Listening to and Studying L.A. – A Conversation with Fernando Guerra

ACADEMICS | Fernando J. Guerra, professor of political science and Chicana/o studies, is the founding director of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at LMU. Guerra has served on standing commissions, blue ribbon committees, and ad hoc task forces for the city of Los Angeles, the state of California, and regional bodies in Southern California. He is a source for local, national, and international media and has published in the area of state and local government and urban and ethnic politics. Founded in 1996, the Center for the Study of Los Angeles conducts groundbreaking research through its L.A. Votes exit poll project, L.A. Riots Anniversary Studies, Forecast L.A., and the L.A. Public Opinion and L.A. Leaders Surveys. He spoke to LMU This Week about his work.

LMU This Week: What is the mission of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles?

Fernando Guerra: The mission of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles is to prepare students to be active agents of change in urban America, specifically Los Angeles. When it comes to our students, the vast majority come from cities, will live in cities, so they need to know about cities, urban spaces and how to create social justice in those spaces.

LTW:  Is there a comparable institute in Los Angeles or at another university?

FG: Yes. Interestingly enough, the Center for the Study of L.A. at LMU is a response to the ’92  riots. USC created a very similar center called the Southern California Study Center and they called it SCSC at SC. Then Cal State Northridge created the Study of Southern California and then Cal State L.A. changed the focus of the Pat Brown Institute from more statewide to very local, so, there were many of us in the social sciences who said, “Hey, what happened in ’92? How do we explain it and how do we not know how to explain it? And let’s refocus on this,” which led to a proliferation of centers and studies and books about Los Angeles. I would argue that before ’92, Los Angeles was probably the least-studied major city in America and now we have been kind of catching up and it has to do with centers like this. The difference though is most of those other centers have graduate students who are at the master’s level or Ph.D. level. This is a uniquely undergraduate research center.

LTW: What surprises you most about the public opinion surveys that you’ve taken in L.A.?

FG: Number 1, how incredibly optimistic Angelenos are; that’s first and foremost. Number 2, the sense of belonging or attachment measured by the extent to which they take on the name Angeleno. Even people who don’t live in the actual city but live out in L.A. County consider themselves Angelenos. So when you talk about belonging, when you talk about trust, when you talk about optimism: Angelenos are incredibly optimistic; I thought they would be optimistic but not to the degree that they are compared to other cities and other jurisdictions.

LTW: Do you have an explanation or a theory about why that is?

FG: I think part of it is that we tend to fail to understand that things are actually pretty good in our neighborhoods. That, while Los Angeles has a lot of issues, crime is down. People talk about racial strife, but in most places it’s not an issue. People talk about the schools not being that good, but when you ask people who have children in the schools, they’re OK with it. So, you know you have this narrative about Los Angeles, and that’s not unique to Los Angeles, but you have this narrative by the civic elites or people pushing certain policies to get resources or to get attention you’ve got to say there’s a problem. But the narrative of the average person is very different and I think that’s the explanation. When you talk to people instead of elites, you get a different narrative. Now, I’m not trying to be anti-elites because I think leadership matters, I think elites are important and their opinion is very important, but elite opinion and public opinion are different.

LTW: In all that you’ve learned about L.A.’s population through these surveys, has your opinion of Angelenos gone up or gone down?

FG: I was pretty optimistic about Angelenos; they made me more optimistic. I try to balance not overly being a booster, but I certainly consider myself a champion of Los Angeles and I feel that I would be that way no matter what urban place I lived in. When you are in a place you have to take ownership and you have to try to make it better and by making it better you try to understand it and all of its challenges. And I strongly believe that we also need to create students who understand Los Angeles and are willing to go out there and make positive change. And so that’s why I always feel that I’m doing God’s work, if not God’s work then at least the work of the Jesuits.

LTW: Have you seen any impact from the Forecast L.A. events and reports on the social and business climate in L.A.?

FG: Yes. I think we’re getting a tremendous amount of feedback from business leaders about their enthusiasm given our reports, which makes them more likely to further invest in Los Angeles. There’s all kinds of quantitative data or metrics that they use that tell them that investments should be made here or there, but then when it’s also coupled with our data that shows that people are very positive, it just further encourages them to think to invest in Los Angeles. And I get that from a lot of business people. Also, we know that our data has made an impact on the whole narrative around the Olympics and bringing the Olympic Games back to Los Angeles; on the body-worn cameras of the LAPD; on a variety of different issues, policy issues where we have inserted the opinion of Angelenos into the narrative where before it hadn’t been done. And so we believe we help give voice to Angelenos in the aggregate. Angelenos have a lot of opinions about public policy, but without our survey we don’t aggregate it. What we’re basically doing is having conversations, structured conversations with 2,400 Angelenos every year and asking them what they feel is important. Aggregating that and then communicating that to political, business, nonprofit elites – this is what your fellow Angelenos believe – and we think that’s an important service to civic L.A.

LTW: Along those same lines, what effect has Forecast L.A. had on LMU’s visibility?

FG: I think that clearly the proliferation of our research and the legitimacy that it’s gained, not only in terms of the subject matter but the accuracy of some of our polls, has made us a legitimate source for information and it’s what universities are known for. I think that in the public policy space it has projected us to be heard as equally as anything that comes out of other local universities and that’s significant.

LTW: If you could pick any topic, what survey topic would you like to conduct?

FG: I think we’re doing a lot of them, but I would like to truly try to figure out, letting individuals in Forecast figure out, the use of certain technologies or the use of certain beliefs or ideas. How to figure out what are the emerging ideas and opinions and to try to help them come to fruition. At the beginning you start seeing kernels of thoughts that people have, for instance of autonomous vehicles. Do people really want them and how acceptable are they going to be and what do we do to prepare for that? What does the city do, what do automakers do but what do people do themselves to bring on this change in a positive way. I would love for Forecast to be able to take a look at the adoption of emerging trends and even be able to forecast emerging trends from the perspective of aggregate L.A.