They come from everywhere — unapologetic revolutionaries and leading voices in causes ranging from social justice and climate change to housing rights, racial equity and protections for the most vulnerable among us. They seek resources and space to recharge, regroup and, often, to plan the next stage of their struggle — all while planting seeds to grow the next generation of activists.
In 2016, UCLA’s newly created Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy launched a novel concept in the world of academia.
In a twist on the time-honored academic tradition of the artist-in-residence, the Luskin Institute introduced the Activist-in-Residence Program — selecting grassroots movement leaders and giving them the time and resources to pursue and develop their mission from a post on campus. Each residency runs from January through May.
“It was a way of shifting who is seen as a scholar, who is seen as a teacher at an elite research university like UCLA,” says Professor Ananya Roy, the Luskin Institute’s founding director. Roy brings her own activist bona fides to the table: A professor of urban planning, geography and social welfare, she’s also an outspoken activist, author and public speaker. “A lot of our universities talk the talk of community engagement … but you’ve got to walk the walk.”
Activists-in-residence are given a basic stipend and full access to university resources to pursue whatever project or topic interests them, which can range from pure academic research to organizing on-campus events and delivering guest lectures. One of the inaugural activists-in-residence, Funmilola Fagbamila, spent part of her year writing a new play. The open-ended nature of the activist-in-residence year is very much intentional. There are no so-called “deliverables” at the end, such as a report or research study.
“We don’t script it,” Roy says. “It’s meant to be a mini-sabbatical for activists.”
So far the university has hosted 11 activists-in-residence, with areas of expertise that include tenants’ rights, support for incarcerated people, protection for the unhoused, ethnic storytelling and criminal-justice reform. A Luskin Institute explainer sets its foundational goal as “turning the university inside out.”
An immediate hit, the concept has since been expanded with UCLA’s CityLAB, joining the Luskin Institute and the Asian American Studies Center in sponsoring their own activist-in-residence fellowships. Other universities, such as UC Santa Cruz, have followed suit. The Luskin Institute’s 2023 cohort is the largest yet, with four activists-in-residence.
Roy says she hopes to see the program expand to more universities, bringing movement-based leaders together with students across the country.
“Their presence transforms our classrooms and our research centers,” she says. “It’s this shared terrain of scholarship across universities and movements that we see to be very fertile ground for making change.”
Mining the Black Experience
FUNMILOLA FAGBAMILA | 2017
Although the Activist-in-Residence Program is meant to be a twist on the traditional artist-in-residence concept, one of UCLA’s inaugural residents had the distinction of being both an activist and an artist. Playwright Funmiloa Fagbamila was deeply involved in the coalition of groups that eventually coalesced into the Black Lives Matter movement, and she served as arts and culture director for the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles affiliate.
“It really was simultaneously viewed as an artistic residency,” says Fagbamila, who believes one of the reasons she was chosen was for the way she “fused my artistic work as a playwright with my movement work.”
During her residency, she delivered a number of guest lectures, including one called “The Making of a Movement,” which focused on the history and formation of Black Lives Matter. She also spent part of her residency year working on her play The Intersection, which she describes as “a theater production on the complexities of Black political identity.” The play made its debut in Los Angeles at the 2018 Pan-African Film Festival.
Fagbamila, who attended UCLA as a graduate student in African American studies, also had the distinction of beginning her residency just as Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency. Now a lecturer in Pan-African studies at Cal State Los Angeles, Fagbamila says she views Trump’s victory as a reaction to what came right before it.
“It was essentially a reaction to the audacity of having Barack Obama in office,” she says. “A lot of Black America was somehow more emotionally prepared for the backlash. And that backlash took form in Donald Trump.”
A Voice of the Unhoused
THEO HENDERSON | 2022
From the start, the issue of housing justice has been one of the core concerns of the Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy — and a natural one, given the centrality of that question to Los Angeles itself. The institute’s 2022 activist-in-residence, Theo Henderson, brought a wealth of street-level experience to the issue, having spent eight years unhoused and living on the streets of Los Angeles.
A Chicago native, Henderson had started out as a teacher in middle schools and high schools. Seeking a change of scenery, he landed in California and worked as an adult education teacher before, he says, a “medical emergency” left him unable to work. The cost of living quickly wiped out his savings. He doesn’t go into detail about the experience, instead summing it up this way: “Things started to fall apart slowly, and then very quickly.”
In a city with one of America’s largest unhoused populations, Henderson said his mere presence on the UCLA campus sent a powerful message to students that “humanized and normalized” the community he represents. During his residency, Henderson organized a vigil for unhoused Angelenos who had passed away, and he frequently appeared as a guest lecturer in classes.
He says that on two different occasions, a student in a class approached him and said they were personally unhoused or living in their cars. But most students whom he met while on campus had never interacted extensively with an unhoused person. Others, he said, had inherited negative perceptions from their parents that people who are unhoused “deserve” their situation.
“This is a blame-and-shame society,” he says, “and students can have a detached view of what the issues are.”
Calling the Activist-in-Residence Program “innovative and necessary,” he says, “I really hope other universities take a page from this.”
Today, Henderson calls his current housing situation “not on the street, but not really in a secure situation.” He says his primary goal for his residency and afterward was simply to continue to put a human face on the unhoused population in Los Angeles and around the country in the face of government policy and popular sentiment that “wants to make the existence of unhoused people illegal.”
“I don’t know of any other program out there where they open the doors of the university to people who are engaged in social movements and then provide a space and an opportunity for folks to reflect on their practices and refine their ideas.” — Yvonne Yen Liu
Protecting “Solidarity Economies”
YVONNE YEN LIU | 2018
As a child of immigrants, Yvonne Yen Liu has long been fascinated by the social and economic dynamics of the Asian American communities around her.
A co-founder of the L.A.–based Solidarity Research Center, Liu has spent years documenting and assisting what she calls “solidarity economies” — informal collectives that pool resources and develop mechanisms like cooperative lending, barter exchanges or collective kitchens.
Liu says that these informal economic collectives, which are most common in immigrant communities and marginalized minority groups, generally form among “folks who are on the periphery of society.”
And while the collective behaviors of these economies often overlap with progressive worker-led leftist values and union organizing, Liu says they can form independent of political ideologies or training.
“It’s an economy based on equity and inclusivity,” she says. “And an economy is basically just a set of social relationships.”
Liu’s work has involved her in successful movements to raise the local minimum wage to $15.50 per hour and to decriminalize street vending — a huge portion of the informal Angeleno economy.
As part of UCLA’s second class of activists-in-residence, Liu worked closely with the Asian American Studies Center and took full advantage of unfettered access to the UCLA academic infrastructure.
“It was an incredible opportunity to connect with the resources on campus — the students, the faculty, the library,” she says. “I don’t know of any other program out there where they open the doors of the university to people who are engaged in social movements and then provide a space and an opportunity for folks to reflect on their practices and refine their ideas.”
Liu says the Activist-in-Residence Program is a prime example of how universities can extend their scope in a way that both stimulates progressive change in the surrounding community and brings the outside world into students’ lives.
“It’s about building a university,” she says, “that isn’t contained by its walls.”
“Activism is a crucial component to solving the world’s biggest challenges. Protests and movements are the manifestation of social forces that push societies to change. Put simply, humanity needs protesters, because without protest there is social stagnation.” — Micah White
Preparing the Next Generation of Activists
MICAH WHITE | 2019
Since the start of the Activist-in-Residence Program, there have been very few restrictions on how residents choose to spend their time — with the only exception being that they are discouraged from taking on a full class, which Roy worries would bog them down rather than freeing them to take full advantage of their time at UCLA.
For 2019 resident Micah White, however, the opportunity to be at a university dovetailed with his background and naturally suggested a chance to teach — not a class of students, but rather a cohort of future activists.
White, one of the co-creators of the Occupy Wall Street movement and a veteran educator, had already spent years training new activists. As a result, his residency essentially became a collaboration between the Luskin Institute and White’s own Activist Graduate School, an online training ground for activists that he founded and directs.
Teaming up with Roy, White taught a graduate-level class called “Housing Justice Activism and Protest: Past, Present, Future.” He says he first pitched the idea to Roy as a natural collaboration between like-minded institutions coming at the same issues from different spaces.
“Professor Roy liked the idea and made it happen,” he says. “The goal was to produce a course that met the highest standards of academia while also learning from activist thought.”
The course is now permanently available on the Activist Graduate School website. It combines Roy’s academic perspective — she is a professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography — with White’s practical and strategic focus. Initial lecturers included tenants’ rights activists Elizabeth Blaney and Leonardo Vilchis, both of whom went on to become activists-in-residence themselves the following year.
“The key insight that the Luskin Institute, the Activist-in-Residence program and Activist Graduate School share is that activism is a crucial component to solving the world’s biggest challenges. Protests and movements are the manifestation of social forces that push societies to change. Put simply, humanity needs protesters, because without protest there is social stagnation,” White says. “But that doesn't mean that activism as it is practiced today is up to the task. On the contrary, I think activism needs to constantly reinvent itself with new tactics and approaches.”
Working From the Inside Out
JANE NGUYEN | 2020
When I speak to her, Jane Nguyen is locking up the office after a late night in her first week on the job as chief of staff to newly elected Los Angeles City Controller Kenneth Mejia. She is singular among the graduates of the Activists-in-Residence Program in that she is the first to enter government service, putting her activism to work on the inside of a public institution.
A founder of the organization KTown For All, which fought to protect unhoused individuals in L.A.’s Koreatown, Nguyen had worked part time on Nithya Raman’s campaign for city council before becoming an activist-in-residence. Her activist work had previously brought her into contact with 2022 activist-in-residence Theo Henderson and his mission of elevating personal stories of L.A.’s unhoused population.
One of Nguyen’s main public battles was combating a renewed LAPD-enforced push to clear downtown of its tent cities and massive unhoused population.
“They were trying to make it illegal to sit, sleep or lie down in public,” she says. “It was already unconstitutional on its face, but they were modifying this 50-year-old law and trying to turn it into a weapon against people with nowhere else to go."
Nguyen was just settling into her new reality as an activist-in-residence when the world started shutting down in 2020. She, along with everyone else, was sent home as the university suspended in-person learning in the face of the fast-moving COVID-19 pandemic.
She recalls, “There was a week or so of total confusion, not just here but at universities, businesses and offices around the country. ‘Are we going to shut down tomorrow? What about the day after that?’”
The situation was far from ideal, especially considering that the fellowship was designed to provide full-time activists with access to the university’s considerable resources. But it had its advantages: Once everyone had shifted to the new Zoom-based reality, Nguyen was able to deliver guest lectures to multiple remote classes. And the upheaval provided fertile ground for her activist work.
Nguyen’s focus shifted due to fast-moving current events after George Floyd’s murder sparked a wave of protests over police brutality and racial injustice. Nguyen devoted much of her time that summer to developing liaisons and relationships with racial justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and People’s Budget LA as they pushed the city government for public safety reforms.
Three years later, she’s putting all of that gained knowledge to use for the city. “It’s been a whirlwind,” she says of her new post. “I think it’s going to be all long days going forward.”
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2023 issue.