Two Students Change the World, from South LA to Senegal

Two Students Change the World, from South LA to Senegal

From left, award-winner Ava Bromberg; Rishwain's wife Erin; Rishwain; and winner John Scott-Railton.

UCLA alumnus Brian Rishwain gave two $2,500 awards to urban planning doctoral students Ava Bromberg and John Scott-Railton, who brought an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit to social justice work. Scott-Railton is working in poor slums in Senegal to help the residents counteract devastating floods.

I've worked to show the politicians how this problem can cost them votes. In the end, you always hope that your conclusions will trickle down into policy.

By Alison Hewitt for UCLA Today

FOR TWO UCLA urban planning doctoral students, the chance to make a difference appeared on opposite ends of the Earth. Ava Bromberg spotted her opportunity just a dozen miles away and gave a low-income community near USC a voice in a development happening in their neighborhood. In contrast, John Scott-Railton found his opportunity in Senegal, where he's working in poor slums to help the residents counteract devastating floods.

What Bloomberg and Scott-Railton have in common are recent $2,500 awards from Brian Rishwain, an alumnus and Los Angeles attorney active in underserved communities. His eponymous Rishwain Social Justice Entrepreneurship award sought to recognize UCLA students who brought an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit to social justice work. Rishwain coordinated with UCLA's Center for Community Partnerships and led a campuswide search committee that coincidentally selected two students from the same graduate department in the School of Public Affairs.
"I am thrilled because the two winners are graduate students from the Department of Urban Planning – not like we rigged it," joked Public Affairs Dean Frank Gilliam, at an award ceremony on May 17. "These two UCLA students have found novel and path-breaking ways to serve the broader community. … They are advocates for justice. They are change agents, people who recognize broader systemic constraints and actually try to do something about it."
Gilliam praised Rishwain for encouraging not just UCLA's mission of civic engagement, but also for supporting graduate students with an award that will help them continue their studies in the midst of the recession. Because of his work representing the underserved in his law practice, highlighting those qualities was an important goal, Rishwain said.
The trophy-style awards given to the winners."The student applicants were incredibly impressive, both graduate and undergraduate students from all over campus," he said. "They're focusing not only on Westwood and our backyard but all the way to Senegal, Africa."
Bromberg created a mobile planning lab designed to engage low-income residents in development decisions affecting their neighborhood. The converted camper brought neighbors and city planners together to look at maps and plans, and gave the residents a say in a local project, Rishwain said.
"She recognized the need to give a voice to the low-income residents who were in danger of being displaced by USC's expansion," he said, eliciting a surprised laugh from the UCLA audience. "She gave them a cohesive and powerful voice in the process. It was simple, yet incredibly innovative."
The idea was to expand the reach of community planning, Bromberg said. Her research focuses on responsible development and sustainable property investment.
"Many of the families had been living there for over 30 years," she said. "We're seeing affordable family housing being replaced by unaffordable student housing … It raises serious questions about what any developers' responsibilities are to the community where they build, and what role the city should play in ensuring that all neighbors can benefit from long-awaited improvements to their neighborhood."
On the other side of the world, Scott-Railton tackled flooding problems in what he described as a "hell region" of Dakar, Senegal, where cycles of monsoons and drought transformed a million-resident urban slum from a desert into a lake. Scott-Railton studies urban vulnerability to climate change and the obstacles that communities face adapting to the changes. In Senegal, he has coordinated with politicians, climate scientists, academics and the community to design a plan to protect the slums from the flooding. Without a coordinated plan or help from the government, the community had been building micro-dams that only made the flooding worse by trapping the water.
"One man, a student from UCLA … became a catalyst for an entire country to figure out how to tackle a devastating problem," Rishwain said. "John has been able to create detailed topographical maps of the flooded areas of Senegal. Combining the maps with data he obtained from NASA, and using sophisticated modeling formulas that he developed, he was able to create a model to apply to solve this problem."
Gaining support for his solution required him to think entrepreneurially and reach out to political, community and religious leaders, Scott-Railton said.
"Modest cooperation would dramatically reduce the danger of flooding," he said. "I've worked to show the politicians how this problem can cost them votes. In the end, you always hope that your conclusions will trickle down into policy."
The goal, he said, echoing the speakers who preceded him, is tangible change. It's a goal that Dean Gilliam also voiced.
"I've been told over and over again by my staff that I'm corny for saying that the goal of the school … is to change the world," Gilliam said. "One project at a time, one action at a time, one step at a time perhaps, but changing the world is what we're after."

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Published: Wednesday, May 26, 2010