Aja Brown is on a mission.
Since her election as mayor of Compton this past June, the 31-year-old has been on a one-woman crusade to change minds about the city of Compton. You may have seen her in the pages of Vogue or in the UK-based Guardian, describing Compton’s potential to become “a new Brooklyn,” but maybe even more important is the way she’s been able to shift attitudes among residents within the city itself.
From a new farmer’s market to a much-needed fiscal responsibility for the city’s budget, Aja Brown has brought a new energy and vision to Compton and raised hopes for the city of 100,000 in south Los Angeles County. On Thursday, October 17, the USC alumna returned to USC as part of the Bedrosian Center’s Lunch with a Leader speaker series and talked about how she came to elected office, reflected on why changing the profile of Compton is so important, and shared some insight into implementing policy and governance at a local level.
After graduating from USC in 2005 with master’s degree in urban planning in 2005, Brown worked in economic development for local cities like Gardena and Inglewood, more interested in promoting change than making a lot of money. Her experience at the local level, both in government and through volunteering, convinced her strong leadership was necessary to bring about long-term in her community.
“I’ve always worked in community building and done volunteer work at the grass-roots level,” Brown said. “I had no intention of running for office until I worked [in Compton] for a couple years, and I realized that it doesn’t matter how many great programs you do at the staff level, you really need a change in leadership to provide a strategic plan, a gameplan, or a blueprint that the community can follow. When I worked in government, I really saw the need for good policy and planning, and that’s what motivated me to run. And we’re off to a great start so far.”
After moving to Compton in 2009, Brown realized the enormous possibilities of the city where her mother had been raised.
“There is really no other place like Compton,” Brown said. “Compton has so much potential. From an urban planning standpoint, it’s really a blank slate. How come this city isn’t one of the best cities in Los Angeles County when you look at its location advantage? It’s 15 minutes from downtown and the ports, close to the Alameda Corridor with an airport, golf course, and mass transit, and many other institutions. “
But getting Compton on the right track hasn’t been easy. The city’s record of governance has been fraught with poor management, dysfunction, and a crippling lack of stability. During the last 20 years, Compton has had 14 city managers, and in recent years, the city racked up a $40 million budget deficit. Fortunately, Brown has instituted financial controls and a fiscally conservative plan moving forward that has already reduced the number of unpaid furlough days for city staff. But the harder task for the young mayor during her term will be re-establishing trust with the community after many years of mismanagement in the city government.
“The community has seen a lot of rhetoric, a lot of empty promises,” Brown said. “This is the first time they’ve seen someone with a plan and the credentials to back it up. People are ready for change. They haven’t had a blueprint for success before.”
As part of her efforts to change Compton’s trajectory, Brown has worked hard to impress upon community members and outsiders alike the need for a positive stories to take the place of the city’s associations with lurid entertainment narratives.
“I think it’s imperative that Compton tell its own story,” Brown said. “Compton has a negative reputation and that’s been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our goal is to put a new face on Compton. We have great people here, and not just in the entertainment industry.
“Until we can continue not to automatically associate Compton with gangster rap, then we obviously have work to do. But it happens slowly, and I think as people have continued to see that there’s something different, something new going on, we’ve made a dent [in the perception]. The days of capitalizing on Compton’s name in a negative way are over.”
Despite her age, Brown has already put into a motion a host of policies designed to transform Compton into a healthy community with a bright future. In addition to the Wednesday Blue Line Farmer’s Market, Brown has also worked on youth development, crime reduction, and gang prevention initiatives. A new master plan for Compton’s parks is in the works, as are economic development proposals and a plan to make downtown Compton more pedestrian friendly.
Brown left the gathering of students, faculty, and community members with some ideas about how to become an efficacious leader. Leading your community means more than just knowing your way around city hall, she told the group.
“People also think of all the jazzy stuff when they think of elected office,” Brown said. “To be a good leader you have to be a public servant. I always say, whatever your interest is, go volunteer with an organization that provides a service. Because that way you get a hands-on grasp on what constituents’ needs really are. When you look down from a policy or academic viewpoint, you really miss a lot of the real-life applications. You really have to do both to be effective.”