California’s wine country inspires visions of elegant estates and gourmet food. But it has another side. Like many communities, it has its share of struggling low-income families.

Some parents work multiple jobs in the service industry to make ends meet, leaving their kids to fend for themselves when classes let out. Many of these children fall behind in school, and others don’t have enough to eat. A few end up on the wrong side of the law.

Sonoma native Chris Ah San, today a master’s student at the USC Price School of Public Policy, saw this troubling pattern firsthand when he volunteered with children and teens in his community. The experience set the course for his career.

I want that process to be good so the work we do is not just responsive to constituents and their needs, but is also long-lasting

Chris Ah San

Insufficient funding and political barriers to raising taxes meant that local institutions like libraries could offer few afterschool programs. So Ah San tried to tackle social issues through politics, joining campaigns as a grassroots organizer for candidates who stuck up for the working class.

“These kids really need allies,” he says. “We need to elect the right people to make sure these issues get some attention.” But he realized that to change the system, he had to understand it. So he headed to USC Price.

Now, thanks to a fellowship funded by USC Trustee David C. Bohnett ’78, he is getting a crash course in policymaking at one of the state’s most complex government entities: the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. As the first recipient of the fellowship, Ah San works with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas PhD ’89 and his staff.

Among his responsibilities is assisting with a county initiative to promote access and diversity in the arts, including drafting a proposal to place artists and creative workers in county departments to encourage innovative solutions to problems.

He also helped Ridley-Thomas’ office develop communication plans for Measure H, a sales tax that will be used to fight homelessness. Affordable housing is an issue Ah San feels passionate about, having dealt with expensive rents as a UCLA undergrad and seeing friends forced to sleep in cars. He also scours agreements that come before the board to ensure that any deals involving the county are in the public’s interest.

He views California as a unique context for governance, given voters’ deep involvement in controlling policy changes at the ballot box through propositions and the high threshold to levy new taxes.

“I want that process to be good so the work we do is not just responsive to constituents and their needs, but is also long-lasting,” Ah San says.

He aims to continue working behind the scenes for local elected officials, and he’s grateful for the opportunity the fellowship has given him. Funded by a $2.5 million endowment to USC Price, the fellowship mirrors similar initiatives of the David Bohnett Foundation at New York University, UCLA, the University of Michigan and Harvard University to develop the next generation of municipal leaders.

“It’s been a lot to juggle, but it’s been very fulfilling,” Ah San says. “They give me real responsibilities, so I go there every day knowing I have to take it seriously.”

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