Campus News

Public health student stands up for East LA’s parks

Hayley Sayrs March 19, 2019
USC student stands up for East LA's public parks

Testifying for “equal access to play”

Hayley Sayrs is a Master of Public Health student studying public policy at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. She spoke with Larissa Puro in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences.

Upon returning from a statewide health policy conference in Sacramento, I turned my attention to a public issue closer to home: Los Angeles parks. On March 5 I gave my testimony to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to defend the equitable development of green space in high-need communities.
The Safe, Clean Neighborhood Parks and Beaches Measure of 2016, Measure A, is a parcel tax LA voters passed to collect more than $90 million annually to restore parks and fund programs countywide. The measure planned to set aside a percent of the funding for high-need areas, but LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis has been leading the effort to increase the amount to 30 percent.
“Dedicating only 24 percent of Measure A’s funding to the 45 percent of the County’s neighborhoods that have been identified as both high-need and park poor is insufficient to reverse historic inequities in low-income communities of color throughout LA County,” she said.
Several districts have made cases against targeted investments, trying to reduce and reroute the 30 percent allocation to high-need areas into a general pool that all parks programs would have access to—particularly bigger parks and beaches on the Westside.

Using my voice

Called upon by Solis’s legislative staff to provide my testimony, I stepped up to support her motion. As a local resident, community volunteer for low-income and foster youth, and public health policy student, I felt compelled to voice my concerns.
My professor, Michael Cousineau, DrPH, who teaches preventive medicine in the Keck School of Medicine of USC, emphasizes to his students the importance of civic engagement. “Participating in public forums with elected officials is an effective way to hold our leaders accountable—especially in matters concerning public health,” he said.
To prepare for my testimony, I reviewed information from USC Dornsife’s Measures Matter report, which lays out framework for equitable implementation of the measure, as well as the Southern California Children’s Health Study findings that children with better access to parks and recreational resources are less likely to experience significant weight gain.
Voters wanted equity when they passed Measure A, I told the supervisors, and this motion would ensure more funds would be prioritized in my profoundly park-deficient neighborhood of East LA, where 44 percent of residents don’t live close to a park. Every dollar spent there is paid forward by reducing the number of crimes, reducing rates of childhood and adult obesity, and reducing the ER admissions for childhood asthma.

Moving forward

After the meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved the motion.
I felt proud to be a USC student and a constituent in Hilda Solis’s district at that moment. The Board of Supervisors room was full of energy, and the testimonies ranged from elderly residents who travel 17 or more miles to access aquatics classes, to youth who want to breathe clean air and know that green space helps sequester carbon dioxide emissions, to community organizers who question how funds will be used to help reduce homelessness as well as improve green space.
While I see the motion as a major success, it’s just a start. There is still much work to do, including ensuring that park improvements do not add to gentrification. Many residents expressed concern that without proper safeguards, park improvements can also lead to higher rent prices and exacerbate the affordable housing crisis.
Going forward, equity should be the driver for all community improvements.