Interview and Story by Janel Preciado & Citlalli Chávez
Through a joint initiative of the UCLA Labor Center, a center of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE), and the UCLA Urban Planning Department, the Community Scholars Program was launched in 1991 to bring together community leaders and Urban Planning graduate students to study pressing policy issues in Los Angeles. Using applied research, participants develop a product that aims to influence local policy. In the past, students have worked on projects related to banking, immigration, health in South Los Angeles, and green jobs. Last year, the Community Scholars Program received the 2016 Landmark Award, which recognizes programs that have made significant impacts in the communities they serve. This year’s class is titled “Building a Theory and Practice for Black Liberation in Los Angeles.” We had a conversation with Marques Vestal, a current UCLA student and teaching assistant, to learn more about this year’s program.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you’re connected to the Community Scholars Program?
I am a PhD student in the UCLA Department of History, and my dissertation topic is focused on black housing in South Los Angeles in the first half of the twentieth century. I’m originally from and live in Los Angeles, so I’ve seen how my family and friends are affected by oppressive housing policies. This year, I’ll be the teaching assistant for the class and also serve as a liaison between the UCLA students and community scholars. My commitment to the program is personal because as a historian, I realize that all liberation struggles we read about in textbooks cannot begin without a firm intellectual foundation. We need political education for liberation, and I believe this program can provide this knowledge.
So can you tell us a little bit about why it’s important to engage urban planners in a process of black liberation in Los Angeles?
After the Great Migration, the mass movement of African American people from southern states that occurred between 1910 and 1970, moved the majority of black people in the country into urban areas, and some of the most pressing problems black people face have come from changes in urban development—in housing, work, education, and policing. Los Angeles houses the eighth largest African American population in the country and is leading the nation in terms of inequality, underemployment, police shootings, and black houselessness. So when we consider black liberation, we must engage urban planners because the fate of black liberation is tied to the fate of the city. This course presents an opportunity to develop new tools for urban analyses and strategies to combat inequality. Ultimately, we hope that we develop a model and strategies that other universities and cities can replicate across the nation.
How is this year’s program, “Building a Theory & Practice for Black Liberation in Los Angeles,” relevant in this political moment?
During our first class this year, UCLA professor Gaye Johnson shared with us the most significant tenets of the black radical tradition through some key quotes by the late scholar and mentor Cedric Robinson. One of the main concepts throughout Robinson’s work is the idea of racial regime, a system of meanings and narratives told and maintained to justify the exploitations and abuses of capitalism and its inherent racism. In this moment, you can see those conceits, lies, and fabrications being deployed. We also see a series of false narratives about the former president, people of color, undocumented people, and people with disabilities. We see lies being constructed about how to re-energize the economy. In our recent past, we witnessed political moments similar to this moment in which fabricated information is generated to energize support for mass incarceration.
Currently, we have a political establishment that comes to us with a legacy of lies that has the capacity to repress us. We may not win against the massive mobilization of the state resources, but we can frustrate the state. It’s our duty to do so. This is why the Community Scholars program is very relevant right now because we have to do the work of exposing lies and fabrications and the work of understanding the past to understand how these moments can produce strategies for resistance.
Who are the students and community scholars in the Community Scholars Program?
The class is composed of UCLA graduate students and members of local community-based organizations. Class participants are here for their children, families, and communities, and to learn more about the legacy of black liberation struggles. Through the program, they want to develop concrete plans, learn about Los Angeles, and build solidarity.
What do you look forward to at the end of the program?
I’d like to see an organizing effort grown out of a sincere engagement with the history of black liberation struggles. Whether it is around work or land, organizing should be done through a deep engagement with the past struggles for liberation by workers, homeowners, tenants, and incarcerated people. I’d also like to see the project embrace a base of power that has historically advocated for these changes and struggled to survive in Los Angeles, in other words, support the struggles already happening everyday in this city.
How would you like this course to impact not only communities in Los Angeles but more specifically the UCLA student body?
I want students, community scholars, and anyone who interacts in this space to learn to be more audacious and dangerous. I do not mean dangerous in terms of physical violence; I mean challenging the way we think, speak, organize, mobilize, and understand the contemporary movement.