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A Platform for Elevating Student Voices As UCLA's student body president, public affairs major Breeze Velazquez embraces the role as an advocate for her peers

By Mary Braswell

During UCLA’s year of remote learning, Breeze Velazquez spent much of her time advocating for other Bruins.

Working one-on-one with students who believed they had been unfairly accused of academic dishonesty was not a role she had ever expected to play.

But it was one step on a surprising journey that led the senior public affairs major to seek and win the office of president of the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council.

“The crazy thing is, I never saw myself ever running for USAC,” Velazquez said. “I was an introvert. I had no social media up until last year.”

But in her public affairs coursework, as well as through internships with organizations like JusticeLA, MALDEF and Unite-LA, Velazquez found her own voice by helping others find theirs.

Her campaign for student body president focused on meeting the unique needs of first-generation, low-income students of color.

“I drew upon my own experiences and the experiences of my peers,” she said. “I grew up with a single mom. I grew up low-income, as well. And you know, I’m the first in my family to attend college.”

Those experiences helped shape a platform based on listening to the concerns of a wide range of students, then helping them connect with the right contacts in the UCLA administration. So far this year, this has included helping undocumented students navigate the university’s financial aid system and advocating for the creation of a special office to provide resources to those accused of academic dishonesty.

During the COVID-19 lockdown last year, UCLA saw an uptick in these cases, with students struggling to defend themselves over Zoom, said Velazquez, who at the time was the student body’s academic affairs commissioner. While providing guidance in these cases was not a formal part of her responsibilities, she decided to step in.

“One of the things I liked most about the role was the work that I got to do one-on-one with students,” she said. “I really fell in love with this project because I really see myself advocating for students in the future.”

Velazquez acknowledged that managing her academic workload, juggling several part-time jobs and serving in student government — which can be a lightning rod for criticism — has been physically and emotionally draining, especially during the pandemic.

She has leaned on friends and a tight-knit family, and has drawn support from the public affairs department she joined as a freshman pre-major.

“I just really found a community within the major. The students are so compassionate,” she said.

“And I look back on some of the professors I had who really supported me. Meredith Phillips, she was amazing,” Velazquez said of the undergraduate program’s founding chair. “I have gone to her for advice time and time again, even right now.”

Her coursework in public affairs, as well as Chicana/o and Central American studies — both intimate, interdisciplinary programs — has also helped bring her life goals into focus. Each department encouraged her to engage in the community and take advantage of course offerings from across campus, including in policy, education and law — fields she is interested in pursuing after graduation.

Until then, she’ll spend her year as student body president working to elevate the voices of students and helping them access UCLA resources.

“As difficult as it has been and as much as I never pictured myself taking on this role, … I know that I care about this and I’m strong enough because I was raised the right way,” she said. “My mom taught me that I’m a strong woman and no one’s going to deter what I need to get done.”

An Immersive Education in Public Affairs Courses on urban trees, safe schools exemplify innovative undergraduate curriculum at UCLA Luskin

By Mary Braswell and Joanie Harmon

Growing up amid the ancient redwoods of Sonoma County, Amy Stanfield developed a deep connection to trees, even greeting her favorites by the names she gave them as a little girl.

“You can stand in the forest and then look up and you just have this very awe-inspiring feeling looking up at these insanely tall, old, historic trees,” Stanfield said. “Redwood trees are really just a symbolic and beautiful part of my life.”

So when the third-year public affairs major spotted a new course on offer in spring quarter — “Trees in the City,” taught by Associate Professor of Urban Planning Kirsten Schwarz — she quickly enrolled.

“I think all the students came to this course with a love of trees,” Schwarz said. “I don’t want them to lose that, but I do want them to think a little bit more critically about the role of trees in the city, and who might benefit from them.”

Trees tell a complex story, touching on water use, climate change, gentrification and even mundane considerations like sap falling on cars.

Schwarz’s course examines urban forestry through an environmental justice lens, weaving together social sciences, natural sciences and fieldwork with the Los Angeles nonprofit TreePeople.

It’s one of several innovative courses that illustrate the UCLA Luskin public affairs major’s emphasis on deep engagement in civic life and rigorous scholarship that draws from many disciplines.

Also new in spring 2021 has been Public Affairs 125, “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools,” taught by Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor, an authority on school safety and student well-being.

Astor, who has a joint appointment with the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, said he designed the curriculum with a holistic approach to enhance how universities prepare future educators, social workers, psychologists, administrators and policymakers.

“The new vision proposes that schools won’t just respond to crisis,” Astor said. “It will recognize the current inequities in the system and create school settings that uplift and inspire students — graciously creating a community of educators, peers and families that will elevate the aspirations of each child.”

The course incorporates lessons from more than a year of upheaval endured by schools around the country.

“The dual global pandemics of COVID-19 and our national reckoning with systemic racism after the murder of George Floyd focused a bright light on many blind spots we have as a society when we discuss and research school safety,” Astor said. “The two pandemics highlighted well-documented health, racial and geographic inequities, and started a widespread public conversation about them.”

Students in Public Affairs 125, “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools,” learn to develop strong policy positions and convey them to the public using the power of media.

With her keen interest in education policy, Stephanie Tapia Onate was glad she could take the new course in her final quarter as an undergraduate.

“I like that it focused on improving the school environment. As a former student of the LAUSD public school system, I know that there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Tapia Onate, who will soon graduate with a public affairs bachelor’s degree, then pursue a master of public policy at the Luskin School in the fall.

What sets “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools” apart, she said, is the opportunity to personally engage with a wide variety of experts and to develop the practical skills needed to deliver a policy message to the general public.

Astor’s lineup of guest speakers comes from an impressive array of disciplines, including education, public policy, social welfare, psychology, neuroscience, medicine and law. Scholars from UCLA and across the nation, as well as top officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District, have spoken to the class on topics that included racism, bullying, weapons and drug use, mental health and the unique needs of LGBTQ, homeless or undocumented students.

The course has an expansive view of how to make schools a safe space not just for students but for teachers and staff, Tapia Onata said.

“Teachers do deal with a lot of secondary trauma and sometimes they’re often forgotten in the conversation about mental health resources in schools,” she said. “They are one of the communities at school that we do need to support.”

Students in Astor’s class learn to develop strong policy positions then communicate them to the public through op-eds, TED Talks and TikTok campaigns.

Tapia Onate chose to create a series of one-minute policy videos on TikTok, a platform now used frequently for educational outreach as well as entertainment.

“It’s straight to the point, it can deliver your message really fast, and people are more likely to remember what you say in a short video,” she said.

Immersion in civic life is also central to the “Trees in the City” curriculum. During their quarter-long partnership, students worked with TreePeople to fill the nonprofit agency’s most immediate need — turning a voluminous amount of information about the benefits of trees into messaging tailored to local communities.

One team of students developed a school curriculum on the importance of trees that aligned with Next-Generation Science Standards; they even identified sources of potential funding that TreePeople could pursue.

“Students were really interested in ways that environmental stewardship and curriculum centered around trees could be introduced early on,” Schwarz said.

Amy Stanfield said her team chose to highlight the wisdom of those who “lived on the land the longest and most successfully” — Los Angeles’ Indigenous communities.

Through case studies and an infographic, the team demonstrated how to incorporate time-tested traditions into Westernized systems and provided resources to residents who want to connect with local Indigenous leaders.

“We wanted to center our project on amplifying Indigenous people’s voices in the science world and in this type of urban ecology setting,” Stanfield said.

In a happy coincidence, her work with TreePeople will continue next year as she interns with the nonprofit group for her senior capstone research project.

“Trees in the City” has been a perfect match for Stanfield’s interests, which blend ecology, policy and urban planning, as well as film. She is grateful for the personal attention that Schwarz gives each of the 14 students in the upper-division class, and for the interactive curriculum that has deepened her understanding of urban greenspaces.

“Everyone in my college life can’t hear me say enough about it,” Stanfield said. “I get done with class and say, ‘You guys, my tree class is making me so happy!’ ”

A Virtual Showcase for Urban Planning Students’ Research

UCLA Luskin’s annual showcase of research completed by graduating master of urban and regional planning students is a virtual affair this year. The 2021 Capstone Poster Session features brief videos of MURP students presenting the yearlong projects that helped client organizations overcome a planning-related challenge. This year’s capstone projects address pressing issues facing cities and regions, including safer streets, equitable community investments, protection from wildfire and the preservation of urban green spaces. “Academic research is often labeled abstract and lacking practical application. That is certainly not the case with these applied planning research projects,” Urban Planning faculty member Taner Osman said in an introduction to the video presentation. Twenty-nine students participated in the virtual poster session, which was shared with alumni, peers, current and past clients, and potential employers. Using research and scholarship to advance solutions to real-world problems is a priority in each of UCLA Luskin’s programs. Graduating public policy and social welfare master’s students, as well as the School’s first graduating class of public affairs majors, are also completing rigorous capstone projects that pair them with community partners to provide hands-on problem-solving. Their work will be shared with a broader audience at the end of spring quarter.


 

Undergrads Come Together During a Year of Staying Apart UCLA Luskin student group works to build peer-to-peer connections guided by the major's public service ethos

By Mary Braswell

In the fall of 2020, Kaylen Gapuz was excited to begin her life as a Bruin but anxious about how to make campus connections at a time when COVID-19 demanded learning from afar.

So when she spotted an email invitation to pair up with a mentor through the Luskin Undergraduate Student Association, she quickly applied.

Throughout the first months of her freshman year, the public affairs pre-major talked weekly with senior Hannah Feller, who answered questions, offered advice and became “a good mentor, resource and friend, all in one, which I will forever appreciate,” Gapuz said.

This year, more than 70 students were matched with mentors, one of several initiatives launched by the association to strengthen the bonds among UCLA Luskin’s undergraduates, even as the pandemic kept them apart.

LUSA, as the group is known, came into existence in 2019, not long after the public affairs major debuted at UCLA. This year, by necessity, it greatly expanded its virtual reach.

A new website includes a blog inviting members to share their own takes on the issues that move them, and the group has hosted several remote gatherings guided by the public service ethos the major is known for. 

Throughout the year, members have come together for conversations on topics such as policing, environmental justice, gentrification and, of course, the tumultuous 2020 election. In the fall, a panel of candidates running for local office across California — including Nithya Raman, who would go on to win a seat on the Los Angeles City Council — appeared at a LUSA event to share personal stories of why they chose politics as an avenue for change-making. 

To draw Luskin undergrads to these gatherings at a time of chronic Zoom fatigue, LUSA’s leaders have been careful to choose timely topics while also offering social contacts, insights on navigating the major and advice on preparing for the working world. 

“The whole point of LUSA is to be a peer-to-peer environment,” said Feller, a public affairs and economics double-major who serves as the group’s president. 

At one LUSA session, Feller shared tips from her personal experience landing several internships — well before she was placed with the nonprofit World Trade Organization Los Angeles for her senior capstone experience.

“I’m by no means an expert on this topic, but I have had a fair share of finding internships, and a lot of this is information that older students taught me while I was going through the process,” Feller told the gathering. 

This type of programming offers a student’s eye view that complements the major’s curriculum and the resources offered by UCLA.

As one strategy to keep members engaged during an age of virtual connections, LUSA expanded its leadership team, Feller said. In addition to five elected executive board members, several other students stepped up to edit the blog, manage an active social media presence and organize special events.

Third-year public affairs major Samantha Schwartz was inspired to take on the mentorship initiative, an outreach to first- and second-year students at UCLA interested in learning more about the public affairs program.

In her weekly check-ins with Feller, Gapuz said, “Hannah was very much able to tailor the experience to the two of us,” and the women would chat about classes and professors, how to juggle the workload, and their shared interest in business consulting. 

“Especially this year, because of the remote nature of everything, it was just good to have a link to someone at a regular time when you know you can ask questions and not have to wonder what to do,” Gapuz said.

“Our mentorship pairing is what convinced me that the public affairs major is right for me.”

Rising to the Challenge When the pandemic changed the world, UCLA Luskin moved to remote instruction and virtual event platforms

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.”

 

Called to Action Many UCLA Luskin students are already making a difference in the world

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!

 

Sam Haddad

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.

—Mary Braswell

Olivia Miller, second from left, joins a team distributing condoms and coffee in a sex work zone in Bogotá.

EMPOWERING COMMUNITIES ON A GLOBAL SCALE

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.”

—Les Dunseith

Romen Lopez encourages the formerly incarcerated to pursue higher education.

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.

—Les Dunseith

Noreen Ahmed says policymaking, technology and the arts are intertwined in Los Angeles.

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.”

—Mary Braswell

 

Joseph 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.

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.

—Les Dunseith

Kimberly Fabian, center, connects with high school students at a college readiness event.

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.

—Mary Braswell

Michael Rios uses quantitative analysis to advocate for voting rights.

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?”

—Mary Braswell

Atreyi Mitra shares information about supporting survivors of sexual violence.

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.

—Mary Braswell

Bradley Bounds II got an introduction to UCLA Luskin at the 2018 Block Party.

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

A Milestone for the Undergrad Class of ’21

UCLA Luskin’s undergraduate Class of 2021 came together virtually at an event launching the signature element of the new public affairs major: a yearlong capstone project that will call on each student to bring tangible benefits to a community partner. This fall, through internships and a seminar series, students will delve into an organization, assess its needs, then craft a solution — perhaps in the form of a strategic plan, fund-raising campaign, research project or other endeavor. “It’s a great opportunity to do something that is genuinely useful for an organization,” Meredith Phillips, chair of undergraduate affairs, told the June 4 gathering. By design, the experience will be demanding, even stressful, mirroring real life. But Phillips assured the students that their public affairs coursework has prepared them for the challenge. Nicknamed the Trailblazers, the inaugural class of about 70 undergraduates has already shown tremendous resilience and adaptability, capstone coordinator Kevin Medina said. The spread of COVID-19 upended internship programs at some organizations, requiring a number of students to seek new matches. In addition, remote contacts may replace on-site internships, but Medina pointed out that this could open up new opportunities as intern hosts need not be within commuting distance of campus. A highlight of the event was the formal announcement of internship matches, delivered as a congratulatory card to each student’s email inbox. At the end of the evening, students expressed gratitude for the undergraduate staff’s “care, planning and ingenuity” and “creative programs and leadership” before continuing their celebration on a chat group launched by the undergrads to stay connected. 

Parent Honored With UCLA Faculty Mentor Award

Bill Parent, senior lecturer of public policy, has received a 2020 Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentor Award, which recognizes UCLA faculty who consistently and enthusiastically support the scholarly and professional goals of the students they guide. Parent, one of 13 award winners selected from 126 nominees, was honored during this year’s Undergraduate Research Showcase, held May 18-22. During the showcase, three students mentored by Parent — Wadi Eghterafi, Matthew Moon and Parsia Vazirnia   presented two overlapping research projects that gauged public opinion about local strategies to combat homelessness. All three undergraduates had previously taken Parent’s class on urban homelessness policy. Under his direction, they went on to develop research projects that included conducting opinion surveys outside supermarkets in Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica, Westwood and Culver City and making longitudinal observations of the homeless population in Westwood Park. The student letter nominating Parent for the faculty award said he “has truly gone over and above to support my growth by means of constant meetings, feedback and all the work behind the scenes he does to help us grow to be the best researchers we can be.” This year’s virtual Undergraduate Research Showcase featured more than 900 students representing 90 majors presenting their individual and group projects remotely.


Understanding — and Preventing — Suicide

Students in UCLA Luskin’s undergraduate program came together Jan. 9 to gain a better understanding of suicide and practice ways to identify risk and offer a lifeline. Sandra Rodriguez of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services’ Suicide Prevention Center led the training session, part of the undergraduate program’s community impact requirement. Among Americans between ages 15 and 24, suicide is the second-leading cause of death, after car accidents, Rodriguez said. Despite the stigma that surrounds mental illness, many people contemplating suicide are relieved when asked to share their feelings, she added. Empathy is key when approaching someone exhibiting warning signs. “As helpers, we need to be able to sit in that dark place with them, to not judge those emotions, to not try to offer quick fixes,” she said. “Unless we really get in touch with why they want to die in the first place, we’re not going to get to the point where we’re turning them to the side of life.” Understanding suicide is valuable for those seeking careers in public health policy, research or outreach. For the students at the training session, it was also personal. Many said they knew someone who had committed suicide or made an attempt, and some shared their struggles with trying to provide real help to those in need. Rodriguez offered practical advice and stressed that people offering support should protect themselves by setting clear boundaries. She also shared several suicide prevention resources, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Teens Helping Teens, Know the Signs and the My3 app.

Our Year of Anniversaries The Luskin School marks its 25th year poised to expand, innovate and extend its reach into the community, nation and world

By Mary Braswell 

In a landmark year for UCLA, the celebration may be loudest in the northwest corner of campus, home to the Luskin School of Public Affairs.

This year marks both the university’s centennial and the Luskin School’s silver anniversary — a quarter-century dedicated to advancing the public good through teaching, research, advocacy and innovation.

It’s clearly a time to party, and a record 620 students, alumni, faculty, staff and friends answered the call in September, gathering at the annual Block Party to raise a toast to UCLA Luskin. But it’s also a time to reflect on lessons from an initially rocky union and, most importantly, to create a roadmap for the future.

As 2020 dawns, Dean Gary Segura is confident that a collaborative spirit among the three pillars of planning, policymaking and social welfare will invigorate UCLA Luskin and extend its reach into the community, nation and world.

“What ties us together as a School is our focus on human well-being, broadly conceived,” Segura said. “The Luskin faculty have received Ph.D.s from 14 different fields of study. Our disciplines may encourage us to focus on well-being at the individual, family, community, metropolitan, polity or even global levels of analysis. But what we share in common is the conviction that social fabrics and social institutions are best when they facilitate human security, dignity and opportunity.”

In the three years since Segura’s arrival, the School has seen remarkable growth. A signature achievement is the creation of an undergraduate major in public affairs, which melds critical thinking, experiential learning, research methodology and a public service ethos. More than 250 students have already come on board.

The undergraduate curriculum draws in faculty from every UCLA Luskin program, all with the common goal of providing a holistic, transdisciplinary public affairs education. As part of that effort, explorations are underway for an additional degree: the executive master’s in public affairs, designed to equip professionals and public servants to step into leadership positions.

Expanding knowledge is at the core, fueled by the scholarship of faculty and a wide range of research centers. In just over two years, UCLA Luskin has launched several new ventures:

Latino Policy and Politics Initiative combines policy analysis with civic engagement, and recently received $2.5 million in support from the California Legislature.

International Development and Policy Outreach focuses on research aimed at empowering women and children around the world.

Latin American Cities Initiative, commonly known as Ciudades, builds ties among planners and policymakers across the Americas.

This year, they will be joined by the Hub for Health Innovation, Policy and Practice, which conducts research to improve community health, particularly among the LGBTQ population and other marginalized groups. In addition, the School expects to launch a global policy initiative to foster safe and welcoming schools and communities to demonstrate that good science can be used to better the lives of students around the world.

The schools initiative will be directed by Professor Ron Avi Astor, an internationally recognized expert on school safety and violence, who joined the faculty in Social Welfare this academic year. His appointment is part of an effort by Segura to broaden the faculty’s expertise and diversity. Of the 19 faculty appointments Segura has made, 14 are women and 12 are people of color.

“Our School is now one of the most diverse and interdisciplinary units in the University of California system,” Segura said. “We are growing in a way that reflects the state’s diverse and dynamic population, and this makes us profoundly well-positioned to engage, educate and contribute to the world around us.”

That commitment to reach beyond the campus was underscored in April 2019 at the first Luskin Summit, a cross-sector conference bringing public officials, civic leaders, philanthropists and other advocates together with UCLA Luskin’s faculty — all in pursuit of a “Livable L.A.”

The summit, which officially launched the School’s 25th anniversary celebration, will return to campus April 22 under the unifying theme “A Call to Action.” Participants will search for solutions to problems centering on housing, immigration, health, education and — fittingly, as the summit will take place on Earth Day — sustainability.

The legacy of doing good reaches far past the quarter-century mark, of course. Social Welfare’s graduate program dates to 1947. Urban planning at UCLA launched in 1969 in conjunction with architecture. A newly created public policy program was added in 1994, in what many viewed at the time as a shotgun marriage.

The new School of Public Policy and Social Research emerged in an era of reckoning triggered by post-recession budget cutbacks. Among other belt-tightening measures to contend with a loss of tens of millions of dollars in state support, UCLA decided to reconfigure all of its professional schools.

The early years were unsettled, as three disparate entities forged their identity under one roof. Many people believed the merger damaged the stature of respected programs and UCLA overall. Some questioned the motives of university leadership, and others were determined to preserve their departments as singular entities rather than seeking a cohesive whole.

“It wasn’t a happy transition,” said Allan Heskin, an urban planning professor at the time. “They didn’t take a vote and ask us.”

Longtime staff member Marsha Brown B.A. ’70 said that the late professor John Friedmann was the urban planning department chair at the time. He asked Brown to take a walk with him. “And he said, ‘They are going to be splitting urban planning and architecture and forming a new school.’ It was shocking.”

The move was very controversial. “People were really very upset about it and writing letters of protest,” she said.

“Quite frankly, a lot of us were really fairly strongly alienated by the decision,” alumnus Jeffry Carpenter recalled. “There was a superficial presumption on the part of university administration that there was some sort of linkage or relationship there that they imagined should exist. It is not so much of a relationship because the actual practice tends to be very, very different.”

Gerry Laviña, director of social welfare field education at UCLA Luskin, also had a front-row seat for the School’s difficult birth.

“There was a lot of anger among both faculty and students,” recalled Laviña, who earned his master’s in social welfare in 1988, then joined the field faculty in 1993. “What would this mean for our MSW? Would we be seen as lesser than?”

But he added, “What started out as a forced venture became a beautiful outcome.”

Over the years, resentments have faded, faculty from different disciplines have increasingly sought to learn from one another, and students have benefited from a wider array of cross-departmental resources.

“We know relationships, organizations, people need time to grow and come together as one,” Laviña said. “I don’t know if we’re fully there yet, but we’re so much better than we were even five years ago. I look forward to the next five years and beyond.”

Throughout the early years, there was one consensus: Very few cared for the new school’s name or awkward acronym, SPPSR. They lived with it until being rechristened in September 2004 as the UCLA School of Public Affairs. In 2011, the current name — the Meyer and Renee Luskin School of Public Affairs — came along with a transformative gift of $50 million that brought the resources and ambition to launch a period of expansion and innovation.

At the Block Party, benefactor Renee Luskin reflected on the journey.

“I want to express how much it means to Meyer and myself to be connected to such an outstanding school here at UCLA,” she said, thanking the faculty, staff, students and advisors for their unflagging passion and dedication. “As they say,” she concluded, “we’ve come a long way, baby.”

 

Events

UCLA Luskin Undergraduate Open House

The Luskin School of Public Affairs faculty and staff invite you to attend the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Undergraduate Open House to (re)connect with your Luskin community. Whether you are new to the public affairs major or are a continuing student looking to reconnect with your Luskin network, this is the event for you!

The Public Affairs Undergraduate Open House will feature a welcome from the Luskin Dean and Chair of the Undergraduate Program, and offer social activities for you to connect with your Luskin faculty, academic counselors and peers. Can’t make it? Follow us on Instagram @UCLALuskinUG during Welcome Week and connect with a Luskin academic counselor at www.luskin.ucla.edu/undergrad.

Registration is required to attend the UCLA Luskin Public Affairs Undergraduate Open House. Please register by Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 11:59pm (PST). REGISTER HERE

Keeping Our Community Safe

To ensure the safety of everyone in attendance, we will follow the UCLA COVID-19 health and safety protocols as outlined on the UCLA COVID-19 Resources website (https://covid-19.ucla.edu). All attendees will be required to wear a face covering. If you are feeling unwell or are unable to come to campus we invite you to join us online by following us on Instagram (@UCLALuskinUG). All registrants will receive electronic copies of the materials shared during the event.

Fall Quarter Town Halls With Dean Segura

Dean Gary Segura will host three town halls for UCLA Luskin students. The dean will share updates and answer questions at these virtual gatherings.

FOR UNDERGRADUATES: Thursday, Nov. 12, 12:30 – 2 p.m.

FOR DOCTORAL STUDENTS: Wednesday, Nov. 18, 6 – 7:30 p.m.

FOR MASTER’S STUDENTS: Thursday, Nov. 19, 12:30 – 2 p.m.

Click here to register and submit questions to Dean Segura. A Zoom link will be shared before the gatherings.