of this. Is this massive effort truly going to resonate with the government? Or will it again fall on deaf ears?”

When Stoll and the students appeared at Los Angeles’ California Science Center in September to preview their findings, audio of some of the interviews they conducted was played for the Reparations Task Force and members of the public. The audience included people who had participated in the project, and they thanked the students for telling their stories.

“Even if nothing else happens,” Nwonye said, “we’ve already done something that is really important: allowing people to have their voices be heard.”

Read “Harm and Repair,” the research team’s report to the California Reparations Task Force.

‘I Love the School’ As interim dean at UCLA Luskin, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris is giving back to a university that has been ‘extremely good to me’ for 33 years

By Les Dunseith

On Jan. 1, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris became interim dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, filling a role that is expected to continue for at least two-and-a-half years until a permanent dean is named.

Loukaitou-Sideris, a distinguished professor of urban planning, had previously served as associate dean. A widely published scholar who joined the UCLA faculty in 1990, Loukaitou-Sideris helped lead a strategic planning effort to redefine the future of the School in the wake of the naming gift from Meyer and Renee Luskin in 2004. She drew on that experience a decade later to lead a campuswide effort that created a strategic plan for UCLA.

In a Q&A conducted during her second week as interim dean, Loukaitou-Sideris talked about taking on new responsibilities, how she is approaching the challenge and what she sees as the Luskin School’s immediate priorities.

What was your reaction when you found out you would be the interim dean?

Loukaitou-Sideris: Well, it was a mixture of excitement — because I love the School — and a little bit of being overwhelmed. I’ve had a very good life, heading all kinds of research-related activities, as well as being an associate dean for 12 years. This role brings with it a whole new area of work that is much more intensive, but also exciting.

At the same time, I know the School inside and out, and I have served the university in different capacities. I know the deans. I know the vice chancellors. There is an element of familiarity. And I feel that I’m giving something back to a School that has been extremely good to me all these years. 

Have you witnessed a lot of change in your time as a UCLA Luskin professor?

Loukaitou-Sideris: Absolutely. I pre-date the formation of this School in 1994. I was in the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and at the time everybody in that program was very much opposed to moving urban planning to this new entity. In retrospect, we were wrong, as the new school opened up new and exciting opportunities.

The common thread is social justice and a desire to make cities and society better — to improve things. What is unique from the early days is the recognition that by bringing together our individual disciplines and finding common initiatives, we can attract more people who are interested in tackling complex issues and do so in a much more comprehensive way.

The Luskin School added an undergraduate degree program and new academic research centers in recent years. Growth is generally a good thing, but it also can be challenging. What needs to happen next?

Loukaitou-Sideris: We have reached a level of stability now. I anticipate leading new initiatives relating to global public affairs, real estate development and e-governance and the introduction of digital technology tools  — and we have been assured by the provost that such efforts will be supported — but compared to the last few years, growth is going to be more moderate.

What are your top priorities as interim dean?

Loukaitou-Sideris: It is very crucial to reassure people that the School is not only doing well but is going forward.

We’ve faced what I call a “triple whammy.” We had COVID. We had the UC strike. And we had the unexpected resignation of a dean. One of the very first things I’m doing is meeting with people and reassuring them. I have spoken with the Board of Advisors, the department chairs and many individuals, including the Luskins. I plan to meet with our students. I am holding a town hall for faculty and staff.

Both groups at once?

Loukaitou-Sideris: Yes, I insisted on that. I don’t believe in treating the two groups differently. We all work for the good of the School, and we all have a very important role to play. We don’t have first-class and second-class citizens here.

Morale is very important, as you know, in an organization. My door is open, and it will remain open.

Another priority is to tackle the economic realities brought about by the pandemic and the strike settlement agreement, which will increase labor costs, without diminishing pedagogic excellence. It is not the best thing for a new dean, you know, to start during an environment where you have to cut budgets. But I think that people understand.

And I have to say that people have been so far very responsive and very understanding.

As you know, research is a great love of mine. So yet another priority is that I want to see the School continue to increase our grants and ensure that tighter budgets do not reduce opportunities for research. I will be working closely with the research centers on that.

Callahan on Cleaning Up Polluting Port Traffic

Colleen Callahan, co-executive director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to Bloomberg News about new business models that could speed the transition to zero-emission freight trucks at California’s ports. Callahan co-authored a study of the heavy-duty diesel trucks that serve Southern California ports, which contribute to dangerous air quality in surrounding low-income communities. “A lot of experts call it the diesel death zone,” Callahan said. “You have these kids going to school adjacent to rail yards and freeways where all these diesel trucks are transporting goods from the ports.” As one result, rates of asthma among children living near the ports are particularly high. New policies are expected to phase out diesel trucks and replace them with electric vehicles, but there are challenges involving cost, charging infrastructure, and a complicated landscape of rebates and incentives. Startup companies are now emerging to provide electric trucks to small businesses on a subscription or leasing plan.


 

Creating More Inclusive Cities Through Just Urban Design

“Just Urban Design: The Struggle for a Public City,” co-edited by urban planning faculty members Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Kian Goh and Vinit Mukhija, includes writings by urban planners, sociologists, anthropologists, architects and landscape architects who focus on the role and scope of urban design in creating more just and inclusive cities. Published by MIT Press, the book seeks to strengthen “the potential of cities and city regions to foster inclusive urban public life” by envisioning how to deliver social, spatial and environmental justice in cities. Too often, the opposite is true — the concept of justice rarely appears as an explicit concern in urban design discourse and design practice. “Market-driven urbanism of the last decades has exacerbated injustice through privatization, gentrification, displacement and exclusion,” the editors say. By focusing on justice, urban design scholars and practitioners can reinvigorate their work and help create public cities that are attuned to power dynamics and attentive to the historically vulnerable and disadvantaged.


 

Yin on Growing Efforts to Wipe Out Medical Debt

Wesley Yin, associate professor of public policy and economics, spoke to the New York Times about local governments’ efforts to address the high cost of health care by canceling their constituents’ medical debts. People with medical debt are less likely to seek needed care, and carrying a sizable debt load can damage credit and make it difficult to find employment, research shows. So across the United States, city and county officials are using funds from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan to provide medical debt relief to eligible residents. Erasing this debt could be a “game changer” for some people, said Yin, who is studying the impact of medical debt relief programs on people’s livelihoods. He added, however, that governments should also address the root causes of medical debt, including high costs and limited access to good health insurance.


 

Turner on the Need for Disruptive Protest

A Los Angeles Times column about recent clashes between L.A. public officials and protesters cited David C. Turner, assistant professor of social welfare. Scandals have enveloped City Hall, with three former council members facing federal corruption charges and continuing fallout from a leaked recording of a racist conversation among city leaders. In response, members of the public have been loud, aggressive and disruptive, and high-ranking officials have openly condemned their detractors. Turner said it’s a deeply troubling sign when elected leaders or their supporters attack their constituents and critics. All protest is by nature confrontational and no social movement has ever succeeded without violating the rules of decorum, he noted. “There’s always this dichotomy drawn between those who protest nicely versus those who are disruptive or confrontational,” Turner said. “But if you study social movements, you know that they need one another. Real change doesn’t happen without both.”

A Historic Leadership Transition in L.A.

Media covering the swearing-in of Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass spoke to experts from UCLA Luskin about the historic leadership transition. “Los Angeles is a city at a crossroads,” Sonja Diaz, executive director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Institute, told the Washington Post, noting that Bass must deal with great increases in housing insecurity, food insecurity and economy inequality. Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, spoke to LAist about hurdles Bass is likely to face, including resistance to zoning changes that could ease construction of various types of housing. And Jim Newton, editor of UCLA’s Blueprint magazine, wrote a CalMatters commentary about Bass’ tenure as a test for Democrats in California and nationally. Newton also spoke to KPCC’s AirTalk about the historic arc of Los Angeles’ mayors, their scope of authority and leadership styles.


 

Torres-Gil Selected as American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare Fellow

Professor Fernando Torres-Gil, director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at UCLA Luskin, was elected as a 2023 fellow by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. The academy is dedicated to advancing social good through high-impact research, scholarship and practice, and its prestigious fellows program recognizes individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the field of social work and social welfare. Torres-Gil’s multifaceted career spans the academic, professional and policy arenas. He is a professor of social welfare and public policy whose research focuses on health and long-term care, disability, entitlement reform and the politics of aging. At the Center for Policy Research on Aging, established in 1997, Torres-Gil has directed studies into major policy issues surrounding Social Security, Medicare, long-term care, and the societal implications that accompany the aging of the baby boom generation and their children. His portfolio of public service includes presidential appointments in the Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations, several positions at the state and local level, and leadership posts at philanthropic and nonprofit organizations. A prolific writer, Torres-Gil has co-authored several op-eds, articles and books, including 2018’s “The Politics of a Majority-Minority Nation: Aging, Diversity, and Immigration.” Torres-Gil and 13 other fellows will be formally inducted at the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare’s annual conference in January. Previous fellows from the UCLA Luskin Social Welfare faculty include Laura Abrams, Ron Avi Astor, Aurora Jackson, Stuart A. Kirk, James Lubben. Robert Schilling and the late Yeheskel “Zeke” Hasenfeld.


 

Miyashita Ochoa on Outdated Blood Donation Restrictions

Social Welfare faculty member Ayako Miyashita Ochoa spoke to ABC News about prospects that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will update its blood donation policy, which restricts participation by some members of the LGBTQ community. The policy has evolved over the years. In 1985, the FDA banned all donations from men who have sex with men in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Today, donations are accepted from gay and bisexual men who abstain from sex for 90 days. If a policy change is implemented, gay and bisexual men in monogamous relationships will be able to donate without abstaining from sex. Implementing the change would help battle stigma and address future blood shortages. Research by Miyashita Ochoa found that eliminating the ban could increase the donation supply by 2% to 4%, bringing in more than 615,000 pints of blood every year. “That isn’t a small amount,” she said. “That 2 to 4% count is roughly calculated to a million lives saved.”


 

Segura to Step Down as Dean, Remain on Faculty His six years leading the Luskin School has been marked by a deep commitment to equity, diversity and academic excellence

Gary Segura has decided to end his time as dean of the Luskin School for personal reasons. Here is a message sent to the UCLA Luskin staff and faculty by UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Darnell Hunt:

Dear Colleagues:

I write to share the news that Dean Gary Segura, who has led the Luskin School of Public Affairs since January of 2017, has informed me of his decision to step down as dean and return to the faculty. His last day will be Dec. 31, 2022. We will share plans for interim leadership of the school as soon as they are in place.

In his nearly six years as dean, Dean Segura has fostered within the Luskin School a deep commitment to academic excellence and to equity, diversity and inclusion. Under his leadership, the school has enrolled an accomplished and highly diverse group of students in its programs and appointed renowned scholars in areas such as poverty and inequality, immigration, criminal justice, education policy and more.

Dean Segura has helped to cement the Luskin School’s status as a leader in research, teaching and practice across the areas of social welfare, urban planning and public policy. Recognizing growing demand for the Luskin School’s programs, in 2018 he led the development of the undergraduate major in public affairs, which provides a multidisciplinary foundation in social science theories, data collection and analysis. Additionally, the school launched a certificate program in data analytics in fall 2021 and added a new dual master’s degree program offered jointly by our Urban Planning Department and the Urban School of Sciences Po in Paris.

Dean Segura also co-founded the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Institute in 2017 to address inequities and spread awareness of the most critical domestic policy challenges facing Latinos and other communities of color.

Chancellor Block and I are grateful to Dean Segura for advancing the public affairs disciplines at UCLA and for his work to deepen the Luskin School’s impact on communities near and far. Please join me in thanking Dean Segura for his leadership and wishing him well on his next chapter.

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