Beyond the Gates: USC Planning Students Build Ties with Communities through Tours

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Planning students from USC’s Partnership for an Equitable Los Angeles listen to Frederick Buggs, Sr., of the East Side Riders BC discuss some of the history of Pancho’s Bakery and what it meant to him as a kid growing up in the area. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

A few weeks ago, I got a phone call asking me to help someone interested in journalism put together a tour in South L.A.

I immediately found myself getting anxious. Tours into lower-income areas can be a touchy thing, depending on who wants to do the tour, what their intentions and expectations are, who leads it, what the focus is, who the group connects with, how interactions are handled, and so forth.

So, when people ask me about getting to know an area, I usually prefer to steer them towards jumping in feet first and doing volunteer work in schools, participating in community events, or just spending time there.

But it doesn’t mean that tours can’t have value, especially if their objective is to make people comfortable enough to begin to build a longer-term relationship with a community.

That seems to be the idea behind the Beyond the Gates program launched in this past spring by Alison Spindler, then-president of the Partnership for an Equitable Los Angeles (PELA), a student organization at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.

The PELA students feared that the gates erected around the perimeter of USC following the horrific killing of two international students in April of 2012 would deepen the physical and social disconnect between the university and the surrounding community. Given that that divide was emblematic of the very barriers to equity and social justice they hoped to dismantle through their work in planning, policy, and development, they felt they would have to be the ones to take the first steps toward closing that gap.

Their first tour through Historic South Central was led by organizers from Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) and Esperanza, two non-profits based near USC that address housing and health issues for the local community. Having community leaders guiding the tour, students felt, would increase the likelihood that they would hear the kinds of stories and understandings of place not often found in their textbooks or in the media. Specifically, it would help them become familiar with the kinds of community-led efforts that are often marginalized or even erased when these communities are targeted for redevelopment, “revitalization,” or other policy interventions. And it would give students an idea of who they might like to intern/volunteer with, if they wanted to get more involved with community work.

PELA members and members of the East Side Riders gather at the Watts Towers. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Members of PELA and the East Side Riders gather at the Watts Towers. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Their latest tour, led by the East Side Riders, took them through Watts and Florence-Firestone.

Lifelong resident Fred Buggs, Sr., who recently took over the presidency of the East Side Riders BC from John Jones III, helped students interpret the landscape they were seeing by offering personal stories from his youth. At Pancho’s Bakery, for example (top photo), he spoke both of how well-known they were for having the best cakes and of the times he had stood, hungry, outside it, hoping someone would give him something to eat (they usually did). He also talked about the history of the other businesses around the intersection as well as the mural, its importance to the Latino community, and its role in keeping that corner free from gang tags.

And while such stories may sound like they border on nostalgia, they actually offer an interesting glimpse into the economic and social history of a part of town hit hard by the economic downturn and where, in recent years, black-brown relations have sometimes been complicated.

For the students, it was an opportunity to see Watts — an area that is, for many, synonymous with a plethora of negative stereotypes — through the eyes of community members who know it to be much more than the sum of its flaws.

But Fred and the others let them know that, for the students to really understand Watts, the bike tour would have to be the beginning of their relationship with the community, not the end.

To really get to know the place and be able to enjoy it, Buggs said, “You’ll have to come back.”

  • elson

    They’re not the only program at USC doing this. For the past two years in August I have been asked to conduct “community immersion” tours of my native East Hollywood and Hollywood for MSW program students for the USC School of Social Work. There are other community immersion tours around the city that MSW students take as well.

  • heddynam

    Hi Elson, thanks for lifting up the work that MSW students are undertaking in partnership with community leaders and organizations. PELA had no idea about this. But it’s exciting to hear and that PELA is not the only org on campus thinking about these dynamics. The fact that we don’t know about all of the similar programs at USC just speaks to the institutional silos and difficulties in communicating across them. Some PELA members saw your comment and we would like to connect with the MSW students so we can collaborate on our tours. And if not, we’d like to at least cross-promote our programming since we seem to have similar goals. Please find us at USC Price Partnership for an Equitable Los Angeles on Facebook and let us know who we can be in touch with.

    As the Co-President of PELA this year, I want to acknowledge on our Board’s behalf that our work is situated in the larger context of social justice and equity oriented work across the university in various undergrad and grad student groups, the larger movement in Los Angeles, and across the country doing this type of work. There are many others before us who have been doing alternative, community-led tours at USC, LA and across the country. In fact, we borrowed some of our framework from Student Community Action Tours who helped think through some of the issues involved and gave us encouragement over the summer when we were planning for this year’s tour series.

    I think where PELA’s work is unique has to do with the context at the USC School of Public Policy. As one of the top 10 policy schools in the country, the Price graduates many urban planners, policy analysts and public administration professionals every year who end up in decisionmaking roles in the public, non-profit and private sectors. However, the curriculum and culture at the school in general does not encourage us to look at policy or planning issues from the community’s perspective or connect to the community and get information or input from them. PELA believes planning and policy can and should be done in partnership with the communities most impacted. We have raised these issues with the administration and faculty. There are some bright spots with a few amazing professors offering elective courses in this area. Some changes have happened at the school and are in the works but there is a long-way to go. PELA does not want to just critique our school, we want to contribute value-added programming to fill these gaps. This was the idea behind the program. It would be a shame if USC Price graduates were working on public problems only with the tools given in the classroom which lack a community component. We hope that exposure to community-led solutions will help students not just think differently about these issues now but show them alternative ways of solving problems that they can integrate into their career in the future.

    Hope that makes sense as to the context of our programming. We should however acknowledge that it does not target USC students generally (although all are welcome) but is geared towards planning and policy Master’s students at USC Price.

  • elson

    Cool, SC alum here, so glad to help out! To find out more about the MSW Community Immersion program, contact School of Social Work adjunct professor Robert Hernandez. Their tours are done in August, right before their year begins. Best of luck and Fight On!

  • Great to see this work going on. Hope you’ll be out at CicLAvia December 7. Some of us will be leaving from USC/Expo station at 10am to visit Leimert Park and then Central Ave.

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