By Andy Faught | Photo by Marc Campos
When Virginia Parks moved into a gang-plagued Venice neighborhood while attending graduate school at UCLA, it wasn't an experiment in urban geography or some calculated move to discover what makes a community tick. It was simply a neighborhood where she could afford the rent.
Over the next seven years, she forged lifelong friendships with her neighbors. Despite hardship and violence—"Somebody was shot on my front lawn," she recalls vividly—the neighborhood came together as residents watched out for their own. And in the short time she's been back in Los Angeles as Occidental's newly appointed Madeline McKinnie Professor of Urban & Environmental Policy, "I now visit regularly with my kids in tow," she says. "They've quickly taken to the joy of buying junk food and tamarindo candy from the fruiteria trucks that still roll through the neighborhood."
Parks' experiences speak to an urban truism. Even marginalized communities beset by crime and poverty buck preconceptions that they're disorganized and unable to stand up for themselves, says the Colorado native, who spent the last 13 years as associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. "They're actually highly organized," she adds. "It's just being able to discern and understand the kind of organization that's there."
It's exactly what Oxy was looking for when it offered Parks an endowed chair—a senior-level appointment reserved for demonstrated leaders in their field. And Los Angeles is just the kind of cosmopolitan stew in which she plans to use quantitative analysis—empirical data (census data, for example), which is then modeled and analyzed—to tackle some of America's toughest social struggles.
"A lot of students in college these days are quanti-phobic," says Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and UEP department chair. "Virginia's teaching style is accessible and understandable, and she makes quantitative analysis look easy, not intimidating."
Students have long used qualitative data in their research, which includes conducting field interviews and observations. But Parks, and Oxy, are taking matters further. The College is about to embark on a new initiative stressing quantitative literacy, Dreier says, rethinking curricular requirements to make information more accessible to students.
"We want students to become informed consumers of quantitative information," he adds. "Virginia already has started reaching out to people in other departments at Oxy."
The challenges in Los Angeles are formidable. A study by the independent nonprofit Social Science Research Council, A Portrait of California 2014-15, is a picture of a disparate city. While Los Angeles' wealthiest communities yield longer life expectancies and higher educational achievement, residents in working-class neighborhoods such as Vernon, Watts, Huntington Park, and Walnut Park "have health, education, and earnings levels on par with or below the average for the United States in 1970," the report notes.
Parks says she was drawn to social justice as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado in the early 1990s. She never pegged herself a community organizer. But that changed during her senior year, when debates about guaranteed health care for all Americans were in an early stage of ferment.
Student government never interested her. Instead, she had her eyes set on a higher prize. She hit the streets and knocked on doors, educating Mile High City residents on healthcare reform efforts. That was 1993, and in short order she moved on to UCLA to pursue a master's in urban planning.
There, she was a lead organizer in helping the University of California system recognize a teaching assistant union. The resulting contract led to increased pay and health benefits for graduate students, who continue to work as unionized employees with a contract as a result of that victory.
It's when she moved to Vernon Avenue in Venice, a low-income African-American and Latino neighborhood, that she began working with Los Angeles Metropolitan Alliance (since renamed SCOPE—Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education), a coalition of inner-city activists. She took up an unsuccessful fight against an ordinance banning residents from living in converted garages.
Still, she is unabashedly optimistic about social justice in Los Angeles. In May, the Los Angeles City Council voted to incrementally raise the minimum wage from $9 an hour to $15 in 2020—a change that will impact up to 700,000 employees, she says. Compared to other major American cities, Parks calls the work of labor and community coalitions in Los Angeles "more mature," and says there are "more developed pathways of connecting students to this kind of work."
Among the classes she'll teach at Oxy are policy analysis, community organizing, and research analysis. Parks also plans to create a new course in community economic development, a class that will identify "the nuts and bolts of what community development looks like and how communities can engage in that process."
Next semester, she's adding a course she developed at UChicago titled Workers' Rights in the Global Economy, which she hopes will interest students across many disciplines. Parks calls the pending Oxy iteration "a natural fit between two departments that didn't exist at Chicago—UEP and DWA."
Luring Parks away from a high-powered institution such as UChicago is a coup for Oxy, notes Dreier (himself an alumnus, or Maroon). "Virginia was interested in coming to Oxy because of our emphasis on undergraduate teaching, the diversity and enthusiasm of our students, and the excitement and vibrancy of Los Angeles as a place to live, teach, do research, and engage in applied research with community partners," he says.
Although she doesn't come from a liberal arts background, Parks notes the inherent interdisciplinary nature of her work. "I come with a liberal arts lens, and that's incredibly important for thinking about these questions holistically and to be able to speak across domains," she says. "If you're thinking about cities, equity, urban development, and sustainability, you have to be able to do that."
William Sites, an associate professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, has published several articles with Parks that consider traditions of community organizing in America. "There's a latent power that emerges when those workers or those residents are working together in organizations or in institutional environments in which their collective power can be leveraged through community campaigns or through working in partnership with a union," Sites says. "It can be a transformative experience."
Southern California has found a new booster in Parks. "As challenging as Los Angeles is, it has an impressive track record over the last 20 years when it comes to policy change," she says. "There's this optimism in the city, and communities and elected officials are really digging in to bring about reform. I find that incredibly exciting."