TRNN’s Jaisal Noor speaks to Aja Brown, Compton, California’s youngest ever mayor about why she got into politics, the importance of holistic approaches to crime reduction, and the importance of equity in addressing poverty
AJA BROWN: In Compton, I didn’t believe that we can police our way into a safer city. In all my years in studying policy planning and development, I’ve never seen it. And so, in Compton I didn’t have the opportunity or the resources to have that option to invest in more police, and so for me, I knew I had to look at the causal factors, which were who are the people that are committing the crime? And then narrowing down, their gang members. Well who are these gang members? And really what is their social fabric? Because the nation still has not dealt with appropriately the war on drugs, the drug epidemic and really how that decimated a generation of communities everywhere. JAISAL NOOR: Mayor Brown, thank you so much for speaking with us. One thing that struck me when I reading up on your work was that you had a college class, you learned about redlining and segregation, and that turned you on to politics and wanting to address some of the root causes of the inequities, the racial wealth gap we see today. Talk about how that’s informed and framed the policy that you seek to enact in your second term now as Mayor of Compton. AJA BROWN: Absolutely, I was definitely inspired by just learning about our country’s history about some of the inequalities that were really embedded into our country’s policies and codes and for me, I was motivated. I was inspired. I was angry. But I knew that in the same manor that we could actually systematically oppress a specific segment of people based on the color of their skin or their economic group, that we also can empower people in the way using the same tools and so that’s really what pushed me to study policy and to go into public service. And as a planner and developer, we created programs and all of the initiatives and the policies. So, I worked on the ground level and I really understood what it takes to make communities thrive and really what people need in order to grow, and I approached that same service level with the mindset that I can transform my community as the mayor, and pushing from the top down instead of the bottom up because I’ve been the community activist. I understand how it’s really difficult sometimes to effect change and to reach city hall and so I really wanted to approach my service being accessible to my community and understanding that I serve the residents, that the Mayor’s Office belongs to them and that I’m here to be able to make them thrive and to live. You can do that with policy and you can be very strategic and deliver on what you do if there’s a will to do that from that policymaker, and so that’s really what motivated me to come into public service. JAISAL NOOR: Talk about what specific policy you based your platform on because not only did you become the youngest mayor, at 31 years old I believe, you just won reelection so now you’re in your second term. AJA BROWN: Absolutely, I was elected with a 12 point plan, but it was focused on really empowering my community, looking at all the pillars of society. And I went to my constituents and I asked them, “What do you need to succeed? What are the issues that you see?” And they gave me their top list of problems, and so being a practitioner and a policy person, I created some solutions and strategies to be able to affect change. I came into office on day one with that 12 point plan, and I knew that it would take at least two terms to implement but we’ve been able to be really successful with effecting change in some of those key, core areas. And I really focused on the issues that I knew would take the longest time to address and that really required the greatest resources, and also the greatest buy in. When I think about crime, when I think about economic empowerment, when I think about education, those are things that really can determine someone’s outcomes. I believe that regardless of where you live, how much money you learn, what zip code that you subscribe to, that you deserve a quality education, you deserve an opportunity to succeed, you deserve an opportunity to raise your family in a safe community, and so those are really what some of the tenets and the core principles of our 12 point strategy is. JAISAL NOOR: We started off by talking about how policy was created as a tool of racial oppression and that created the wealth gap. We’re generations down the road now, and so you’re dealing with the legacy of those policies that really haven’t been fully remedied as many argue they should be. Talk about what remedying the legacy of redlining and of the racial wealth gap look like today, and what kind of concrete things you’re doing to help address that and help build a better future and build hope for people that for generations, many would argue have had good reason to not have hope? AJA BROWN: Well, I think at the local level we really focus on creating economic empowerment opportunities from our residents and removing obstacles for their personal success. So, be it if we’re doing expungement workshops and job training for our reentry population or our ex-gang population, or whether or not we’re providing specialized housing programs that retain our seniors in the community and also provide homeownership opportunities for single moms or people within the community, and also making sure that people have the information that they need to make informed decisions because the key word in policy or planning is gentrification, but gentrification just doesn’t happen to cities. They have to be number one facilitated by an outside force and an inside force but then also the people in that community, they have a choice to make whether or not they’ll sell their homes or whether or not they’ll stay and be a part of the upward mobility. I teach my residents, you know, don’t sell that inter-generational home that you maybe have inherited from your grandparent or your parent, and really retain that and understand that regardless of what happens, we’re not making any additional land, and so the value of real estate will be the key cornerstone in creating wealth for generations. Just letting people understand that there was a time 50, 60 years ago where African Americans couldn’t purchase homes in certain areas, and so we are in a position to where we have an opportunity to reverse a small portion of some of the impacts that those redlining and different codes have had on our communities of color. JAISAL NOOR: I know violence is something that affects Compton. It’s sort of in the music and the culture that’s come out of Compton. Baltimore is another city that’s grappling with a historic homicide rate. Your family was personally impacted by violence itself. And I know today you talked about addressing the root causes of violence, something we’ve been talking about already. But talk about how you’re working to address the root causes. AJA BROWN: Really focusing on, when I think about crime, I think about who are the cause and creators of crime. In our community it’s gangs. And so really looking at what are the structure of gangs? Number one, what do they need in order to not be a part of that activity? Providing those opportunities. Providing ways and pathways for people to come out of that lifestyle because in my experience in talking with gang members, the majority of them I’ve never actually met someone who said, “I want to be in a gang and if I had a choice to not be in a gang and to be in a gang that I would choose the latter.” And so, it’s really about opportunity and upward mobility, and so, if we can create a safe passageway for those people that are within those violent activities to be able to get job training, to be able to get wraparound services to address their family issues and their social issues. And PTSD which is another big thing that we’re dealing with in our communities, then if given opportunities that they’ll choose the opportunities. And so, that was really my test case that if we can create jobs, if we can create training programs, if we can give the legal services to be able to remove those barriers and teach people life skills and job training, will they choose to succeed in? In our experience they have. And people have been able to change their lives. They’re working great jobs and earning great wages and they’ve been able to really change the trajectory of their family and their children’s children, and so I know that poverty is something that can be addressed. It has to be a systematic and intentional way to do that. And then it really takes policymakers that are intent on creating policies that create equity, because it’s not enough to say that we have a set aside program but who is that set aside program targeted to and who’s able to access that? And so, it’s really about access as well. JAISAL NOOR: I know you were fighting against the establishment in your city in Compton. You’re in a blue state. And Compton is a Democratic stronghold, as is most of California. But talk about the challenges of pushing for this change within a city run by establishment politics, within a city that’s a one party town because a lot of cities in this country have those same issues. AJA BROWN: I am a big subscriber, I don’t believe, well first of all, in Compton because we’re all Democratic, the issue in our community is not necessarily a Republican versus Democrat. It’s really about progress versus oppression and so, who are the people in positions who either provide opportunities to progress our city are those that have an economic reason and a stake in keeping our community in the same level. And so the old guard, they’re still there and they’ve been able to create a stronghold to be able to number one, keep people not engaged, under informed and continue to make the same poor decisions. And so, my goal in this next phase of my service is really empowering my community with education, civic leadership development and really giving people the information they need to be not just a participant, but really to be a stakeholder in our community. And it really takes a concerted effort of organizing, so as mayor, I’m still a community organizer and I’m organizing my young people, I’m organizing our churches, our businesses, and so I work with every single segment of society and to help them to be able to get a pathway to move forward and to hold us accountable as elected officials. And that’s really key. And people need to be able to understand what is the voting record of your mayor or your councilpersons? What issues do they actually support? It’s one thing to have a campaign speech but when the rubber meets the road, what decisions are you making on behalf of your constituents? And so, there isn’t a vehicle currently that provides that level of transparency, but that’s something that I’m working on right now and hopefully it will spread to other places throughout the nation. JAISAL NOOR: Last question. Obviously, in a lot of cities you have to turn to working with corporations and large businesses that maybe traditionally haven’t been on the best terms with the communities that you’re working with or necessarily reinvested in the communities in Compton. Talk about what you’re doing to ensure that. Talk about if you’re mandating affordable housing for developers or local hiring when businesses come in. Do you think that’s an important part of setting the agenda and making sure that Compton benefits from the prosperity that corporations and businesses are… AJA BROWN: Absolutely. I’m unapologetic pro-Compton, and so in my first couple of months as being mayor, we passed a local hiring ordinance and a community benefits policy that mandates any new development, any new company that moves into the City of Compton, we have to negotiate a customized benefit agreement which consists of training, of local job opportunities, 35% minimum. There’s also funding to create additional job opportunities for the community and then local procurement. For instance we just opened a new 500,000 square foot UPS facility, and that total community benefits package was about $10 million but it included local procurement over the next 10 year period. And so, it’s really about finding ways to include your community in its growth and to make that really a determining factor of whether or not they’re able to be able to partner or to be able to invest within your community. We have mandatory set asides for affordable housing in the City of Compton. We’ve already exceeded all of our state mandated set asides and we’re still creating additional housing units for seniors, for middle income earners and then also low income. And all of our housing developments are all mixed and so it’s not about creating a public housing project but it’s about creating pathways for home ownership and for people to be able to stay within their community that they’ve lived in for so many years to keep that fabric socially intact as well. JAISAL NOOR: Okay well, so refreshing to hear these thoughts and these initiatives and being unapologetically willing to take on power and hold it accountable. At the same time offering to have the public hold you accountable as well. That is really refreshing to hear and I’m sure our viewers will feel the same way, so thank you so much. AJA BROWN: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.