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‘Because of His Work, We’re Ready for This Fight’ Symposium honors urban planning pioneer Leo Estrada, a lifelong champion of equal representation

By Mary Braswell

The life and work of Leo Estrada, a pioneer in urban planning and a tenacious advocate for equal representation, inspired a daylong symposium at UCLA that examined demography, redistricting and the power of mentorship.

Estrada, associate professor emeritus at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, fought for voting rights, access to health care, and protections for elderly and minority populations until his death in 2018, just months after retirement.

The May 31 symposium and subsequent memorial gathering brought together many of those whose lives were touched by Estrada: fellow scholars, former students, family members, political figures and civic leaders who shared his commitment to social justice.

A keynote address about Census 2020 demonstrated how Estrada’s early strides in population research and his long service as an advisor to the U.S. Census Bureau resonate today.

“The history of the Census runs parallel with the trajectory of the Latino community and Leo’s career,” said Arturo Vargas, president and CEO of the NALEO Educational Fund, a national nonprofit that promotes Latino participation in civic life.

Calling the possible inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census form a “virulent challenge to our values and principles as Americans,” Vargas noted that efforts to suppress the count of Latinos are not new.

“This fight began decades ago and with fierce opposition,” he said. “One of our warriors along the way was Leo Estrada.”

Vargas pledged, “We will not be rolled over. We will not be scared away. We will not make our community invisible. …

“Fighting for a fair and accurate census is to continue Leo Estrada’s work and legacy. Because of his work, we’re ready for this fight.”

The symposium, organized by UCLA Luskin Urban Planning and the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, explored the power of population studies to effect systemic change and explained the historical roots of today’s fight for minority-majority voting districts.

One panel focused on the importance of mentoring the next generation of leaders. To advance this goal, UCLA Luskin established the Leobardo Estrada Fellowship Fund, which supports Urban Planning students with financial need who are from backgrounds that are underrepresented in graduate education.

Estrada’s 40-year career was marked by innovation and leadership on and off the UCLA campus. He was one of the first scholars to teach courses about diversity and planning, and he helped guide the university as chair of its Academic Senate. In addition to his service with the Census Bureau, he was an advisor to organizations focusing on Latino empowerment, aging, health care, law enforcement and many other issues.

Following the symposium, speakers gave tribute to Estrada as a teacher, colleague, advocate, friend and family man.

Ivelisse Estrada described her husband as selfless, wise and patient with his family and “the ultimate professor” to his students.

“Leo was soft-spoken but the power of his words and his work were a catalyst for change,” she said. “Make him proud.”

Urban Planning Chair Vinit Mukhija harkened back to Estrada’s retirement celebration, saying he wished he had taken the opportunity to touch his colleague’s feet, a sign of respect in the Indian culture.

With this gesture, he said, “You get blessed. And in that blessing, the person who blesses you transmits their knowledge, their experience, their virtues. And I know all of us would love to have a little more of that from Leo.”

 

View photos from the symposium and memorial gathering on Flickr.

Demography, Redistricting & Power

In Memoriam: Leo Estrada, Urban Planning Scholar and Champion of Diversity His life and 40-year career at UCLA were marked by civic engagement, leadership and giving back

By Stan Paul

Leo Estrada, associate professor emeritus of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, died Nov. 3, 2018, following a lengthy illness. He was 73.

Estrada came to UCLA in 1977, joining the faculty of what was then UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning under the late Harvey Perloff, who was known as the dean of American urban planners.

A native of El Paso, Texas, Estrada had held academic appointments previously at the University of North Texas, University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Michigan. He received his undergraduate degree from Baylor University and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Florida State University.

During his decades of service at UCLA, Estrada was recognized as an expert demographer and an urban planning researcher and teacher. He also was a fierce and effective advocate for Latino voting, civil rights and representation, said UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura, and someone who made huge contributions to UCLA.

“Throughout his career, Leo Estrada distinguished himself as a mentor, adviser and advocate for the careers of countless young planners and scholars, many students and faculty of color, and so much more,” Segura said.

Professor of urban planning Vinit Mukhija said he remembers Estrada for his compassion, generosity and commitment. Mukhija, now chair of urban planning, recalled that Estrada went out of his way to help him navigate through his first year as an assistant professor at UCLA. “That’s just one thing on a very personal level that I am grateful for,” Mukhija said.

Estrada’s selflessness extended not only to faculty, but to staff, students and beyond, Mukhija said.

“Leo was pretty much on campus every day, and he had a sign-up sheet on his office door that included all the days of the week, for many hours — just way beyond what the expectation was and what the practice was in terms of accessibility to students.” Mukhija said. “That was just another remarkable thing — he did that at the undergraduate level, the graduate level and the doctoral level. And I don’t know how many dissertation committees he did, but he seemed to be one of the busiest.”

Mukhija said that people “change the culture of a place, and Leo was along those lines. Definitely, he primarily led by example, but I think he encouraged people to be helpful to others as well.”

What also stood out to Mukhija was that “Leo was always the calmest person in the room. And yet, there was no question that he was engaged. He did that in a remarkable way that is almost peerless.”

In addition to teaching courses about planning for minority communities and geographic information systems, for a number of years the tireless Estrada led intensive undergraduate urban planning travel study trips to Geneva, Switzerland during the summer term.

Following a role on UCLA Academic Senate’s undergraduate council, Estrada stepped up to serve as chair of the senate during the 2015–16 academic year.

In his professional work, Estrada applied his skills in mapping to redistricting issues for cities across the country and provided expertise on ethnic and racial groups for the U.S. Census Bureau, where he held titles such as special assistant to the chief of the population division and as staff assistant to the deputy director. He also participated in numerous national studies, including an evaluation of the U.S. Standard of Live Birth for the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.

Following the beating of Rodney King in 1991, Estrada was called by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to serve on the Christopher Commission to examine the use of force by the Los Angeles Police Department. Describing the experience as “incredible,” Estrada later said that it was “one of the most important moments of my history and life here in Los Angeles.”

Estrada served on numerous advisory boards, including U.S. Census Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Latino Issues Forum, the Aspen Institute, National Association of Hispanic Elderly, the California Policy Research Institute, the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, and the California Endowment. He also was a former member on the national board of AARP, New Economics for Women, the National Association of Childcare Resource and Referral Agencies, and Hispanics in Philanthropy.

Other nonprofit advisory boards he served on included the Pew Charitable Trust’s Global Stewardship Initiative, the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, the Southern California Association of Governments, and Los Angeles World Airports. In 2013 he was named to the board of directors of SCAN Health Plan.

In June, a retirement celebration for Estrada was held to recognize his decades of scholarship, service and accomplishments at UCLA.

Commenting at that time in a story to commemorate his career, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a longtime UCLA Luskin colleague and urban planning professor, described Estrada as “a giant on many different fronts.”

“He has been an inspiring teacher and a mentor to an endless number of UCLA students and a role model to many Latino and minority students,” she said.

Loukaitou-Sideris, who is also associate provost for academic planning at UCLA, noted that Estrada was one of the first urban planning scholars to teach and institutionalize courses about diversity and planning.

“As a brilliant demographer, he was also instrumental in confronting gerrymandering and giving ethnic communities equal representation in California and other states around the country,” she said.

“It was my privilege to know him,” Segura said in an announcement to the UCLA Luskin community. “We extend our deepest sympathies to the Estrada family. Leo will be profoundly missed.”

A private family ceremony will be held. UCLA Luskin is planning to host a campus memorial service for Estrada at a later date.

New Rules Could Disenfranchise American Indians, Akee Says

Changes to North Dakota’s voting requirements threaten to disenfranchise thousands of American Indians, UCLA Luskin’s Randall Akee explained in a podcast for the Brookings Institution, where he is currently a fellow. A U.S. Supreme Court action, less than a month before the November 2018 election, permitted the changes, which require voters to produce identification that includes a street address. Many of North Dakota’s American Indians live on reservations and use a P.O. Box instead of a street address, said Akee, an associate professor of public policy. The new requirements could sway some very close races, including Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s battle to keep her seat, he said. Akee noted that American Indians did not get the right to vote until 1924. “It’s been less than a century that they’ve been allowed to participate in the voting process. And that’s why this particular turn of events, of disenfranchising Native Americans on reservations, is so distasteful.”


 

Counting Votes — And Making Votes Count UCLA Luskin public policy students get a valuable lesson in voting and elections from the California Secretary of State, L.A. County Registrar

By George Foulsham

After fielding a series of challenging questions from students in UCLA Luskin lecturer Zev Yaroslavsky’s public policy class, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Los Angeles County Registrar Dean Logan smiled when they were asked to explain how the election of Donald Trump has affected their jobs.

“How much time do we have?” Padilla said. “I’ve gotten a heck of a lot more press coverage than anybody would have expected.”

Trump’s frequent charges of voter fraud in the November 2016 presidential election have been a source of frustration for Padilla. To say that the Trump administration has had an impact on his job would be an understatement.

“He keeps alleging massive voter fraud — which is absolutely not true,” Padilla said. “He has repeatedly mentioned California. He’s not just questioning my credibility; it’s our credibility. Whenever it’s in a story, which is pretty frequent, we have to go out, defend and explain all the measures we go through to protect the integrity of the election.”

As California’s top elections official, Padilla is tasked with protecting the votes and voters of the state.

“There’s fundamentally a different person, different leadership in the U.S. Department of Justice, the attorney general,” Padilla said. “That’s someone we look to as a partner to protect people’s voting rights. Depending on what may happen in the future, we may be butting heads with them on advancing public policy or interpretation of existing laws, enforcement of laws. Red flags are way, way up.”

The same holds true for Logan, who oversees all elections in L.A. County.

“It’s the continued repeating of information that’s not backed by any evidence or fact,” Logan said. “Ultimately — and it’s just my personal opinion — it is part of the same campaign: The ultimate end game of that is to decrease people’s confidence in the electoral process and for them to just sit out,” thus benefiting candidates with politically extreme views.

In introducing Padilla and Logan to the students in his class, Yaroslavsky hailed Padilla as a “national figure and leader” and Logan as “a visionary.”

“Between these two guys, you’ve got two of the best minds when it comes to elections,” Yaroslavsky said. Both fill important roles “that most people don’t know about. We take it for granted, like when we turn the water on in the morning. Running an election, making sure the votes are counted with integrity, is not to be taken for granted.”

Padilla told the students about his various statewide duties, including political reform, campaign finance reports and overseeing the state archives, but most of his talk concentrated on how he views his role as secretary of state.

“Academically, what can we do to get more people to vote in California? That’s not my job,” Padilla said. “My job is to oversee California elections and make sure there’s no voter fraud, but I think there’s an expectation that we use this job to get more people involved and engaged in the process.”

He’s proud of what his office has done to help increase the number of registered voters in California. “We’ve already shattered the previous record in California on the registration side,” Padilla said. “When I was sworn in, 17.4 million registered voters were on the books. We’re at 19.4 million now, quickly approaching 20 million.”

Starting next year, the state will launch automatic voter registration so that residents who are eligible will automatically be registered when they apply for or renew their driver’s license or a state ID at the Department of Motor Vehicles, online or by mail, Padilla said.

His ultimate goal is to increase voter participation. “We have an electorate that is not always representative of the people — geographically, demographically, economically or by any other measure,” Padilla said. “The better we get toward 100 percent participation, then from a ‘small d’ democracy standpoint, we get an electorate that better represents the people.”

Logan’s biggest challenge is managing the county’s antiquated voting infrastructure. “Here in L.A. County we are still using voting equipment that was first introduced in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was on the ballot,” he said. “We are very involved in a project here in L.A. County to modernize the voting system.”

If Logan and Padilla have their way, this won’t be a continuation of your mother’s voting methodology.

“Today the voting experience is focused on single-day, single-location and a single piece of equipment,” Logan said. “A random Tuesday, between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. That makes no sense; that isn’t relevant to anything that we do on a regular basis.”

The new model will feature community vote centers all over Los Angeles County. “So if you live in Santa Monica, but you happen to work in downtown L.A.,” Logan said, “you can walk into a downtown vote center and get your Santa Monica ballot and vote.”

Other highlights of the new voting system:

  • Voting centers will be open for a 10-day period, “so it’s not just on a random Tuesday,” Logan said.
  • There will be mobile and pop-up voting centers. “So if there’s a big farmers market out at the Rose Bowl on the weekends, and there are going to be thousands of people there, we’re going to go out and throw up a vote center,” he said.
  • Sample ballots will no longer be paper pamphlets delivered via the post office. “We’re going to offer an interactive sample ballot,” he said.

“It’s going to fundamentally change the way the voting experience works here in L.A. County,” said Logan, who added that he hopes to institute all of these changes by 2020.

Questions from Yaroslavsky’s students covered a variety of issues, from voter accessibility to campaign finance issues to frequency of elections, but the last question for Padilla was simple and direct: Are you thinking about running for governor in California?

“Thinking about it and doing it are two different things,” Padilla said. “I don’t dismiss that potential opportunity in the future, but not next year. I’m up for re-election next year.”

Additional photos are available here.