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Brain Power: A Foundation’s Fellowship Program Puts Policy Grad Students in City Halls

It was the early 2000s, and Los Angeles City Hall faced that perennial problem in municipal government: too much work, not enough staff. Busy with the daily grind of managing the nation’s second-largest city, mayoral staffers found it difficult to dig deep into long-term issues like homelessness, public transit expansion, and housing.

But 10 miles or so to the west, another group of smart people was already tackling those very issues, if only for “practice.” At UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, graduate students in public policy, urban planning, and social welfare itched for a chance to apply their education to actual civic challenges. In hindsight, the opportunity for a mutually beneficial partnership was obvious.

That’s where philanthropy came in. A small group of acquaintances, including Michael Dukakis, Torie Osborn (then a deputy mayor at City Hall) and Barbara Nelson (then dean of the Luskin School) first made the connection at a dinner party hosted by L.A. philanthropist David Bohnett. He’s known mainly for his major LGBT rights giving, as well as funding the arts in L.A., especially through the L.A. Philharmonic. Listening to the dinner conversation, Bohnett offered to pay for a leadership program connecting City Hall with Luskin’s best and brightest.

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