She is the woman in charge of creating a new narrative for the City of Compton. She is young and bright, and she believes wholeheartedly in the future she envisions for the people, and the city she serves.
It has the reputation of being one of the toughest cities in the world. The “rap capital,” and birthplace of NWA, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Kendrick Lamar. The movie “Straight Outta Compton,” set 25 years ago, tells the story of a city challenged by drug and gang violence, racial unrest. But right now, the Mayor of Compton, Aja Brown, is working to create a different reality for her city.
Elected at 31 years old, she was the youngest Mayor in Compton’s history when she took office, defeating 11 other candidates. Her platform: A “New Vision” for Compton. With more than 10 years experience in urban planning and development, her vision is one that not only sees the challenges that still remain for her city, but also a bright future for Compton that includes a rail line, attracting new industry and youth programming to combat gang activity.
Her city of 10 square miles and 100,00 people is tough, but so is she.
We sat down one on one with Mayor Aja, to talk VISION and her journey to becoming the woman charged with leading the revitalization of one of the most well known cities on West Coast.
LULU: WHAT WERE YOU LIKE IN HIGH SCHOOL?
MAYOR AJA: I had a lot of friends but i was really independent… i wasn’t influenced by other people. I knew exactly what i wanted to do and why i was doing it. I knew that i was going to college and i knew that i wouldn’t be in contact with a lot of people forever, and so i used to just tell my friends let’s enjoy the time we have.
LULU: WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO SERVE THROUGH GOVERNMENT?
MAYOR AJA: I thought I would always go into business and I knew I would be impactful, I always knew that I wanted to help people, and I just thought it would be more something I did in my extra time. I knew it would be hands on, I just wasn’t sure how.
LULU: WHEN DID YOU BECOME CONFIDENT?
MAYOR AJA: I was really blessed to be raised by a single mom. My mother was phenomenal and amazing and she always just instilled in me at a really young age, that you’re an individual, you’re special, you’re dynamic. When I was growing up I always knew that I was in charge of my own decisions, that I couldn’t blame anyone else for what I did or didn’t do and that the sky was the limit. I knew I had the power to set my own destiny and that for me was really powerful.
CONFIDENCE comes in phases, when I was in high school I had a different level of confidence, when I got to college, I had to find it again because it’s a new environment, and you’re used to being at a certain level in terms of academics. I was like wait a minute people had all these amazing tools, they’ve had opportunities I didn’t have, so I had to really focus and regain my confidence in that way and once i got that together i just excelled. So, it was the same formula, But, I still remember being petrified speaking in front of people, i used to put paper towels under my arms because I would be sweating and then put a blazer on top of it, so I was a shy kind of confident. I wasn’t the person that would want to be the center of attention, I loved being behind the scenes. I was the person that like helping other people. So, being in the limelight was really a change for me. In my major I had to do lots of presentations and public speaking and so that really helped develop that side of me.
You have to just be secure in who you are and really rest assured knowing that the plan that God has for your life is for you. No one else can fulfill it and there isn’t a competition between you and another woman. It’s about what you can be, really putting all that effort and all that focus into being the most dynamic amazing woman that you can be. It takes a lot of hard work dedication, sacrifice, focus and so, I would always think I can’t even consider using my energy on someone else when I can be putting all that into being a better me, so that’s what I really hope that young women would focus on.
LULU: WITH MEDIA, A LOT OF TIMES THE IMAGES YOUNG WOMEN SEE AREN’T REAL, YOU’RE LOOKING AT SOMEONE ELSE, TRYING TO BE THAT IDEA, SOMEONE WHO IS NOT EVEN REAL...
MAYOR AJA: Usually it isn’t real, she laughs and flashes a million dollar smile. They’re put together - AIRBRUSHED! - right! We’re just living in a whole different times where images, graphics, and accessibility, social media it just really has changed our whole social fabric.
LULU: WHAT DO YOU KNOW TO BE TRUE ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA?
MAYOR AJA: It’s like the love/hate. The love is that you can connect with a wide range of people, but what I hate about it is that it gives people a false sense of access or entitlement to just say whatever they want to say without any accountability. I think people have lost the sense that your words are powerful they mean things, they can either uplift, they can tear down. So, i think that people are just really trigger happy with social media, with no accountability.
LULU: IS THERE SOMEONE’S WHOSE TWEETS YOU LOOK AT EVERY DAY FOR EITHER INSPIRATION OR INFORMATION?
MAYOR AJA: I follow a lot of people, but Donna Brazile, is someone who is awesome to me because she’s such a great balance of politics, social consciousness, also focusing on issues that impact people of color. I think she’s just a dynamic person.
LULU: YOUR GRANDMOTHER WAS SHOT AND KILLED WHEN YOU WERE VERY YOUNG. TALK TO ME ABOUT THAT ADVERSITY, AND HOW YOU WERE ABLE TO USE IT TO INFORM WHO YOU ARE AND IMPACT YOUR LIFE.
MAYOR AJA: People always ask the why me or the why but, I’ve learned that adversity is really a great gift from God to make you a better, stronger person. I think if everyone always had exactly what they needed or their family life was perfect, what kind of character would you have? It really builds a strong character, it gives you the ability to relate to others, it really gives you an opportunity to really be vulnerable and human and to really recognize that. We’re all here in this life for a certain specific time, you really have to make sure you make the best of it so you can have as much impact as possible. It lastly really made me cherish my own mother. You never get over losing your mom, but it really made me have a special love for her, and just to really understand what a mother really is, and it made me think sometime, what if my mom wasn’t here? I think sometimes we take relationships and family for granted, but the people in our lives are a gift and we should treat them as such.
LULU: YOU HAVE AN INCREDIBLE CITY THAT EVERYBODY KNOWS ABOUT THROUGH THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY. HOW HAVE YOU USED, SOME OF IT NOT SO POSITIVE, BUT HOW HAVE YOU USED THAT LEGACY TO CREATE A PLACE THAT PEOPLE CAN BE PROUD OF?
MAYOR AJA: I think Compton is a tale of two cities. People that live here, they really understand the depth of what Compton is, and for people on the outside looking in , I think it’s always this place of really almost being enamored with it’s own personification, it’s it’s own person. For people that live in Compton or have family legacy, there’s such a strong sense of pride. And people are really proud to say I’m from Compton, or i’m third generation, I’m fourth generation, I’m born and raised in Compton, it’s just like it’s own separate fraternity/ sorority. People have such a strong sense of love for the community, and when you look at the city historically, it’s one of the oldest cities in LA county, it was founded by a methodist church colony. And so it has really strong roots in faith, and it’s really evolved. Especially for African Americans in the 50’s and 60’s it was a place of opportunity, where you could get a great paying job and take care of your family and get a good education. It was really a place of opportunity for those African Americans migrating from the south to this area. Also, just home to people renowned in all types of industries. The world usually knows Compton as the entertainment capital or rap capital, but there are so many dynamic people from all walks of life and education and industry that are really leaders in what they do. So regardless of what area, whether it’s in the arts or business, people have come straight outta Compton and done amazing things. I don’t think there’s any other city, and I challenge anyone to find this out, of 10 square miles that has had so many iconic people come from here and just really make a huge impact on our society than the city of Compton. I always tell people there’s something special in the soil that it keeps growing amazing people.
LULU: DID THE MOVIE STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON HELP COMPTON?
MAYOR AJA: I think it helped just pique interest, and then for those people that really remembered NWA and Straight Outta Compton, it was nostalgic. And so, most people had a second thought, well what’s going on with Compton now, it’s 25 years later? It couldn’t be the city that it used to be. So, I think it even piqued interest and gave a new window into the city for even the younger generation who didn’t grow up with NWA, or really understand the history and the legacy of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, and all those pioneers that came before the people that are here today. Most people know Dr. Dre as a producer, or he’s BEATS by Dre, he’s a business person, so they don’t really know Dre the rapper or the writer, so it really gave them a great picture of the evolution, and the power of determination.
I think it was really great for our young people. And we hosted screenings with Compton College and we’ve brought them to Youtube studios with the cast of NWA and so I think it was really inspiring for them to be able to touch these people and see that they lived in the same places that they lived in, and were able to attain amazing things, so it was really inspirational.
LULU: WHAT PLACES IN COMPTON DO I HAVE TO VISIT?
MAYOR AJA: If you like barbeque you’ve gotta get Bledsoe’s B-B-Q on Long Beach Blvd.
And right outside city hall is one of my favorite places, the MLK Monument, it’s a mid-century sculpture designed by an African American architect. It’s just really beautiful, and I’ve seen a sculpture, mimicked on this same design in Los Cabos, Mexico. It’s really influential, in the center of the city, it just means hope to me, so it’s my favorite place to do events.
LULU: HOW DO YOU BALANCE RUNNING A CITY AND HOME?
MAYOR AJA: I’m still working on that, but lots of prayer. God is really the foundation of why I do what I do and how I do it, so I don’t change the recipe. I know how I got here, why I’m here and I just stay focused on the mission and the vision that He gave me for my assignment.
LULU: WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS FOR CREATING A NEW VISION?
MAYOR AJA: Vision begins with conviction. You have to be convicted to change something. You have to be convicted to be a part of transforming something that usually you don’t like. Most people want everything to be a positive process, but you usually have to be mad about something or discontent about something. The next step is really have a revelation of maybe you’re called to do something about it. Then I believe that God gives you vision after the revelation, so that’s my process for visioning.
LULU: IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND TALK TO YOUR 18 YEAR OLD SELF, WHAT WOULD YOU TELL HER?
MAYOR AJA: Relax! I was always really meticulous with planning everything, and I think I just kind of missed out on being a normal (whatever normal is), I think I would just tell myself to relax, it’s all going to work out.
LULU: IF YOU COULD TALK TO YOUR 25 YEAR OLD SELF?
MAYOR AJA: Enjoy the time that you have. You never recognize how quickly our lives can change and evolve and how time demands change and really impact your life and so at 25 I wish I would have spent more time relaxing and really just enjoyed being a normal person.
ON ENTITLEMENT AND HER SUCCESS :
MAYOR AJA: You have to work for it, you have to plan for it, sacrifice. The biggest thing is sacrifice. Everyone wants to be successful, but they don’t want to give up anything. You have to give up maybe going out or going on vacations to be able to start programs with their own money to impact someone’s life. People are always looking for someone to give them something to do what they want to do, but you may be your own stimulus package, you may be the vessel that has to make that impact. My whole life when I look back was about sacrifice. I saw my mother sacrifice for my brother and I and it was just ingrained that that’s what you have to do to be successful. People think I woke up one day and decided ‘oh, I want to be the Mayor,’ and then I won, but you know it just didn’t happen that way! It was so much hard work, preparation number one, was incredible, because it’s one thing to say ‘this is what I want to do,’ but why? What have you done? I actually had a whole body of work, 10 years of doing the work already that I want to do on a larger scale here, that made me credible, and it made older people, younger people regardless of their socioeconomic group really be able to buy into my vision for the city. But that takes being credible, having sacrificed and making yourself available.
ON SUCCESS IN A WHITE MALE DOMINATED WORLD:
MAYOR AJA: I’ve always worked in the fi
eld of development, and I was usually the only woman, definitely the only woman of color. But it really helped me develop a thick skin and a mental fortitude, and I really like the challenge. I think a lot of times, people shy away from the very thing that can make you really powerful and make you great. So, keep the challenges, and all the other things rolling, because they can make you a great person.
And the challenges keep coming, by the end of May, a gruesome milestone. The homicide rate was up to 15 in Compton, more than all of last year. But Mayor Aja and law enforcement presented a united front. They understand most of the violence has been gang related. It’s also important to note that violence is up in all of Los Angeles County.
You can see Mayor Brown’s 12 point plan for economic growth and revitalization here: