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Around L.A.

October 14, 2014

Empowering the People
FALL 2014

Who has the power? How can you effect change? Take a course in local politics from the Civic University

This regular feature highlights ways in which Cal State L.A. engages and serves the community and promotes the public good.

Kevin Chong wasn’t even born yet when the L.A. civil disorder occurred in 1992, but it had a profound effect on his life.

His mother had told him the stories several times when he was a very young boy. About how she worked at a hair salon near Western and Fourth. About the terror she felt those balmy spring nights when the looting, fighting and fire spilled into Koreatown.

In the still of the day, she wrapped curls on rollers and trimmed split ends as armed guards scanned the street from the rooftops. At night, she gripped her bag closely to her stomach as she walked back home with Kevin still bouncing around in her belly.

“The Korean-owned businesses were getting looted every day. The police weren’t helping and there wasn’t an authority figure around to help them either. What could they do, but fend for themselves?,” says Chong. “They either had to protect their stores and employees with weapons or get looted and have their business go down in flames.”

Chong, a senior majoring in political science and minoring in computer information systems, researched the unrest and watched documentaries online. He thinks that if the Korean-American community had been more involved in the civic process, local officials would have been more responsive and things could have turned out differently.

“I feel like I have an obligation to serve the Asian community because they don’t really participate in politics,” he says of his decision to pursue a career in the public sector. “There’s very low voter turnout. I want to raise awareness to that demographic.”

But before he can encourage civic participation in his neighborhood, he needs to learn how the system works first. To do this, Chong enrolled in the first session of Civic University in May.

The two-day workshop, a joint-program between the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs (PBI) at Cal State L.A. and the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti, educates Angelenos about the civic process. It’s a great example of the kind of engagement, service and public good that President William A. Covino envisions for the future of Cal State L.A.

“We cannot flourish as a great city of the future if only a quarter of our population is involved,” Covino wrote in an op-ed for the Daily News he co-authored with Garcetti. “We cannot graduate the next generation of Southern California leaders if community engagement is an educational afterthought. We cannot provide a bridge to the middle class if citizens lack the unique skills that come from participating in public life. But together, we can engage our communities, tackle this crisis head on and build a better Los Angeles.”

Evolving out of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s successful City Government 101 program, PBI’s Civic University gives citizens the tools they need to understand local government and become advocates for their neighborhoods and interests.

Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of PBI, taught seminars on key institutions within the city and county, how they work and how to access and influence City Hall.

“I think Pat Brown would have loved Civic University because it’s practical,” says Sonenshein. “It follows the theory that if you know how things work, you can have a better chance in influencing how things turn out. But if you don’t know how things work, then the ballot just looks like a big mystery. Which is a reason that everybody votes for president but not nearly as many in other elections.”

Founded in 1980 by former governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Sr., and brought to Cal State L.A. in 1987, the non-partisan institute is dedicated to improving the quality of life for all Californians.

“In creating the institute, Pat Brown made clear that this should be a thought-and-action institute,” says Sonenshein. “This is not a think tank where we sit around and dream up ideas that other people can carry out. We’re just as interested in helping the people, the government, the nonprofits, and business and labor who are trying to get things done.”

Civic University is just the latest of several new programs to focus on improving civic participation. PBI’s signature projects include public policy forums, funding applied research, partnering with community groups such as the League of Women Voters, hosting debates—like the 2013 mayoral election—and polling.

“The statistics on civic knowledge are just devastating right now, and we think we can make a little dent in that,” says Sonenshein. He says the Civic University is likely to be a signature project of PBI for years to come.

The long tradition of teaching civics in schools has eroded, Sonenshein explains. A single academic quarter in the senior year of high school isn’t really adequate to learn to the basics of federal government, let alone the complexities of state and local government.

At the same time, more practical avenues of civic information, like television and even print news, have reduced coverage of local government in favor of the latest celebrity scandals or highlights from reality TV.

But there are significant consequences for an ill-informed public: Low voter turnout, corruption, powerful special interest groups, disenfranchisement, a lack of representation and an overall feeling of powerlessness. A 2013 PBI Poll showed that 63 percent of those polled believe that city government responds more to special interests than “people like me.”

“You’re in a great position to share the thought that it’s actually possible to have an impact in politics. But most people around you don’t think so,” Sonenshein told Civic University participants. “Showing people how to have an impact is going to turn out to be revolutionary.”