As of spring 2016, Occidental houses the premier Institute for the Study of Los Angeles (ISLA). ISLA, in collaboration with local partners, is a program that aims to explore and archive LA’s history while supporting student research and community-based learning. ISLA also collaborates with the Center for Student Based Learning to offer internships, archival projects and research opportunities for students and faculty. The initiative, developed by Professor Jeremiah “Jem” Axelrod, is funded by the Ahmanson Charitable Community Trust. Currently, the institute consists of over 30 faculty members from 11 departments at Occidental.
According to the Occidental Magazine, ISLA is located within the history department and will not offer any classes of its own. Instead, it will provide resources for existing departments and programs that incorporate LA into their studies, offering support in the form of faculty research grants and course development. ISLA will also connect faculty with potential community partners.
Axelrod, who has worked within Occidental’s history, art history, Urban and Environmental Studies and cultural studies departments, wanted to create a centralized platform for professors to share the ways in which they had incorporated LA into their respective curriculums. He also wanted to form a coalition with neighborhood partners in the northeast LA area.
“ISLA creates a hub for community-based work, student-led research and locally based teaching. The spirit of collaboration within these areas provides an institution and home for those priorities,” Axelrod said.
Axelrod collaborated with LA historian Christian Rodriguez to coordinate events for the institute. Rodriguez and Axelrod, both southern California natives, are deeply invested in the history of LA and have served on historical societies such as the Highland Park Heritage Trust. Rodriguez’s involvement with historical societies within LA has made the city feel more like home to him.
“The historical community in LA is pretty small, so you see a lot of the same people at events,” Rodriguez said. “I have had the opportunity to meet so many interesting people this way.”
The institute also sponsors events that are open to the public, including a speaker series. ISLA hosted a conference Nov. 19 in Choi Auditorium that examined the relationship between art and urban development. The conference focused on the recent protests in Boyle Heights, and how the introduction of art galleries into neighborhoods can spur urban transformation.
In his 13 years at Occidental, Axelrod has seen a significant improvement in community involvement. He hopes to continue the legacy of former professor Robert “Bob” Winter, the Arthur G. Coons professor of the history of ideas, emeritus, who worked at Occidental from 1963 to 1994. According to Axelrod, Winter’s involvement in the Northeast LA community epitomizes the ideal of liberal arts teaching.
“Liberal arts educations, if done right, can be socially connected and responsible and relate to the things Oxy students are interested in, while recognizing global and local learning as an asset,” Axelrod said.
Both Axelrod and Rodriguez discussed the importance of the college’s investment in the local history of LA and pointed to the Lummis House. Located in Northeast LA and built in the late 19th century, it serves as a prime example of a local resource that encapsulates socially responsible scholarship.
“[The Lummis House] defines itself by embracing LA’s urban setting and tells a diverse story. It is a single family home that makes a conscious effort to not turn back on Native American, Spanish or Mexican legacy, but rather incorporate them,” Axelrod said.
ISLA hopes to raise the money to co-own the house with the Highland Park Heritage Trust and is co-sponsoring an event, Holiday Noise at the Lummis House, Dec. 12 open to all members of the community.
Myka Kielbon (junior), the first student to benefit from ISLA’s internship program, worked as a paid special collections intern in the Occidental library last spring and for two weeks over the summer. She also created archives of photo negatives taken by a father-son team, Joe and Henk Friezer of Friezer Photography, located in Eagle Rock. Kielbon had the opportunity to collaborate with Henk as well as with the Highland Park Heritage Trust.
“It was nice bringing work to people outside of the Oxy community, and they were just as excited about the work as me and professors here, but in different ways,” Kielbon said. “This made me feel more at home in the community since I’m often with professors or students who aren’t from Los Angeles.”
Kielbon specifically enjoyed working with Axelrod and appreciates his commitment to his students.
“He’s so full of a knowledge about California that I know so little about,” Kielbon said. “He made me love living here by breaking the superficial lens often applied to living in Southern California.”
Kielbon, Axelrod and Rodriguez encourage students, staff and community members to reach out and explore the range of opportunities ISLA has to offer.