Dr. Wendy Slusser, Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza
Dr. Wendy Slusser 00:03
The pandemic and the nationwide uprising against racism have starkly exposed deep disparities and inequities and the quality of access to basic needs like education and healthcare. Today, I’ll be chatting with Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza, the founder and executive director of the Social Justice Learning Institute, and former president of the Inglewood Unified School District, about what we can do to address our nation’s inequities in the compensatory role of education. D’Artagnan, I’m really looking forward to this conversation for many reasons. We’ve already had one with you in our podcast prior to COVID-19. And you’ve been one of our favorite podcasts for our listeners, and actually quite inspirational for many. A lot of people have been listening to your podcast and feeling inspired, and so I’d like to just start off with your thoughts and feelings about the movement that we’re currently in. And I say movement, because Dr. Alonzo Plough from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation really emphasized and I agree with him that we’re not in the moment, we’re in a movement. And so I’d love to hear your thoughts around this particular pandemic, and how it’s exposed deep disparities and the quality and access to basic needs, and also the issues around racism and what we can do to combat racism and engage in anti-racism.
Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza 01:33
Yeah, no, I really appreciate that. So first of all, thank you for having me back. This is just an amazing podcast and series. You know, I think we are in a movement, there’s sort of a, not only the era of change, but the recognition that there’s a lot of learning that needs to be done about where we are as a country and as a society, as we reckon with the history in the past, right? Not just with the original sins of slavery, but with the elimination of the indigenous peoples of this land. Right now, we’re in Los Angeles, and we stand on lands of Tongva. And there has to be some sort of recognition. And I think that is beginning to happen. So, you know, as it relates to the George Floyd protests and you know, the protest of the killings of unarmed Black folk in our country, from Ahmaud Arbery to Breona Taylor, whose murderers are still not yet been arrested, to Tony McDade, and to many others in our society that have died at the hands of those who are intended to protect them. I think what we’re now seeing, and what we have seen as related to the civil unrest across the nation, and in our communities was just simply not the product of isolated incidents. Right, these incidents that I just named were our patterns. And in many cases, I think the response that we’ve seen for folk in our society, the protests that we’ve experienced, I think there was a Washington Post or New York Times article that came out and said, the number of people that turned out in the streets for Black Lives Matter has been one of the largest social movement protests in the history of the country. You know, it’s been spurred on, largely because of centuries old racism and oppression that’s been manifested in these deaths, and these men and women like George Floyd and Breona Taylor, and Atatiana Jefferson, who died at the hands of those who are protecting and serving them. The murders violate the social contract that we have between community and police. And I think people were able to see very clearly that that social contract was violated, right? And that their, you know, their experiences of their neighbors and their friends who are people of African descent, people of color, that those experiences might actually be true, right? Often Black and Brown folk are not believed, when they say, look, I’ve experienced racism or experienced this, just like during the #MeToo Movement, women were not believed when they experienced sexual harassment, right? So there seems to be this sort of visual experience in the murder of George Floyd, that has gotten people to start questioning what they believe around the experiences they hear from people of color, specifically in African Americans in our society. And so, again, I think, for me, as a Black man who is an organization supporting the growth and development of Black male youth and as a father of a young Black boy, I’ve been anguished, and in some cases, and I’m sometimes filling with rage, feeling both tired and fed up with the cycles of police violence, and some cases, the promise of change. But I think we’re in this movement right now because we have power to transform the systemic barriers and challenges we face.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 04:49
That’s really well-spoken and I feel that hopeful and also feel your anguish because as you said, this is something that’s been going on for centuries. And I wonder, with this pandemic and the health inequities that have been greatly exposed from this pandemic. And then the Black Lives Matter protests that have been so engaging, especially for the youth of our country, I think that many people that attended those events were the youth of our country. And it was very multiracial and multifaceted group of people. Many of my colleagues at UCLA have talked about how, in order to address health inequity, we have to address anti-racism. So they’re really integrally connected. And I’d like to understand from your point of view, what would be some of the major or like two or three steps that you think would be essential to reach or take steps towards an anti-racist agenda?
Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza 06:01
Yeah, that’s a really good question. And thank you for that question, Wendy. The American Public Health Association has recognized that racism is a public health issue. And the challenge with racism is that it restricts opportunity and it assigns a specific value, right, based upon how someone looks or what we perceive someone’s race to be. And as a result, that also unfairly advantages someone else, right? So it gives sort of power and strength and opportunity to others when you restrict it from some. And I think it’s that restricting of opportunity and assigning of value, and that hurts Black and Brown, people of color, right? The Laotian community and the Hmong community and others who experienced racism either intentionally or unintentionally. So as it relates to public health, you know, there are some significant things that we need to do both in our communities as well as within ourselves. And I was having this conversation with a colleague of mine who’s a faculty member at a California University, here in the state. And one of the things that she expressed was that she has had to walk into rooms, where people have made assumptions about her intellectual ability, or they’ve made untoward comments towards her, because she’s a woman and a Black woman on top of that, and/or treated a certain way without fully understanding how the way in which their behavior or their words or thoughts affect her. And as a result, she’s had to spend a lot of time trying to teach people how to engage in ways that are anti-racist and anti-sexist. And as a result, she said, look, I’m really tired of that task. Because I’m really tired of having to spend my lifeforce, my energy, educating people. So what she told me the other day, she said, D’Art, you know, what we really need for people to do is to educate themselves. She says, we need to look at this moment as an opportunity for people to educate themselves, to learn the history of Jim Crow and the role that restricting opportunity has played. You know, I just read an article about a Black family that was in I believe, Bruce’s Beach, that’s what it was. And they had a thriving business. And the white people in that community drove them out. More than a century ago, it was a popular resort where Black folk could come and not feel like, this is in California, right? This is in the big cities, you know, just 15-20 minutes from where I live, right? Where this very affluent town in California that is known for its beauty near the beach, these amazing homes, actually kicked out a Black family that had a thriving business that would, you know, be worth more than 30 some odd million dollars in land value today, had they not had their land eminent domain from from them because there were people who were upset about their ability to do well as a business. Like learning about those things, the things that happened in our own backyard, learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, learning about the role of the Federal Housing Administration played in 1929, when it created redlining and put in its lending guidelines that Black folk should not be lent to, because if they were it would decrease property values. And the data actually showed the exact opposite because Black folk were so in need of good housing that they would pay more than what the local values were, right? Learning about the Bakke versus UC Regents, here within our own system to understand how our admissions policies shifted as a result of sort of these court orders that favored discriminatory practices, right? So understanding these things can help people situate and learn about our conditions and recognize why things happen the way they do today. Because if you don’t understand why conditions are the way they are, then it’s going to be really hard to figure out how to properly diagnose and then subsequently solve and/or treat those problems, right? Just like a doctor, you got to read someone’s medical history, right? You got to listen to the history of their complaints, right? You can’t effectively treat a patient, if the patient is not able to tell you about what’s going on with him. Or you have to you have to spend a lot of time guessing, try to figure it out if they’re incapacitated, right? But there are enough stories out there from people that have gone through these circumstances from African Americans, from Black folk, that folk don’t have to guess, right? I can tell you about stories from my grandmother, and my cousins and my uncles in the south, my great, great grandfather, who was on a slave plantation in Arkansas, and got moved to Louisiana, right? I can tell you those stories. There are many of us that can tell those stories I can tell you about the time when I was in Portland, and I was racially profiled by a flight attendant who pulled me off the plane because she thought I was a terrorist. And I was literally less than six months out of the military, having served my country in Iraq, right. I can tell you about the time when I was at a student convention in my undergraduate days, and somebody drove by a group of us and nearly ran into us and called us the N word. Right, I can tell you about, I can tell you about the time where I was even pulled over by UCPD, the UC Police Department, for having a brand new car on UCLA’s campus as I was leaving my office when I was a student regent. So these experiences happen. And often, if you want to know how to address these things, it’s to learn about them by educating one’s self, but to also listen to the stories of others. And then finally, I would say, to take action, right to take action. To push back against these narratives, we have to do some heart and mind-changing work. People need to see each other through a lens, dare I say, of love, right? There’s far too much dissention, misinformation, disunity and hatred out there. And we got to do the heart and minds’ work to shift narratives in our own families at the dinner table at the kitchen table, but also in our places of employment, to change the way people talk about the names they see on resumes, to change the way people talk about opportunity for someone to be explicit about ensuring that Black businesses are actually supported, because they’ve been cut out of economic opportunity, to really be intentional about shifting resources to those who are not as well resourced, to really be very thoughtful about, you know, TA shifts, for example, and GSRs, and understand how these things can be more equitably distributed, to those who might walk out of the university with a higher degree of debt, right? So it’s not just one thing. But it’s a way of thinking that needs to change so that we address the whole picture.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 13:44
D’Art, I need to unpack this because every single topic you just covered, I really want to dive a little more deeply in and also respond because I feel that what you’ve just identified as an agenda to me really resonates with what we’re hearing from the scholars at UCLA, from the Bunche Center, for instance, in regards to educating, listening to stories, and taking action. And I’d like to start with the first comment you made around the turn of the century in the 1900s and the Jim Crow laws and drive our listeners to a really incredible book that could describe and share stories that can educate us around the Great Migration from the South to the North, secondary in response to the Jim Crow laws, which is “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. So yeah, well, it sat on my book stand for about two years because it’s so thick, and then I started reading and I couldn’t put it down. So don’t get worried when you look at how thick it is. It took the author 10 years to write it. And I actually heard her read excerpts of it at the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting about five years ago and she just came out with another book that’s supposed to be incredibly profound as well, on racism. The other thing that I’ve been directed to and what in terms of education was in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, there was a call to action for academics and researchers to take a day and a pause. And there was a huge reading list and viewer list that we were shared across the country, I believe. And I took that day and I spent time listening to different podcasts and various readings. I read, and there’s so much more I can do. But the idea was, is that in order to really engage and create change, just like you’re saying, you have to educate. These lists of readings, and whatever, which will take much more time for me to go through than others. One of the points is that in the academics in the universities, there’s not as much differences between the individuals who are at the high levels. There’s mostly white men really. I shouldn’t say it like that, but it’s probably true. And so why is that? And that’s where this reflection was meant to help bring more integration and more equity and more variety of differences, whether it’s their skin color, your background, or where you come from, and, and this kind of experience of reading was meant to help people bring people up. And what I’d like to talk about with you is your work that you do with the high school students, because many people have talked to me about how well, sure, you can do that in universities, but really the foundation of science and math has to happen, even way before K through 12. So how are you managing that and and building that opportunity so that students can really excel once they get to these high level, you know, very challenging universities?
Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza 17:04
Yeah, you know, thank you for that question. As a school board president of the Inglewood Unified School District right now, I can tell you that we have been centering this principle of equity and everything that we do. It is literally infused and embedded in all of our conversations. We focus on advancing social justice, and think about what it takes to provide opportunity for our young folk. You know, I think that’s what I appreciate about folks saying that it starts in K -12 level, is that at least it recognizes that K-12 institutions have a role and a responsibility to support our young folk. But what I don’t like about that narrative is that it makes people in higher education think they can abdicate their duties to support young folk who don’t have opportunities. So what does that mean for the millions of individuals who get to the doors of a university and are shut out from future economic opportunity because they didn’t have a shot when they were a minor? Right, they didn’t have a shot when they were children? What does that mean? Does that mean universities don’t have a role to play in equity? And I think that’s what I hear when I hear someone say, oh, it’s really because of the K-12 institutions, right? Yeah, K-12 institutions have a role and responsibility to play. But often, the ones who do make it to university are coming from well-resourced and affluent communities that have the support they need to invest in educational opportunity for their children, to give them additional tutoring, right; to give them SAT and ACT courses; to make sure they have an essay specialist to help them write their personal statement, right? Or they come from a family that’s already navigated through higher education, and they’re able to make it through. So I think institutions like our universities, such as UCLA, and Berkeley and others, and Miles College in Alabama, they have a responsibility to our communities and to our society to facilitate equity. They have a responsibility to do that. And that requires additional resources at the higher education, and higher education institutions, much like we have at UCLA. And those resources help to compensate, right, for the inequities that we experience. And that’s really what it boils down to. That K-12 institutions and institutions of higher, to the P-16 pipeline is a compensatory pipeline for inequity in our society. That’s what it is. It helps to compensate, you know, from a child’s very beginning, from the early beginnings, all the way to the point that they become an adolescent to a young adult. It’s intended to compensate for concentrated disadvantage, to compensate for lack of opportunity, to ensure that opportunity is able to be sustained for those that come from positions of opportunity, right, come from positions of influence. Our K-12 institutions in this moment, as a result of the pandemic and COVID, are suffering and they’re unable to fully address the inequities that they’re experiencing. So people like me who are on the school board, have a responsibility to make sure that our institutions step up, that they do all they can do and then more to address those challenges. But our friends and allies and faculty members and administrators in higher education also have a responsibility to create accountability and to hold our higher institutions of higher learning, responsible for opening up those doors to opportunity as well and finding ways to reduce barriers so that children who do not come from great, catered-to institutions have a fair shot. This is about fairness. This is about what’s right. And this is about chance and opportunity to succeed so that we can all go on to live a healthier and more vibrant and thriving life.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 21:02
Well said, and I’d like to ask two questions, follow-up questions, based on what you just said, and then go back to some of the other follow-up questions from your previous comments. But the first one is related to, just a quick follow-up, what is your dream for what a university like UCLA could do to help those students that you just described as maybe coming in with maybe not as strong a background in the science, for instance, or math?
Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza 21:29
I have to applaud UCLA, right, because UCLA, while not always initiated by the institution, but UCLA has put some additional resources in place. And more recently, the Chancellor made a commitment to doing the same to ensure that not only Black lives matter, but to ensure that there’s opportunity for the next generation of students and leaders in our society. More specifically, pointing to the Academic Advancement Program to VIP scholars, right, to some of the educational outreach programs, that there’s an investment. So there’s been this sort of commitment, right, that’s been led by students as a Student Initiative Access Committee, and the Student Retention Center and the Community Programs Office and all these sort of student-initiated efforts. But what I think an institution like UCLA or others need to do to help strengthen opportunity is to create a more direct pipeline into the university, right, with specific commitments to communities so they have an opportunity, so they have a shot, right? And I think that’s going to take a broad array of stakeholders to help design what those commitments ought to look like. But I think the Chancellor has begun to do that, right? To create safe spaces for students who feel vulnerable on our campus, to make investments in faculty lines, to identify resources to support the research enterprise, to address these challenges, to invest in the service needs of these multiple populations, and to make sure that students still get good teaching, right? There’s investments in the teaching enterprise, so that if a student does come in underprepared, they have the resources and support they need to overcome the lack of preparation that unfortunately, they may not have received at a K-12 institution.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 23:20
So, right, your comment regarding K-12 and the challenges currently, under the pandemic conditions. There’s no question there’s huge challenges, in particular for K through 12. And for families that might not have access to internet or strong enough internet and working families. What are you exploring to try to at least minimize the negative repercussions of what’s going on, for the learning environment for these children?
Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza 23:50
So here in Inglewood, specifically our district, we are working with some of our internet providers and partners, to access internet service for our families, and to try and provide that access to the families who are in need. And so we’re negotiating lower costs for those families so that they can take advantage of them and receive the services and support they need to effectively participate. I’m proud to say that we’re making a significant investment in upgrading our technology throughout the district, and we’re providing one-to-one devices for every child, regardless of income level and/or status, we are making sure that every single student in our district has access to a device so that they can learn. We’re also making significant investments in our IT services and technology, as well as working with our teachers so that they have a structured but supported Professional Development Series in our workshops, so that they can help deliver curriculum and instruction in a way that meets the needs of our families today. And then I’m structuring the day, based on the government’s guidelines, in a way that facilitates effective instruction, but then also still working to take care of the basic needs of our families, right? So making sure they have access to food, so we’re still running our food distribution programs, still making sure that families need to access the resources we have at our school sites. They’re available to them. And so it’s both thinking comprehensively, but also planning comprehensively. We launched about five taskforce groups to look at things like instruction and operations and safety and social-emotional learning needs of our young folks. And so as a district we spend a lot of time and energy responding to this moment. We’re responding to the pandemic to ensure that we do all that we can to support families.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 25:43
D’Art, what are you hearing from the families? What are they saying to you, like, what are their concerns or solutions?
Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza 25:50
A lot of our families are expressing gratitude for that work. But they’re also expressing deep concern about the fact that they know if they have a job and need to work during the day, and they need to figure out how they’re going to work and help their children deliver instructions, right ? Or have the children take advantage of instruction. If you have a school aged child right now, and you have a full time job and your job is maybe remote, you’re sort of in a more privileged position than someone whose job is not remote. But what if you are that parent, and we have a lot of these, that has to go work in the service and/or hospitality industry or retail industry, and they’re still going to work every day. And not only are they going to work, but they are also having to find a way to commute through all of this. So they’re exposing their families to sort of health challenges they may be dealing with. But then there’s no one at home to actually help take care of their child during the day during the pandemic. But if they don’t go to work and then they’re going to lose their jobs, and they’re going to be behind on their rent. It’s a mess, honestly. So we’re hearing a lot of concerns from families who are trying to figure out, just how do they help their children during the day, get through an actual school day. And if they don’t have the internal support they need to get that done, it is significantly burdensome. And then we’re hearing a lot from our families who are facing both economic challenges because they have lost their job and are facing housing insecurity. So there’s financial and housing security, right now, let alone not being able to access testing, because a lot of the testing centers require insurance, right? So if you don’t have insurance, or health insurance, then as a family member who might be concerned about being exposed to COVID, you know, you have to search for free testing. And that’s not always been easy either. And then cities and municipalities are not always in favor of allowing to have free testing and public testing because they don’t want to attract, quote, unquote, “the virus” to the community, right? So we’re hearing concerns about stuff like that. So, there’s just a lot of challenges that we’re having to navigate through. It seems so overwhelming just to hear the list and not even being one of those families as experiencing these challenges. What are families doing in your community to address these challenges? That’s a beautiful question. I will say that I’m hearing a lot about families coming together to create these sort of pods, right, and supporting each other. A lot of homeschooling teachers are really responding in this moment as well. And homeschooling families are helping out other families because they’ve been used to doing this. I’m also hearing a lot of residents come together, meet virtually, and talk about organizing or planning for their school communities. We’re seeing the parent-teacher associations, or parent-teacher organizations come together and plan around parent engagement and parent involvement. I’m also seeing in terms of innovation on the COVID side, folk like [name] who’s actually a Bruin, [name], who launched a COVID pop-up event called Offer the Love. And she graduated from UCLA and was in the Black Free Health Program. And she came back to the community to provide these pop-ups for at least 120 people per event so that they can safely test people and provide things like food and grab bags and materials. And so we have these local heroes who often go unrecognized, but they’re out here on the ground doing the work.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 29:32
So if you were to suggest, say, our listeners who might be listening to what’s going on in your community, and they wanted to do something, because I think there are a lot of people who want to help whichever way they can, what would you suggest?
Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza 29:46
I think that getting involved and reaching out to community-based organizations is always a great place to start. But I will say, recognize, that that sort of effort takes a lot of energy on behalf of CBOs who are out there doing the work, who are providing goods, community-based organizations who are providing goods and food and engaged in all that work. But I think there’s also, you know, donating directly to community-based organizations, and donating directly to school districts who are in need of those resources, I think, is another way that people can get involved. You know, I can’t tell you how many times I got somebody, you know, who called us and said, I would love to just donate laptops, right? And that goes a long way. I would love to pay for five families’ internet service for three months, right? That is really, really, I know, it seems small and somewhat insignificant, but it is so meaningful, and it is so helpful to so many people, and to the people who receive that type of support, because they don’t have the resources to buy a mask right now. They don’t have the resources; they’re barely getting by, with food. And as we’re all aware at this sort of point in time, unemployment insurance benefits have expired at the federal level. So you know, families don’t know what they’re going to do. What I’d also say is if you have a skill set that can help people be inventive, and utilize their their ingenuity. I mean, there’s a lot of folks that are earning a lot of income right now during this pandemic. But that income is not being shared widely, I think, using one’s voice to help ensure that we have in sort of equitable distribution of resources, but also opportunities so that people can start their own businesses or, you know, respond to the needs of the day, I think, for our business community, and our members who are out there that that run businesses, I know, some folks may be struggling. But if you’re not, you know, lend a hand to to another person. Lend a hand to another business. Lend a hand to someone who’s trying to earn a living during this time. So those are some of the things that I would recommend.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 31:56
So in a sense, what we are doing right now is running through your list of three activities that we could do to help reduce health inequities and bring more racial justice. Things like educating, listening to stories, and taking action. And I’d love your third point about taking action through the lens of love. And that giving and the act of giving in itself is, in my opinion, a great cure-all for you know, people’s depression and anxiety in a lot of ways. It can really raise your your sense of well-being. Going to that space and to what you’ve done, which I think you’ve done quite well with your own CBO that you started, and you educated yourself with a PhD. And then you wrote up your thesis that then became really an act of love. And you now have this tremendous organization that’s over a decade old. Can you explain what your organization does in Inglewood, and how that might be also a space where people can give?
Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza 33:06
Yeah, you know, in short, when I came back from the military, and I returned to UCLA to finish my undergrad degree and move into my PhD program, I came up with the intention to serve my community. And while it relies upon a lot of the research I did as an undergrad and graduate student at the university that focuses on utilizing education as a tool for civil and social empowerment. What I really do is I helped to build people. And I helped to build people who understand their material conditions and have the resources and the tools and skills they need to transform those material conditions. My goal is to develop returnees, people who come from our communities that understand these conditions that go off to, you know, to college or to university, get their degrees, and they come back to our communities to serve, right? I want to support folk, so they can do for themselves right and not rely upon sort of external agents to improve the local conditions, right, I want to help young folk come back to our communities and be the local grocery store owner who’s providing access to healthy food and teach them how to come back and start the cleaners’ business with environmentally safe and friendly chemicals, right, and teach them how to come back and pave the roads, thinking about material that reduces urban heat island effect. We want to teach them how to come back to our communities and get an engineering degree so that they can build an appropriate, build a bridge that is safe and sound for folk, right? It’s about helping our young folk, and our residents come back to improve conditions and then also build opportunity for the future. So that’s what my organization does, but we do that in a number of ways. And we do that by taking on these larger issues around both basic needs but also racial justice. by training our young folk to be leaders by helping them learn how to address policies by shifting narratives throughout the state. I’ll give you a good example. And I’ll be quick with this. Our young folk wanted to build a community garden in the city here in Inglewood and they built the first one and that initial led to building one hundred school, community, and home gardens in Inglewood. And when we learned that they could not build those gardens and apartment buildings, we took that issue to our state legislature and they got a state bill passed to allow for the building on gardens and apartment buildings. And so now residents and state of California with the identification of a place from their their landlord can actually build their own small garden in their property where they rent, right? So it’s looking at that issue at the local level. And to me, I’m want to change the very system that prevents it from being solved. D’Art, you’ve got so much to talk about, I think this is gonna be the second of a series of podcasts with you. We’re gonna have to have a third sort of line of podcast, D’Artagnan’s Wisdom. So thank you so much for everything you do for our community for UCLA, for Inglewood, for California, for the country. We look forward to the next conversation. I am so grateful to be here today. I’m grateful for your leadership, Wendy, I think you’re pushing many of us to explore what health means with a much broader context. And I’m grateful that you’ve been able to help lead this work for the university and for our communities. It’s serving so many of us, more than you can imagine.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 36:31
Thank you, D’Art. Thank you for tuning in to Six Feet Apart, a special series of the LiveWell podcast. Today’s episode was brought to you by UCLA Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. To stay up to date with the rest of the episodes in this special series, and to get more information on maintaining your mental, social, and physical well-being during COVID-19, please visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcasts. Thank you and stay remote.