“I believe that if other cities can transform, Compton can do the same,” says Mayor Aja Brown, the 31-year old USC grad who assumed leadership of the city following a landslide election last June. Aja (pronounced Asia) is on a mission to change the face of Compton, a city whose reputation has long been defined by gangster rap, corruption, and dysfunctional governance. She may be young, but the Mayor’s background in urban planning and development ensures that her bold vision for the city (could Compton really be the next Brooklyn?) is balanced by a seasoned pragmatism and healthy realism.
Here, she shares her thoughts on Compton’s potential, the power of women leaders, and the invaluable lessons of her mother.
Many still view Compton through the prism of gangster rap. How does the community of Compton feel about that perception of their home still being out there?
I think the majority of people in the community believe it’s unfortunate because Compton is a city with such rich history; so many great people have come from Compton. And the people here are very prideful of the spirit of the community. Gangster rap is really just one part of its 125 year history.
What do you think the Compton of the future can look like?
I think the Compton of the future will be a beautiful community that’s very rich in history, very diverse and that also has ample economic opportunities. We have our location advantage, the industry clusters in our city, rich jobs and an awesome location. We have amazing infrastructure transportation wise; we have our own airport and school system. So, I see Compton as really a place where young families will like to move and be able to establish themselves with great housing stock and awesome access to the entire region.
There's been talk of Compton possibly becoming the Brooklyn of LA?
Well, I think Brooklyn is a similar city in that it’s had challenges with its reputation and has really been able to overcome that to a degree and really represent something much different then it did ten years ago.
What convinces you that you can achieve your vision for Compton?
As an urban planner, I’ve seen revitalization and growth occur in many cities from good planning, from economic development strategy, from partners, and from really just great timing, and I think that Compton has all of the ingredients for success, and I believe that if other cities can transform, Compton can do the same.
You’re Compton’s youngest Mayor. How did you secure the trust of those who were perhaps resistant to change or regarded your vision as the bright-eyed optimism of youth?
I think that people can resonate with something that’s realistic. I came from a practitioner background, so I’m not a standard politician. I’ve actually worked in cities helping them to grow and revitalize, and so I really just went to the community and asked them what their key issues were and then provided a strategy to address them that was actually rooted in good policy, good planning and realistic expectations.
I came from a practitioner background, so I’m not a standard politician....people can identify with the vision that I have and the plan that I have as something that can happen, that is attainable...
So I think that people can identify with the vision that I have and the plan that I have as something that can happen, that is attainable, and that it’s going to take some hard work, some community coalitions, and then also partnerships not only from inside the community but from outside as well.
What are some of the projects and initiatives you’re most excited about, and where are you seeing the most significant progress in Compton?
I’m very excited about what we’re doing around public safety and specifically around eradicating human trafficking within out community, and then also making our streets much safer with gang intervention and prevention programs. As part of that, we have a special task force that we started in August that really brings all areas of law enforcement together on one page; we share resources, we share strategies, and we really incorporate the entire community. And so we’ve been able to see great success in bringing our safety levels to an improved level within the community. And we still have challenges but I think it’s important to tackle those tough issues first that have huge implications for the quality of life of our citizens.
Another thing is what we’re doing around youth development, and I’m just a big proponent of investing in youth; they’re our future. And so we have several initiatives that are youth mentorship programs for young men and young women and really just raising the standards of excellence for our kids.
You and your husband both work as youth mentors. What lessons or insights do you try to give young people? And what challenges do you seem them having?
I let kids know that they have a golden opportunity to chase their life in any direction that they choose to, and that with hard work, determination, and a plan for their life, they can really be successful. And that sacrifice is really key to any success. And I think that most people want to be successful, but they’re not willing to pay the costs, the opportunity cost of investing in themselves now for what they want to see in their lives later.
I let kids know that they have a golden opportunity to chase their life in any direction that they choose to...
I think that our kids are so brilliant and they have so much opportunity but they really need to be able to have people invest in them and tell them that they can achieve whatever it is that they would like to achieve. I really learned that working with kids; you have to be realistic and really meet them where they are. I think as a society in general our kids are just very focused on television, media, entertainment, social media, and everything that’s away from human interaction. There’s so much value in interacting with people that I think it’s really important to reestablish the importance of relationships when we’re working with kids.
How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
I believe that being a servant leader is really important; and by servant I mean really looking at ways to increase the capacity and the achievement of the people that I’m working with. I believe in the team framework; everyone is equally important. I provide opportunities for my team members to be able to elevate their skills. I’m not afraid to allow people to make mistakes, and I think that mistakes are huge learning opportunities. So we have a very open environment within our office, and we’re just focused on getting the job done. I roll my sleeves up and I do whatever needs to be done as well, so we work together and I think that’s really important.
What role do women have to play in this evolution in Compton?
I believe that women are the strongest beings in the world. And they’re complimentary to the leadership style oftentimes seen in men. Women provide a very organic and compassionate aspect to governance and I think that the natural, innate qualities of women allow us to really focus on the needs of people and look at families first.
Women provide a very organic and compassionate aspect to governance...the natural, innate qualities of women allow us to really focus on the needs of people and look at families first.
So I think that women make phenomenal leaders; women are natural multitaskers and have great vision for what can be if given all of the opportunities and ingredients for success. I think that we’re entering into a whole new age of women stepping into leadership, in all sectors of the world, and so I’m really excited to be a part of this movement of women really stepping in and making a huge contribution to society.
You were raised by a single mom. What example did she set for you and what lessons did she teach you that you are most grateful for?
My mother is a phenomenal woman; she is a pillar and a rock for everything that’s right. She really raised my brother and I to guard our reputation by having strong integrity. That having money is not the most important thing in the world, so let our choices really reflect our values. So, because she really allowed me to look at the world and not necessarily quantify achievement based on monetary values, I was really able to make sacrifices and move back to the city of Compton and really focus on making a life of impact and not necessarily of status.
The transparency that I had growing up meant I knew exactly how much it cost to pay rent or bills. I knew how much money my mother made and she really allowed us to see choices...
I just love my mother so much because she really showed me a great example of what a strong woman is. Being a single mother, she was the leader in my household, but she did it with so much love and compassion and really just being truthful with my brother and I. And so the transparency that I had growing up meant I knew exactly how much it cost to pay rent or bills. I knew how much money my mother made and she really allowed us to see choices and that you can’t have everything, but you have to make a decision based off of things that are important to you. She really involved us in every aspect of growing up and I think it really gave me good sense and maturity at an early age. But it also gave me a profound appreciation for everything she did and the sacrifices she made for my brother and I.
For more information and inspiration visit MariaShriver.com