Ma’Ayn Johnson, Expert in Public Service & Community

2004 ILF Fellow Ma’Ayn Johnson is a senior planner for Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), where she has specialized in housing and land use policy issues since 2006. Prior to her ILF Fellowship with the Office of the Secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation, she interned for several government agencies, including the Federal Highway Administration and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Office in Washington, D.C. She graduated with an Urban Planning from the University of California, Los Angeles and a B.A. in Legal Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Her current work includes analyzing policies with a focus on affordable housing, sustainability, and environmental justice.

In her community, Ma’Ayn currently serves on the City of Fullerton Planning Commission and recently served as Chair in 2014. Between 2011 and 2013, Ma’Ayn served as the Chair of the City’s Transportation and Circulation Commission. She has also been recently appointed to the Orange County Housing and Community Commission as an at-large member. She is an active member of the Woman’s Club of Fullerton, where she volunteers for local fundraising projects, and Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim, where she serves as an at-large member of the congregation’s Women’s League Board.

We spent some time catching up with Ma’Ayn, who had also spoken at ILF’s November 8th press event, hosted by ILF Orange County Advisor Anila Ali.

Why did you decide to apply for and participate in the ILF Fellowship?

“I had completed a couple of internships already with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. under a different program.  I was also one of the very few graduate students in the ILF program.

“Additionally, my mom passed away when I was younger. I’m half Asian and my mom came from Taiwan, so it was a way to connect with my Asian side while also interning with the government.”

How has the ILF Fellowship influenced your career path and professional goals?

“It inspired me to want to work for the government. Forty years ago when they told college graduates to consider a career in government, a large percentage replied ‘yes.’ Nowadays, the statistics are dismal. It inspired me because the government—especially for my career [urban planning]—is always planning for the future. It affects how people live, get to work, what kinds of jobs are near where they live. The government helps develop policies with our elected officials and input from stakeholders and the public. It’s very engaging to work with what’s going on the ground now and 50 to 100 years from now.”

Ma'Ayn speaking
A large part of Ma’Ayn’s work involves working with elected officials to develop policies relating to housing and land use. Here, Ma’Ayn gives a presentation to elected officials at a public workshop on planning for affordable housing in Southern California.

How did ILF help you practice your leadership skills?

“In urban planning, we plan for all sorts of different groups; there is no “one size fits all” approach. Even within the Asian American community, there are different needs. Within my work—which includes affordable housing and environmental justice—not only do we have a strong outreach program to minority communities to ensure that they have participation opportunities, but we also look at the impact of programs on minorities. We work with elected officials and stakeholders to identify the impact how to mitigate that in the programs. It requires us to get to know the communities we serve—including Asian communities. It helps with us with planning and adjusting public policy by looking at different approaches for different groups.”

Did you face any challenges during your fellowship?

“Keeping in touch with other Fellows was pretty tough. I was a graduate student so I was in a slightly different demographic than the others. I also started when the program itself was fairly new, so it was different. I think that, because of my prior internships with the government, it wasn’t new to me—which was an advantage. I didn’t find anything challenging in terms of difficulties, but it was different: different office, different program, and working with different people. It was very rewarding.”

Why is political participation important?

“Elected officials are people just like us and most are pretty approachable and care about what we think. We support them, and they represent us in their legislative body. They really do listen to us, but we need to have the appropriate channel—e.g. protests, voting, letter-writing campaigns, actual scheduled meetings with staff members—not just as individuals, but as a community. We should be participating in the democratic process, since it has implications later on. Political participation is really important in a democracy.”

Ma'Ayn award
Ma’Ayn (bottom left) was recognized for her planning expertise and involvement with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) with the Emergent Leader Award in planning in 2013. ULI is a non-profit organization that aims to educate and provide resources on land use development.

How to increase or education political participation – what is most important for us to do?

“We can encourage our family to participate respectfully. We’re not rocking the boat; we’re here to represent our family and community. The younger generation is more inclined to be more politically involved, as it affects other parts of our community. We can start by sharing what’s in our community and home—that it’s really important to participate.”

You are a member of the Woman’s Club of Fullerton, which is doing local fundraising project. What or who is the fundraising project for?

“We find a wide range of nonprofit groups—dubbed ‘charity of the year’—and we vote on one that we want to select for that year. We host different fundraisers, and all proceeds go directly to the charity at the end of the year. Sometimes we’ll have ‘adopted family’ programs to assist that family, so we would have an event for that. Past organizations include a transitional women’s shelter (for women who have been in abusive homes) and interfaith centers that help people get back on their feet. We try to aim for local organizations, rather than large ones that already have resources.

As an active member of the Woman’s Club of Fullerton (WCOF), Ma’Ayn (middle) is involved in many community-based activities. Founded in 1902, the WCOF is a non-profit organization that promotes volunteerism in the community and fundraises for local charities. Most recently, Ma’Ayn served on the Board (pictured) as Membership Chair.

Where do you see yourself in the next 2 to 5 years?

“I see myself potentially running for City Council within the next few years. My current job involves working with elected officials. I feel like that there’s so much millennials can do. A lot of the policies need to be updated. Demographics are changing—the number of young people and those who are 65+ is increasing. We need to retain younger people by developing job policies and housing policies that meet the growing demand of younger and older people. Running for City Council with that vision will help shape Southern California in the future.”

What advice would you give to incoming Fellows?.

Ma'Ayn made a testimonial how the ILF fellowship program has impacted her life and career in front of more than 300 Asian busienss and community leaders at the ILF LA Chapter fundraising luncheon on March 7, 2015.
Ma’Ayn made a testimonial how the ILF fellowship program has impacted her life and career in front of more than 300 Asian busienss and community leaders at the ILF LA Chapter fundraising luncheon on March 7, 2015.

“Never be afraid to ask questions, especially if you’re an intern. That’s the best time to ask questions! There’s no such thing as a ‘stupid question.’

“Never stop learning. You can always learn something new every day.

“Networking! You can sit at the desk from 9 to 5 and call it a day, but you can also expand on that and increase your networking skills and opportunities. In Taiwanese culture, it’s all about getting to know people; it helps with community outreach and engagement. How can you help other people? How can they help you? It’s all about the networks. As an intern, it’s a great time to practice because you’re a novice and just starting out your career—you will definitely have a leg up in the future.”

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