Nation, World + Society

L.A. leader Zev Yaroslavsky inspires students to pursue public service

Prominent alumnus returns to UCLA classrooms to share his insights, experience over four decades in office

Zev Yaroslavsky teaching
Christelle Snow/UCLA

Zev Yaroslavsky teaching a class at UCLA.

Students in a new UCLA course about public policy in Los Angeles have a true luminary at the lectern.

“Today’s L.A.: Institutions and Leaders Who Make it Work” is being taught by Zev Yaroslavsky, who spent more than 40 years in public service on both the Los Angeles City Council and the County Board of Supervisors before being termed out in 2015.

The UCLA alumnus — and leader on Los Angeles public policy issues such as transportation, health care, the environment, cultural arts, homelessness and public safety — has returned to Westwood to share his expertise with students. He’ll also spearhead research and work with fellow faculty and city leaders with the aim of influencing modern policymaking through the lens of history.  

Christelle Snow/UCLA
Yaroslavsky teaching with Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Yaroslavsky serves as executive director of the newly formed Los Angeles Initiative, which will be home to policy research and serve as a base for his teaching assignments within both the Luskin School of Public Affairs and the history department in the UCLA College. This spring, he will teach a graduate-level history course titled “History of L.A.”

“I want to dedicate the next chapter in my life to inspiring students to a life of public service with a particular focus on Los Angeles,” Yaroslavsky said. “In so many ways, Los Angeles is ground zero for many of the challenges facing our world:  social justice, economic justice, the environment, transportation, among others.”

The institutional memory and personal connections that Yaroslavsky brings to his courses are both inspirational and invaluable, students say.

Michelle Cordi is a graduate student in the Luskin school who is focusing on environmental policy. She hopes to work in the public sector after graduation.

“I grew up in L.A., so I’ve seen Zev’s name all over this town,” Cordi said. “Seeing his name attached to a class here at UCLA made me take notice. He invites a broad range of guest speakers that highlights the breadth of issues present in L.A., and we are able to take advantage of his experience in politics. This is the most exciting part of the class for me as a student of public policy: the intersection of policy and politics.”

A recent session of Yaroslavsky’s “Today’s L.A.” course featured a visit from Gail Goldberg, former director of the L.A. city planning department, along with land-use watchdog attorney Robert Silverstein. The result was an animated discussion around Los Angeles development projects and community planning initiatives, which delved into some of the city’s unique and endemic political and geographical issues.

Joseph Rojas, a pediatrician and first-year Robert Wood Johnson Foundation clinical scholar in the health policy and management master’s program at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said he jumped at the chance to take a course from Yaroslavsky.

“I’m not a native Angeleno,” Rojas said. “I’ve only been here for four years, but I’m here for the long haul. I want to work in the public sector to help at-risk youth, so I need to have a solid understanding of the major players and issues in Los Angeles. Who knows how L.A. works better than Zev? He’s bringing over 40 years of hands-on experience to the class, not to mention his connections to the movers and shakers in the county.”

Reflecting on his decision to return to campus, Yaroslavsky said he fondly recalls the “profound impact” that UCLA history professors John S. Galbraith and Damodar Sar Desai had on his life.

“They got me interested in history and how an understanding of historical events can inform how we deal with today’s public policy challenges,” the new instructor said.

Yaroslavsky also recalled the words of UCLA alum Jackie Robinson, who said: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

“There is a certain symmetry to my coming back to where it all started 44 years ago,” he said. “I came back to UCLA to encourage students to consider how they might make their lives important by making a difference.”

A brief documentary about Yaroslavsky’s career in public service:


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