Compton Mayor Aja Brown returned to her alma mater Thursday to discuss her path to public service and her plans to revitalize the city. Brown spoke in the Widney Alumni House to approximately 20 students through an event sponsored by the Judith and John Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise.
Brown became the City of Compton’s youngest mayor in June when she was elected to her position. She ran against 11 candidates, and received approximately 64 percent of the vote in the run-off election.
Though she had never run for public office before, Brown believed she could bring necessary improvements to the city.
“People are ready for change,” Brown said. “I just really want to reach them and touch them because in Compton we’ve had leaders that haven’t really been in our community.”
Brown was born in Pasadena, Calif. after her mother moved away from Compton because of a personal tragedy. Brown, who has a twin, said when she was growing up she was involved in many academic programs that piqued her interest in the public service.
She said her experience at the university has been applicable in every aspect of her career.
“USC is such an awesome institution because everything I’ve learned I have applied in the last 10 years of my career,” Brown said. “Going into college, I knew I didn’t just want to make a lot of money, I really wanted to be a place-changer.”
Students participating in the discussion with her freely asked questions and later said her outlook inspired them.
“It was incredibly inspirational. I think she has a clear vision for what she wants to see in Compton,” said Justin Tandingan, a second-year graduate student studying policy and development. “She shows that you can really put into action what you learn at Price [School of Public Policy].”
Brown graduated from the university with a bachelor’s degree in 2004 and a master’s degree in 2005 from the Price School. After graduation, she worked in policy planning, and she and her husband moved to Compton in 2009.
Compton has approximately 100,000 residents. Though the city has historically been predominantly black, black people now comprise only 40 percent of the population. Hispanic residents comprise about 60 percent of the city.
Brown said the shifting demographics between blacks and Hispanics has not caused any tension.
“Compton is a very close-knit community,” Brown said. “There is no racial tension as people would think. We all live in the same city and consider the same things. I’m really focusing on our similarities.”
Brown is also seeking to improve many of the broken structures within the city. Though looking to promote the similarities, Brown also wants to touch upon the wide diversity of students when moving forward with the reforms.
“We are characterizing our unique characteristics and using it as our strength,” she said in reference to her plans to require all students to learn English, Spanish and sign language.
Brown said economic issues are also important to cities’ success. She noted that in the past decade, Compton has had significant financial struggles. In the last six years the city amassed a 40 percent deficit. Under Brown’s leadership, the city recently passed a balanced budget.
“Change really happens one family at a time, one street at a time, one person at a time,” Brown said. “I want to inspire change in individuals so that they will go out and change their communities as well.”
Brown said one of her biggest surprises during her time as mayor has been the outside interest in the dealings of the city.
“Compton has been off of the radar for a very long time,” she said. “My surprise has been the level of support that we receive from outside of the community.”
Brown ended her discussion by encouraging students to pave new paths in within their careers, similar to her experience in public policy.
“Pick those places that people don’t want to go,” Brown said. “Because that is where change can be made.”
Brown’s optimism resonated with students interested in the public policy field as well.
“It was a really beneficial experience to hear from someone who is making such an important impact to the community,” said Melinda Grodsky, a second-year graduate student studying public administration.
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