Have you ever wondered how to become a member of the Public Utilities Commission? What about getting on California’s Air Resources Board or the California Water Resources Control Board? The nearly 4,000 commissioners and board members who shape state policy are rarely in the public eye, so who are these people and how did they get there?

Recently a large number of people from UCLA got the answers. 

“There is definitely a belief that the appointments process is an insider’s game,” said Cathryn Rivera, appointments secretary for California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Rivera spoke at a UCLA Alumni town hall on Jan. 12. “We are close to 4,000 appointments that this governor is responsible for, so we would not get very far if we only relied on people we knew.” 

Newsom is instead looking for appointees who look like the people they serve, and his staff are dedicated to finding new ways to ensure that Californians can easily apply for the job. 

200 Bruins attended virtually to hear from Rivera on why a such diverse workforce is needed to fill hundreds of California state commission and board appointments vacant right now. For Bruins looking to get involved in civic affairs, the message was clear: Apply. 

The event, which was co-hosted by the UCLA Alumni Association and UCLA Government and Community Relations, included a panel and Q&A with three alumni serving in state-appointed roles. The association puts on events similar to this regularly to help Bruins to learn more about working in the public sector, to provide resources for career growth and give them access to networking.

“This tradition of service is alive and well today, as our panel of alumni who’ve served on commissions will remind us,” said Chancellor Gene Block during opening remarks. “Service to the state aligns so well with our public nature and the commitment to the common good we try to instill in our students.”

UCLA alumni have already proved themselves to be a tremendous resource for California, said Rivera, pointing to Bruins like Lourdes Castro Ramírez, secretary of the business, consumer services and housing agency; Ana Lasso, the first Latina to be the director in the department of general services; and Darnell Grisby, 2021 governor-appointee to the state transportation commission.

“If there is a profession, there is a board for it,” said Rivera, adding that what people don’t always realize is that the call for diversity of applicants means diversity of experiences, geography, upbringing and skills.

For example, if you’re not a podiatrist chances are you won’t think to apply to the podiatry board, but the truth is that boards need the different perspectives and experiences that diverse appointees bring to the table, Rivera said.

For those curious, a good place to start is exploring the commissions and boards websites. If you see something that interests you, reach out directly to the deputies who are listed with their portfolios on each site. 

“You’ll get is a response,” Rivera said, noting that deputies know that mentoring and recruiting is part of the job description. “As unglamorous as it might sound, we are one large employment agency.”

Past UCLA Alumni Association president Yolanda Gorman was surprised to get a call from one state board a number of years after applying to another. Gorman, who is chief of staff to Block, is now well established in her appointment within the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, and said she is grateful for the opportunity to learn about the importance of park space and accessibility to nature for Los Angeles’ citizens.  

The experience of serving has yielded surprises for all three of the panelists, including challenges to the misconceptions they and many other people have had about working for the government. 

“You hear all about ‘state bureaucracy,’ but that wasn’t my experience at all,” said alumnus Peter Taylor, another former UCLA Alumni Association president and three-time appointee to the California State University Board of Trustees. “There was a real hunger and desire on the part of staff to brainstorm, and a willingness and desire to help and solve problems.”

Taylor, who also has chaired the UCLA Foundation Board and the UCLA task force on African American admissions and retention, said that the role wasn’t without its challenges, one of those being that appointees can’t talk to one another behind the scenes about issues at hand. He also says that public boards are more time-consuming than corporate boards, and require all members to be extremely engaged. 

Nevertheless, Taylor said that being in the middle of the higher education public policy debate was “exhilarating” and worth the extra hours he was logging in addition to the demands of his career. “Change the paradigm of how you use your time ... It’s incredibly rewarding to serve on these boards.”

Alumna Cinthia Flores wanted to work on the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board after graduating from law school, but instead was appointed to a health professions board where she served for six years. She said that the learning experiences were “tremendous” and helped her realize the honor of being a governor appointee. 

Flores, who also serves on the board of directors for the UCLA Alumni Association, said she was surprised to see how much her student leadership experience at UCLA prepared her for the appointment. Now serving fulltime on the agricultural labor relations board, she said she is comforted by how much she’s able to use those learned skills in the role.

Flores’ leadership skills gleaned as a student at UCLA is an example of experience Rivera says one shouldn’t discount when applying for appointments. Rivera encourages applicants to think about how they can connect with what the job requires, and what experiences they’ll carry with them.

Sharing her story with the audience, Rivera explained how she is the child of two young farm workers, and remembers feeling like an outsider when she entered first grade in a public school in clothes her mother made her. “My advice to people is share your story. We know people have had varied experiences, both successes and failures. And I’ve never seen a governor more here for a comeback story than this governor, so share it.”