“The one lesson to learn at UCLA is: It’s your life, your choice; you can be who you want to be.”
President-elect of the UCLA Alumni Association
D’Artagnan Scorza ’07, Ph.D. ’13, is the president-elect of the UCLA Alumni Association. He is also a recipient of UCLA’s Recent Graduate Achievement Award, given in recognition of his academic accomplishments and work on behalf of African American students in his hometown of Inglewood, Calif., where he chaired a campaign to secure $90 million in school improvement bonds. His life is rooted in Inglewood and UCLA.
You came from an economically vulnerable community. How did that affect you?
It continues to shape my perspective. The work I do today in housing is because I was homeless as a kid. My father was incarcerated, so we had to move around — living with family members, in a motel, in a homeless shelter or in my mom’s car. So I am aware of the critical issues of housing, family and wealth security, and everything comes from there.
Many young people in such communities feel that higher education is not for people like them. How did you prepare for college?
In my neighborhood, there were some negative factors like violence and crime, but there was also a collectivist community, with neighbors who baked me a cake for my birthday or made sure kids got to church. Early on, I had these teachers who invested in me, like my second grade teacher, Ms. Gilyard, who said: “I see there is something special about you, and I am going to help you.” And she put me in the school play as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I thought I would go into the military, but my high school counselor, Mrs. Garcia, said: “No, you are doing well.” And she made me apply to college. When I got into UCLA, I said: “No, I can’t afford to go,” kicking and screaming. But these powerful women in my life made me go. They exposed me to different worlds, Palm Springs and Venice Beach, people drinking wine. While these were alternatives to my reality, I realized I could achieve things just as well.
What were your first impressions of UCLA?
I definitely experienced culture shock. I did not fit. There was not so much racism as entitlement, and I had to get used to seeing 18-year-olds driving around in a Mercedes or a BMW.
In your third year, in 2001, you went to Cape Town, South Africa, on a study abroad program. How did this affect your life?
I woke up — South Africa rewrote my worldview. I saw the kids without water for whom America was a dream. I realized that however tough my life had been, I had some privilege, and I wanted to use that privilege to make my community a better place. I wanted to fight, protect and serve. And then 9/11 happened.
You saw the smoke from the World Trade Center, and you enlisted in the U.S. Navy and were deployed to Iraq, helping personnel move in and out of hot spots.
Yes, I was deployed in 2005. My job was to think around things, helping people, making sure they got training and got paid. I was not in a combat role but was in a combat zone. A mortar landed near my barracks, and while it did not explode, people were injured. It created anxiety, which I brought back. It opened my eyes to the importance of using power responsibly, not to destroy but to build. It’s one reason why, when I came back, I created community organizations.
After nearly five years in the service, you returned to California as a student veteran, with a hunger to learn. And you campaigned to change the University of California’s admissions policies, which were criticized for disadvantaging African Americans. This was your signature issue when you were UC Student Regent from 2007 to 2009. Was that role what you expected?
Oh, no. It was more. For the first four months, it felt like I had joined a master’s program. I had faculty members who mentored me and helped me learn how to be an effective leader. I worked to expand access to education for African American and Latino youth. It’s still an issue today. I remained grounded in my moral compass, yet I listened to people around me. I went back to the community and shared with them what was going on all the time. I don’t enjoy politics, but I know when it is necessary.
You have established organizations across the city to open up opportunities for black and Latino youth. The Black Male Youth Academy has grown into the statewide nonprofit the Social Justice Learning Institute. How do you reclaim education for minorities who feel alienated from the process?
By developing a pedagogy and curriculum that is culturally relevant to them, showing them the world and how they can find their place in it. By teaching our students how to use their agency to improve their lives, they learn to navigate institutions that do not serve them.
The institute has planted community gardens and created spaces to improve access to healthy food. Is diet a political issue?
Cheap food is often unhealthy food, and poor diet has lifelong consequences, like high levels of diet-related diseases among African Americans. Fresh food is more expensive than processed food — a national issue that we are addressing. We make harmful decisions, like disposing 40% of the food we produce, which is a political issue.
As chair of the Inglewood Unified School District Board’s Measure GG campaign, you raised $90 million in school improvement bonds. The city of L.A. recently failed to carry through a similar measure. So how did you do it?
[The city of L.A.] did not appeal to voters’ self-interest. It was our youth from the Black Male Youth Academy who told their stories about our schools. Our students worked at the grassroots and knocked on every door to make the case for money for their education. It was not enough to solve all our issues, but we can already see the improvements in classrooms.
Gentrification has come to Inglewood, partially thanks to the resurgence of the Forum and the new NFL stadium. But rents have increased by up to 127%, prompting your successful Uplift Inglewood Coalition campaign for tighter rent controls. Is “gentrification” always a dirty word?
It’s often seen as a phenomenon that displaces existing residents. I campaigned for rent control and tenant protections, because I do believe we need to produce new housing at all income levels, so people can stay or return to the communities where they grew up.
Now you are back teaching in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and in July 2020, you will become president of the UCLA Alumni Association. How do you feel about UCLA today?
I love this university. As a father of two, who wear UCLA gear all the time, I hope they attend one day as well. My commitment to the Alumni Association is to help others share their love of UCLA and find ways to give back to our Bruin family.