Politics professor Regina Freer—a political bystander turned L.A. insider—brings the heart of a community activist to the dynamics of city planning
By Rhea Borja
On a hot May morning in downtown Los Angeles, the air is muggy in the ornate confines of city hall council chambers. The Los Angeles City Planning Commission is considering a USC proposal that would create 5 million square feet of new commercial and residential space, and the place is packed. South L.A. residents protesting the plan and USC students and local businesses supporting it sit shoulder to shoulder on the cushioned seats and stand in jagged rows along the perimeter.
Professor of politics Regina Freer sits at the front, in one of the council chamber seats. She listens intently as a parade of residents, students, university officials, and small business owners give their emotional two-minute spiels. After more than 80 people have their say, the planning commission deliberates for another several hours. Their decision: 6-2 in favor of the USC plan with the caveat that USC increase the $2 million set aside for affordable housing to $8 million.
Freer casts one of the "no" votes, reflecting her philosophy of doing what's best not just for the developers and university, but also for the working-class residents who may be displaced by the plan. "As colleges grow, they grow into existing communities," she says. "Do they become part of the community, or do they take over the community?"
"My experience here at Oxy has influenced my outlook," she adds. "Civic engagement is not charity. It's about partnership. We enter into a partnership not just to get, but to give. It's both."
On April 29, 1992, Freer turned on the television and watched Los Angeles burn. A jury had just exonerated four Los Angeles police officers of a brutal attack against black motorist Rodney King, and racial tensions that had long simmered in the city boiled over.
At the time, Freer was working on her master's in political science at the University of Michigan. Born a year after the 1965 Watts riots—her mother is black, her father, white—she grew up in a South L.A. neighborhood whose ethnic footprint was gradually changing. After a racist landlord refused to rent a house to Freer's parents, the Freers bought another house down the block.
Ever since she enrolled as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, she had moved farther and farther away. She had no intention of returning to her hometown, a working- and middle-class African-American enclave of low-rise commercial buildings, modest bungalows, and the gated campus of USC. But the 1992 rampage torched businesses on Crenshaw Boulevard, less than a mile from her parents' house. One of those businesses was a liquor store where Freer often bought candy as a child.
It was high time, she decided, to pitch in before her hometown ripped itself apart. "Tragedy prompted me to come home," says Freer, who moved back into her childhood home and began interviewing area residents for her doctoral dissertation on interracial relations in South L.A. (which she completed in 1999). "There was something really wrong, and I wanted to help fix it."
Freer joined the Occidental faculty in 1996 as an instructor and started teaching L.A. politics and history, coalitional politics, and what would become the foundation of her community-based learning courses. In these civic engagement classes, students explore and do ethnographic research of L.A. neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, Leimert Park, and Koreatown.
Freer's class on the history of conflict in Los Angeles helped lead Giulia Pasciuto '10 to her career path. An urban and environmental policy major from Templeton, Pasciuto was intimidated at first by the size of the city. But in the class, she stepped outside "the Oxy bubble" and explored downtown, Skid Row, Bunker Hill, and other L.A. sites. With Freer's help, Pasciuto subsequently interned with the L.A. Department of City Planning. She is now studying for a master's in urban planning at UCLA.
"The entire experience was hugely eye-opening. I think L.A is really beautiful now," says Pasciuto, who calls Freer "one of my favorite professors at Oxy. She's so dynamic and grounded in what's happening in and beyond Los Angeles."
When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed Freer in 2005 to serve as a member of the influential nine-member Planning Commission—which oversees land use, housing, open space, and transportation within the city's 469 square miles—she initially balked at accepting the position. Freer saw herself as a scholar and community organizer, not a city hall insider. But then she realized that she could help change L.A. for the better. "It was an opportunity to be in a decision-making place where I could make a difference on issues that really mattered to me, like affordable housing and environmental justice concerns," says Freer, who was appointed vice president of the commission in 2008.
"Regina has helped to bring health and livability and wellness as part of the planning process," says Robert Gottlieb, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban and Environmental Studies and director of Oxy's Urban and Environmental Policy Institute.
"Unlike some of the other commissioners, she's not speaking for her economic interest," adds fellow commission member and former L.A. City Council member Michael Woo. "She's looked upon as someone who knows the history of L.A., about the decision-making process, about the big picture."
In addition to her work with the Planning Commission, Freer is an advisory board member of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, which researches and brings attention to the employment needs of African Americans in L.A., and sits on the community funding board of the Liberty Hill Foundation, a Los Angeles nonprofit group that invests in community-based projects on the environment, poverty and economic justice, and gay rights. Shane Goldsmith, Liberty Hill Foundation's vice president and chief program officer, says Freer has been indispensable in projects such as an assessment tool to help evaluate grant applicants and a training program to develop future city commissioners. "Regina is super-accessible, always willing to roll up her sleeves and help us," says Goldsmith. "She helps keep us out in the world."
Freer has written extensively about Los Angeles, co-authoring The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City with professors Gottlieb, Mark Vallianatos, and Peter Dreier, and publishing several papers on Charlotta Bass, an early 20th-century black newspaper editor and activist who ran for the U.S. vice presidency on the Progressive Party ticket with the campaign slogan "Win or lose—we win by raising the issues."
"I agree!" says Freer, who is now writing a biography of Bass. "I'm not always on the winning side, but I always try to raise the issues."