Building a Better L.A. Through the UCLA Community Scholars Program

An Interview with UCLA’s Gilda Haas

Gilda Haas, co-founder and current faculty of UCLA Labor Studies’ Community Scholars Program, sat down with Labor 411’s Sahid Fawaz to talk about the program and its role in building a better Los Angeles.

SF: Can you give our readers a bit of background on the Community Scholars Program and its mission?

GH: It was around 1990 when I was teaching Urban Planning in UCLA and I was asked by our program chair to do some research on how the department could be more responsive to community needs. I researched other programs around the country, and we held some focus groups with community organizations, and we landed on the idea that a good first step would be to bring leaders from the community, including labor leaders, into the school, to collaborate with students on a project around an economic issue that affected them. We called those participants Community Scholars and the Community Scholars program was officially launched in 1991.

Each year, the program’s participants worked on a specific problem for a six-month period. Community participants benefit from the students’ research methods and access to university materials. The students benefit from the experience and knowledge of the Community Scholars as well as access to community and labor organizations. They all learn from each other and, in the end, come up with a product that we hope is useful. It’s a safe space for exploring ideas, and some projects take a life of their own and continue after the six-month project ends.

Those interested in the program that is now sponsored by the UCLA Labor Studies Program can apply via this link 2024 Community Scholars Program Application for the 2024 project.

SF: What are some noteworthy achievements by the program over the years?

GH: The inspiration for The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (“LAANE”) was a report generated by our very first class called “Accidental Tourism” and today that organization is celebrating its 30th Anniversary. Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (“SAJE”), which also works to advance economic justice for those who live in the City, also has its roots in the Community Scholars Program. The LAMAP project was coupled with a Community Scholars class which brought together 10 labor unions, community organizations, and UCLA students to generate a substantial body of sectoral research about L.A.’s industrial Alameda Corridor. As a result of that project, perhaps for the first time, urban planning graduate students who were involved in the project pursued jobs in the labor movement as researchers, organizers, and community-labor strategists after they graduated.

SF: Have you seen other schools try programs like UCLA’s?

GH: M.I.T. and Tufts each have great programs that pre-dated Community Scholars, called the Mel King Fellows Program and Practical Visionaries, respectively, and we have collaborated in some ways over the years. Most notably, last year the MIT and UCLA programs collaborated on the question of “How to Transform Long-Term Care in California.” The UCLA program has also inspired the creation other similar initiatives on other University of California campuses, as well as across the country.

SF: How is the environment in which the program operates different in 2023 than when it was founded over 30 years ago?

GH: It’s a bit more commonplace now for labor and community organizations to work together on issues than it was back then. Labor unions are more involved today, for example with worker centers. It’s more of a given now among students and relevant groups that there is wage theft and a high degree of exploitation within industries like the garment industry.

Speaking of the garment industry, the 2024 Community Scholars Program is called, “Building a High Road Garment Industry in Los Angeles.” The project will explore garment worker co-ops and explore a range of topics on what it takes to create an industry where workers and industries can flourish in Los Angeles while the workers and their communities benefit from good wages and economic policies.

SF: What are your thoughts on the Buy Your Values UCLA campaign in the context of the Community Scholars Program?

GH: I would love for the Buy Your Values campaign to be participants in the class because the campaign has a narrative of what ethical merchandising looks like. It would also be great to explore possible competitive advantages of an ethical merchandising approach. The topic has a lot of angles because it involves workers, factories, stores, and consumers. And Los Angeles is a place where all of these converge, in addition to a world-class fashion industry.

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