Approximately 30 students met with Interim General Manager of the City of Los Angeles’ Economic Development Department and USC alumna Jan Perry at Lunch with a Leader, an event hosted by the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Bedrosian Center on Governance at the Widney Alumni House on Wednesday.
The luncheons, which will continue throughout the semester, are intended to foster an intimate dialogue between students and notable individuals in governance, policy and leadership.
Perry started the conversation by sharing her personal story. Born and raised in Ohio, Perry got a taste of politics from her parents. Her father, a World War II veteran, was the first person of color to be elected mayor of Woodmere since the days of Reconstruction. Her mother also served as mayor of Woodmere and is still involved in politics today. Perry said political policy was common dinnertime discussion in her household.
After college, Perry worked for some time in the private sector, but said it didn’t make her feel fulfilled. When an opportunity to work in public service opened up, she jumped at the chance and has been involved in politics ever since.
Perry, who has served as a three-term member of the City Council for District 9, has a reputation for getting things done. When asked how she has been able to implement changes, such as getting projects built in South Central Los Angeles and infusing money into Downtown Los Angeles, Perry said it all comes down to building relationships.
“By having relationships with people, I get to see what kind of public policy I actually need to develop because I see it playing out right in front of me,” Perry said. “It also keeps me grounded because I know what people want outside the walls of City Hall … the time I spend outside in the community actually getting things built.”
She learned this mentality by walking up to people on their porch, a common practice in Ohio.
“Once, one woman said, ‘No you’re not Jan Perry, that girl’s pretty,’” Perry said, to laughter. “But that was pretty telling because she wasn’t used to people coming to her door. That’s got to change. You can help change that.”
Brittany Mello, a first year graduate student studying public administration, was especially taken by Perry’s call to action.
“I’m trying to figure out how to be a leader and hearing her talk about her over a decade of public service and focus on being connected to the people that you’re serving and going door to door … I think that’s a powerful message of what to focus your energy on to make a difference,” Mello said.
Perry also spoke about term limits, a topic she personally has been affected by, as she reached her limit as a city council member in July.
“I got a lot done as councilor, and there was a lot I didn’t get done,” Perry said. “When you think about the consequences of governing of term limits … it hits disadvantaged communities much harder because they don’t have advocates to follow through with projects that are proposed during a term that are then discarded.”
Perry did not, however, seem to be concerned about voter apathy among young people, a point that many sitting around the table asked her about.
“I have an enormous amount of hope for the next generation because they actually are very well-informed, and technology has allowed them to be much more connected,” Perry said.
An issue she does feel must be addressed more is homelessness.
“People who have long-term issues, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia — that’s why they’re homeless. There will always be people in our society who are frail, who are old, and we must build to care for those people,” Perry said. “In my opinion, it’s the wrong thing to do to condemn them to being on [the] sidewalk.”
Anastasia Tarpeh, a second year graduate student in public policy and the president of Women Leading Public Policy and Development, said she felt inspired by Perry’s talk.
“What she said regarding young people today, follow[ing] passions, not simply find[ing] a career and stick[ing] with it. Hearing that from her, it wasn’t a call to action, but it was a realization to keep thinking about those dreams, keep thinking about those communities we can impact, and I feel that resonated with everyone here today,” she said.
At the end of the conversation, Perry reiterated her thoughts on what it takes to be a leader and a successful public servant.
“It’s important to stay close to the people you represent, it’s important to master your craft. I think that you have to have a willingness to fight, if you believe in what you’re doing … and fulfill your commitments,” she said. “A lot of people promise things and then it never happens — we can change that.”
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