Last summer 32-year-old Aja Brown became the youngest mayor ever elected to serve Compton, California. For many, the Los Angeles suburb is still known as the birthplace of 1990’s hard-core rap, rife with gang- infested neighborhoods. For Brown, it’s home. Since stepping into the mayoral position, she has poured her energy into a New Vision for Compton, a 12-step plan that aims to slash the city’s $41 million deficit, reduce unemployment, invest in youth development and education, and promote local economic growth. ESSENCE sat down with the former urban planner to talk about her strategy to undo decades of government corruption and neglect and give Compton a long-overdue face-lift.
ESSENCE: Why is redefining Compton’s image so important to you?
Aja Brown: Our larger-than-life reputation was introduced by gangsta rappers, but Compton is a 126-year-old city with a rich history. African-Americans migrated here from the South because of the opportunities to purchase homes and to raise their families in a beautiful area. There’s a large population of people who have lived here for 50 to 60 years. Knowing that history is a motivating factor for me to try to restore dignity to a special community.
ESSENCE: What’s your personal stake in the city’s success, aside from being its mayor?
Brown: I had no intention of going into politics, but my family is from Compton, so I feel a great sense of responsibility toward the young people who are here. Without investing in our youth, the city is not going to have a future. And when I look at the cycle of violence, poverty and crime, I can tell it’s from a lack of investment in our kids. So we’ve created safe spaces like youth centers in order to empower them. As a public servant, I am responsible for providing options for a population that has almost been forgotten.
ESSENCE: California is one of the nation’s top four destination states for trafficking human beings, according to a 2012 report. Is this one of your top priorities for reform?
Brown: Young women of color are disproportionately involved in coerced prostitution, and the majority of them are minors. I’ve been really committed to eliminating sex trafficking in our streets. We recently arrested three key individuals who were involved in a multimillion-dollar human trafficking ring in Compton.
ESSENCE: Compton’s unemployment rate is almost double the state average. How are you combating this?
Brown: We recently received a federal grant of $1.3 billion to help generate manufacturing jobs. And we’ve also been working to provide more reentry solutions for the city’s gang population. Over the next few months, we will implement the Compton Empowered-Gang Intervention Initiative. It’s a 12-week training program to help gang members and ex-convicts qualify to have probation, driving infractions and other barriers to employment removed. Additionally, the program provides preemployment training and sponsors job fairs. It’s one thing to say, “Don’t sell drugs.” It’s another to say, “Here’s a job-training program that can eliminate your criminal record with hard work and that can get you the job skills and opportunities you need.” Everyone deserves a second chance.
ESSENCE: What role does the community play in rehabilitating the city?
Brown: When I campaigned I told everyone that I’m not the savior of Compton. I’m a leader who can provide a game plan. But everybody has to be committed to the process. That’s the only way to have success. One person cannot change the city. It has to be a collective commitment so that we can have a collective impact. For instance, when there’s a crime in a community, we have a clergy council that will provide bereavement services for the affected family. I think it’s important to make sure that as a community we’re all held accountable.
This article was orignally published in the September issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.