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Larger Than Life

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By Stacey Abarbanel, Photos by Yuri Hasegawa

Published Jan 1, 2020 8:00 AM


The activists featured in Our Stories, Our Impact — a UCLA centennial initiative — help shape important social movements.


Gabe Gault at work in his studio, painting fruit. Gault began incorporating fruit in his work as an homage to Renaissance paintings.

Giants surround you in Gabe Gault's studio. Large, vibrant portraits of celebrities and politicians lean against the walls — Spike Lee, Anthony Bourdain, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others occupy the space.

But for the centennial exhibit UCLA: Our Stories, Our Impact, Gault and artists Ernesto Yerena and Mer Young were commissioned to give the star treatment to 10 lesser-known but deserving subjects: Bruins who have advanced and shaped social movements.

The project’s lead curator is Abel Valenzuela Jr., professor of Chicano studies, urban planning and labor studies; director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment; and special advisor to the chancellor on immigration policy. “Our exhibit focused on showcasing the work of activists who may be less recognized, yet they have dedicated their lives and careers to just causes that have transformed our communities and our world. And the activists usually make connections to their own formative training and experiences related to college and UCLA in the ethnic or labor studies departments or units,” he notes.

Compelling portraits, videos and a website highlighting additional honorees comprise the multimedia project, which showcases the role of UCLA and its community in advancing equity and equality in America.


Artist Mer Young juggles working on her art and caring for her 15-month-old son, Khalil.

Deeply Layered

Gault’s four paintings combine portraiture with decorative backgrounds laden with meaning. In one, Patrisse Cullors ’12, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, appears amidst a backdrop of blackberries. Gault explains that the berries were once considered “a black omen, but now they’re a sought-after fruit. For me, it represents bringing a sweeter fruit for black people.”

Yerena’s powerful portraits are spray-painted stencils over mixed-media collages of imagery from the activists’ lives, while Young’s digital collages capture both the visage and essence of her subjects.

At the campus opening in October, students cluster around Gault’s portrait of labor organizer John Delloro ’94, M.A. ’96. Some take selfies with their right fists raised high — as Delloro is depicted in his portrait.

Janna Shadduck-Hernández, project director at the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, looks on approvingly. “He was such a beautiful person,” she says, “and he made such an impact on all of the students he worked with, particularly with his commitment to bringing a voice to Asian American [and] Pacific Islander organizers and youth.”

A History of UCLA Protest

Choosing who would be portrayed in the exhibit was no small feat, since UCLA’s 100-year history is marked by numerous, significant achievements in activism, going back as far as 1934, when Bruins filled Royce Quad to protest the university’s decision to suspend five students for “communistic” activities. The ’60s and ’70s saw sit-ins, peace demonstrations and demands for greater diversity throughout the university, with the latter helping to inspire the creation of the UCLA Institute of American Cultures and its four ethnic studies research centers: the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, UCLA Asian American Studies Center, Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA and UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. Additionally, the Center for Labor Research and Education was established to address pressing issues requiring labor-university collaboration.

Today, UCLA’s global connections expand its reach, enabling Bruins to address some of the most profound issues of our time: poverty, immigration, employment, incarceration, racism, environmental inequities, health care and education access, along with the importance of culture and art in social justice work.

“We wanted to focus on lesser-known folk to showcase that anybody can make a difference, and that in many ways UCLA is a part of aiding past and future generations to obtain the skills and the tools to go and change the world for the better,” Valenzuela explains.

Unsung No Longer

The following features alumni who are spotlighted in the Our Stories, Our Impact exhibit.


Filmmaker Charles Burnett ’69, M.F.A. ’77 was part of UCLA’s revolutionary film movement the L.A. Rebellion, composed of black independent filmmakers who countered stereotypes by producing films that reflected their experiences and communities. One of the most acclaimed films from the movement is Killer of Sheep, Burnett’s master’s thesis about an exhausted slaughterhouse worker, his family and their quest to live with dignity amid crushing poverty.


Patrisse Cullors ’12 is an organizer, artist, author and educator who advocates for people of color. A co-founding member of the Black Lives Matter movement, she promotes global law enforcement accountability in addition to addressing the trauma and health effects of police brutality. She toured the country with her art piece STAINED: An Intimate Portrayal of State Violence, which she created after graduating from UCLA.


John Delloro ’94, M.A. ’96 taught in Asian American Studies and worked as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union. He was the first director of the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute, a Los Angeles Community College District multicampus program, where he worked to advance labor studies and organize for workers’ rights. He also was the national president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO. Sadly, Delloro died of a heart attack in 2010 at the age of 38.


Antonia Hernandez ’70, J.D. ’74 is an attorney, activist, philanthropist, and president and CEO of the California Community Foundation (CCF), which addresses the needs of marginalized communities in the L.A. area. During her tenure, CCF has granted nearly $2 billion to programs promoting positive systemic change and solutions in education, health, housing and immigration issues.


Chanchanit “Chancee” Martorell ’90, M.A. ’93 is executive director of the Thai Community Development Center, a nonprofit she founded in 1994 to improve the lives of Thai immigrants. She also co-founded the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking and the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, an organization focused on advocacy and policy analysis regarding issues facing low-income Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. She created and taught the first Thai American Experience course offered via UCLA’s Asian American Studies curriculum.


From student activism at UCLA to her current work in her tribal homelands in South Dakota, Natalie Stites Means ’99, J.D. ’07 advocates for indigenous peoples. After earning her law degree, Means served her tribal communities, focusing on juvenile justice and violence against women. She played a vital role in the emergency response to and recovery from an ice storm that caused energy and water systems failures at the Cheyenne River Reservation, and she protested against the Dakota Access Pipeline. She serves on the South Dakota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


The first undocumented immigrant to earn a degree from the UCLA School of Law, Luis A. Perez ’05, J.D. ’10 is the legal services director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). Since 2012, he has coordinated CHIRLA’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) legal clinic, helping to ensure that thousands of young immigrants in California apply for DACA. He also provides accurate information about DACA’s requirements to thousands more across the country, warning against immigration fraud.


Professor and civil rights activist Robert Singleton ’60, M.A. ’62, Ph.D. ’83 was one of the original Freedom Riders, activists in 1961 who rode interstate buses into segregated Southern states to challenge the nonenforcement of Supreme Court decisions that deemed segregated public buses unconstitutional. He was president of UCLA’s chapter of the NAACP and the chief researcher on a pre-Watts rebellion study at the UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations. The founding director of what is now the Bunche Center, Singleton is a professor emeritus at Loyola Marymount University.


Tam Tran ’06 and Cinthya Felix ’07 were early leaders of the immigrant youth movement, among this generation’s first group of undocumented students to graduate from college and enter graduate school. Tran testified in Congress for passage of the federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would grant citizenship to undocumented students in the United States. Felix was a founding member of Improving Dreams, Equity, Access and Success (IDEAS) at UCLA, working to promote health care access in immigrant communities. Tragically, in 2010, they were killed in a car accident.


Pop-Up Opportunities

The Our Stories, Our Impact exhibit is led by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, the UCLA Labor Center and the Chancellor’s Advisory Council on Immigration Policy, in partnership with the UCLA Institute of American Cultures, the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. To see the traveling exhibit, check out the schedule below:

Jan. 22 to Feb. 27
Mercado La Paloma (South Los Angeles)

Feb. 10 to March 16
UCLA Community School at Robert F. Kennedy complex, Fiat Lux Course

April 1 to 30
Social and Public Art Resource Center (Venice)

May 4 to 29 Self Help Graphics & Art (East Los Angeles)

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