After police murdered George Floyd in June 2020, hundreds of thousands of people across the country flooded the streets demanding their cries for racial and social justice be heard. In the wake of those protests, UCLA pledged to address campus issues facing Black students, faculty and staff as well as Indigenous, Asian American and Latino communities.

Part of that “Rising to the Challenge” commitment included $250,000 in seed grants to fund projects that would explore Black life, racial equity and social justice. 

The first nine grant recipients were selected in 2021, funding a broad variety of projects that span campus disciplines:

  • what does it means to “belong” at UCLA
  • policing reform
  • the future political representation for Black communities in light of redistricting
  • racial disparities in earthquake-proofing of homes in Los Angeles
  • alcohol abuse in young Black and Asian adults
  • sexual violence and Anti-Asian racism within the University of California
  • community health in a changing planet, the evolution of Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles
  • how students who are Black, Indigenous and others who are people of color are coping with the uncertainties wrought by the pandemic

The Racial and Social Justice Seed Grant Program is a partnership between UCLA’s Office of Research & Creative Activities and its Institute of American Cultures. Roger Wakimoto, UCLA’s vice chancellor for research, and David Yoo, vice provost who leads the institute, had previously partnered to launch a postdoctoral fellowship program focused on racial and social justice. 

“To me, this is just part two of a vision,” Wakimoto said. “And who knows, there may be a part three. It’s imperative that the campus increase diversity, support Black Lives Matter and help build equity. All of the ethnic studies programs require a commitment from the university, and I think my office can help.”

Yoo said that support from the vice chancellor who oversees research has been critical to the goals of the Institute of American Cultures as it administers the seed grants. 

“When we talked with Roger about these particular seed grants we talked about the Bunche Center wanting to promote cross-racial solidarity as part of ‘Rising to the Challenge,’” Yoo said. “In addition to what was happening in terms of Black Lives Matter, there was this longer vision of really trying to promote solidarity across different racial groups and communities.”

Building the infrastructure for the grant program was led by Lorrie Frasure, political science professor who was serving as interim director of the Bunche Center when “Rising to the Challenge” was announced, along with Kelly Lytle Hernández, director of the Bunche Center, and Todd Presner, special advisor to the vice chancellor for research. 

Their work is serving as a model for the groups that are evaluating proposals in support of research that advances UCLA’s goal to become a Hispanic Serving Institution.

Planting seeds for UCLA student success

Among the first projects to receive funding is “All Bruins Belong: Addressing Inequities through Positive Academic Engagement,” led by Adrienne Lavine, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and associate vice provost for UCLA’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching, or CAT.

The first phase of “All Bruins Belong” has entailed interviewing students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and academic disciplines. Sociology graduate student Abraham Calderon Martinez, who has been leading the interviews, said emergent themes have been borne out of existing literature about student belonging, and the obstacles to it that often exist in higher education. 

“Belonging is directly tied to a student’s own sense of deserving to be in this space,” Calderon Martinez said. “And that perception of deserving is really tied to their academic preparedness, and how the lack of it — or a perception of the lack of it — contributes to what we know as imposter syndrome or the lack of deserving.”

The project could lead to the creation of new trainings for teaching assistants, said Molly Jacobs, coordinator for curriculum assessment at CAT. She added that existing partnerships with UCLA’s Academic Advancement Program and the Program for Excellence in Education and Research in the Sciences — both of which focus on supporting nontraditional students — could lead to increased programming.

Jacobs said the next phases of the project would include broadening the survey to include LGBTQ students, those with disabilities, students who grew up in foster care, or have had experiences with the criminal justice system, student veterans and students who are parents. 

The “All Bruins Belong” team is currently pursuing a second round of funding from educational research group the Spencer Foundation. 

“One of the things that was important to us from the beginning was to create a model that would help people turn the seed grants into larger funding,” Yoo said. 

Growing understanding of community issues

Another grant will fund research into policing, which has been an important part of calls for racial and social justice for many years. Alicia Virani, Gilbert Foundation Director of the Criminal Justice Program at UCLA School of Law, leads the project, which is called “Overcoming (Claimed) Legal Barriers to Defunding the Police.” She’s working with law professor Noah Zatz and Fanna Gamal.

They’re examining how insurance laws in Los Angeles might act as barriers to reforms, such as having mental health teams or de-escalation teams respond to non-violent situations, instead of police.

The value of institutional funding is the constancy it provides for projects like this, which take a huge amount of time and management of materials, said Gamal, who recently joined the law school faculty.

“It expands the type of research we are able to do and allows us to think creatively about how and where we collect empirical data, analyze that data and, eventually, share our findings with the public” Gamal said.

For Henry Burton, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, the grant has created an opportunity to focus on racial inequality within his broader research about earthquake risk management.

His work investigating the impacts of statewide seismic retrofitting goals led him to want to take a closer look at how much Black communities have been able to access programs like the California Brace and Bolt Grant, which offers stipends to homeowners for earthquake retrofitting.

“In the Black community, a lot of times a lot of our wealth is vested in our homes,” Burton said. “So if you have this big disparity in risk and potential loss that’s something that could have a huge impact on individual and community wealth.”

Burton said his findings would be shared with state policymakers. 

“If we find a large disparity in access to the grant, that could mean that Black homeowners are not getting information,” he said. “If there’s a benefit out there, part of accessing that benefit is having access to information.”

Wakimoto said it was important for grants to fund projects that spanned social sciences, arts and humanities, which tend to be concentrated in north campus, and science and engineering projects, which traditionally call south campus home.  

“Often south campus-type research has more straightforward funding streams from various state or federal agencies, while north campus-type projects can be a little more challenging,” he said. “So, the university stepping up to the plate, providing seed funding can really make the difference.”

Ideally the grants will have a cohort-effect, Yoo said, in that the recipients in a given year (and perhaps across the years) can form a sense of intellectual community that might also spawn more projects that might not have been envisioned had they not been talking with one another.

“COVID threw a wrench into these plans, but the hope is that we move on this dimension in the coming rounds,” he said.