When D’Artagnan Scorza ’07, Ph.D. ’13, received the 2016 UCLA Award for Recent Graduate Achievement, it was in recognition of his many accomplishments in a short period of time. By then, the Inglewood native already received two bachelor’s degrees and a doctorate in education, served five years in the Iraq War, helped establish veterans centers across the UCs as a student regent, developed culturally relevant curriculum for African-American males, and founded the Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI), where he leads an organization dedicated to improving the education, health and well-being of youth and communities of color.
Fast forward to July 1, 2020, Dr. Scorza began his term as the president of the UCLA Alumni Association, along with 23 other board members, at a time when the organization and UCLA may be facing its greatest challenge from the impacts of the pandemic, steep budget cuts and fervent demands for racial equality on and off campus. Scorza addressed these topics, discussed his guiding principles and shared his belief that UCLA and alumni have the collective power to change the world.
When I first arrived at UCLA, I was excited and curious but I also felt nervous and out of place. There was a lot of culture shock. I’d never been around such diversity before. Having been homeless at one point, I couldn’t understand how 18-year-olds were driving around in Mercedes and BMWs. But what UCLA helped me figure out was how much I loved understanding people and what made them tick.
When I had the privilege of studying in South Africa, I learned about the role that apartheid, racism, power and colonialism played in shaping the history of a peoples and its influence to us in the States. It put things in perspective for me and how my life struggle is relative but it is still one that connects so many people around the world who live in poverty, especially as a result of policies.
I founded the Social Justice Learning Institute because of my own lived experience. I grew up in a concentrated and accumulated disadvantaged community in Inglewood. My father was incarcerated when I was young and my mother struggled to make ends meet. As a student in South Africa, I witnessed a level of disadvantage even I had never experienced…folks living in informal townships (shantytowns), sleeping in cardboard boxes with no running water. Yet they had this sense of community and happiness with each other. It was then I knew this relationship between the economy, poverty and power was important and I wanted to dedicate my life to doing something about it.
My time in the military shaped a large part of my identity. Deeply moved by the events of 9/11, I enlisted in the Navy, where I learned to have a level of discipline that I didn’t know I could have, and it has served me well to this day. While I was in Iraq, I helped establish a naval support unit and had to be a leader in a high pressure environment that was less than hospitable. That was really instrumental in my growth. Later, when I ran into financial challenges running my nonprofit, I knew that we would make it through so long as I persevered and worked real hard. Military service taught me how to push through hard times and how to do it as a team.
After returning from the Iraq War, a family member who was stationed with me and grew up with me was killed in my neighborhood. That moved me to want to do something about those conditions. I figured I gained a lot of opportunities by going to UCLA, I learned a lot in the military and I understood what it meant to serve others, so I wanted to apply that to my own community.
UCLA imparted a culture of service which affected my approach to serving my community. As an undergrad, there were service programs for students like me who wanted to go into the field of education. There was a real emphasis in improving the conditions in society. In fact, in my nonprofit now, I’ve employed many UCLA graduates who all came out with a commitment to service and doing good in our society.
I believe that mentorship is a concrete way of giving back. I invite our Bruin family to come back and mentor our current students and the kids in our community who want access to a place like UCLA. Show them how to navigate society, today’s economy and the crisis that we’re dealing with. Share your knowledge with this next generation so they can go on and inherit the Bruin legacy and keep it going strong.
For me, success is about going back to the place where you’re from so that you can help people move forward. It’s the idea of returning to your community to demonstrate that I’m not the exception or more special than they are; that it was because of the people in my community that I made it to this place of success. When people ask me what my proudest moment was, I tell them it was helping these kids go through high school, then college, then hiring them to work at SJLI and seeing them return to help the kids in their communities, continuing to build upon that cycle of success.
I joined the Alumni Association board with a desire to connect other alumni who felt disconnected from the University but wanted to give back to current students. I was particularly interested in making sure Bruins of color felt connected to the University, because there were a number, especially Black students, who felt put off by their experiences at UCLA. So I wanted to create opportunities for them to engage with the University, to give back and to receive as well. I’d already seen how powerful alumni can be in helping our students become thriving professionals.
I am really proud and impressed by this board and what it will be able to accomplish. We have professionals from Disney, IBM, and attorneys who work for large firms and can bring significant assets to our students and to our community. We’re all on the same page about strengthening the alumni voice and helping them coordinate and work together to advocate on behalf of the University, to improve resources for UCLA and to deepen engagement with alumni. We’ve been able to host events with 700+ attendees — it’s mind-blowing how influential the alumni community can be! It’s powerful to see how we can be there for each other in a time of need.
Part of my vision with this board is to help people align their personal and professional goals with the University and help them tap into the networks. Build out mentorship pipelines. Figure out how we can serve alumni in every stage of life. Systematically connect them with resources and opportunities.
Alumni are connectors. We are advocates. We are fundraisers. We are in service of and to the Bruin family. Leaders like Ann Wang ’13 has worked with entertainment industry leaders on how they can support future career aspirations of alumni. And Martha Saucedo ’96, who works for AEG, has been able to connect the Chancellor and other UCLA stakeholders to the sports community and leadership community in Los Angeles. That’s what alumni can do. We have the capability of providing the University with access to places where it may not be able to do it on its own.
The board has been thinking very strategically as to how we adjust to the times. Many University departments were given directives to cut their budgets, including us. However, the Association is committed to maintaining the same high quality programming in the midst of this environment. While the pandemic has affected many of our operations, like Alumni Travel and Bruin Woods, we’ve transitioned our efforts to safe, virtual environments where our alumni are still able to be served. There may be vacant positions that remain unfilled, and staff may be asked to do more with less. But that’s what makes Bruins really special. Our willingness to rise to the occasion to take care of each other.
We have also committed to raising money for the needs of the Association and for student scholarships. We launched a scholarship task force to address the challenges our scholarship students face. We also have an advocacy task force who are working with alumni to take our message to the State capitol to advocate on behalf of students and UCLA, and to make sure we maintain the quality of the University.
How do I address the calls for racial justice? Let me speak from my personal experience as a Black man. I have experienced issues associated with policing, with concentrated disadvantage and with mass incarceration in my family. I can unequivocally say that Black Lives Matter. It affirms that we all deserve an opportunity to thrive in our society. And as a group of alumni committed to research, service and teaching, who are contributing to society, I believe that we all have the responsibility to ensure that none of us are left behind. We need to affirm the humanity of Black and brown families in our communities, and of all alumni throughout the world. It is important for us to stand tall; to affirm each other without hesitation; to speak up for justice and what is right; and to do so unabashedly and unapologetically. Because at the end of the day, we’re in this together and we have to support each other through these challenges.
It is time for us to confront the historical and institutional forms of racism that have plagued our society and institutions, like UCLA. I am proud that our Chancellor has affirmed that Black Lives Matter and that campus leadership is moving resources for our Black students and faculty. They’re investing in Black faculty appointments, lifting up the Bunche Center, and soon, Black students will have a place on campus to call home. The University is committed to affirming Black lives and I think alumni can take a page out of Chancellor Block’s book to understand where this institution is headed. There is no turning back.
Among the things that alumni can look forward to is leadership that is focused on achieving and advancing justice. We are living in an unprecedented moment. We have a unique opportunity to make a mark upon our generation and our world and I am committed to ensuring that our Association makes that mark. We must live up to the promise of equity and justice. We need to help alumni and UCLA advance the change we need to see in society. We need to bring about a more just campus, a more just Los Angeles, a more just nation, through our strength as alumni but also through our connection to the institution. UCLA is going to be here to help solve society’s most pressing issues and to push the envelope on knowledge. The Association is here to help alumni have a sustained relationship with their alma mater so they understand that UCLA will always be here for them.
Help us to continue offering valuable programs and services for Bruins by supporting UCLA Alumni with a gift.