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‘It’s Impossible to Address Equity Without Data’: A Mayor’s Perspective

During her two terms as mayor of Compton, Calif., Aja Brown focused on improving the lives of the underserved. Now she’s exploring the potential for technology to track how resources are aggregated and used.

Aja Brown.
Former Compton, Calif., mayor Aja Brown.
In Brief:
  • In 2013, Aja Brown arrived at her job as mayor of Compton, Calif., with training and experience in urban planning and economic development.

  • She created a plan that guided her efforts to deliver resources and opportunities to the underserved.

  • Today, she’s helping design technology tools that can make it easier to administer all forms of government assistance.

  • Listen to the full interview with Mayor Brown on The Future In Context using the player below, or subscribe for free on YouTube or the podcast app of your choice — Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audacy and Audible.

    As an urban planning and economic development student at the University of Southern California, Aja Brown knew she wanted to work in government. She planned to take what she was learning into underserved communities and remedy their scarcity of opportunity. She wasn’t thinking that meant spending time running for office, however.

    Brown began working as an economic development analyst for the city of Gardena, Calif., even before she earned an undergraduate degree. After several years as a senior planner for Inglewood, she moved to Compton.

    It was a return to a place with deep family roots, a place her mother had left when Brown’s grandmother was killed in her Compton home. Eventually, she decided she would run for mayor. “Experiencing poverty in my own life, I recognized that systems and communities had a powerful part to play in how individuals developed and the opportunities that they had,” Brown says.

    In 2013, Brown became the youngest mayor in the history of Compton, at 31. She won a second term and held the position until 2021, when she co-founded the Compton Community Development Corporation.

    In addition to consulting work, Brown serves as strategic impact partner for FORWARD, a company that develops technology to streamline access to government assistance. “Technology is needed to be able to have a single source of truth,” she says, "and to answer the question, 'What is the return on investment for our tax dollars?’.”

    In a conversation with Governing, Brown talked about her work in and out of government.

    Governing: What was your path to becoming the mayor of Compton?

    Aja Brown: As I studied urban planning and economic development at (the University of Southern California) USC, I was enamored by learning the technical details of what I innately knew to be true. I wanted to take what I had learned into underserved communities to help create change and impact at the community level.

    Governing: How did that lead to the mayor’s office?

    Brown: I worked for several cities before being recruited to come work for the city of Compton’s redevelopment agency. A friend of mine was working there and asked me if I would come join him to lead capital projects.

    My family was raised in Compton. My mother raised my brother and I in Pasadena — unfortunately, her mother was killed in Compton. She wanted us to experience an upbringing similar to what she had, but in a different space.

    I made my way back to Compton without a definite strategy. I was asked to serve in a local ministry, leading their youth. My husband and I invested in our first home there. I was living in the center of the city, serving about a block away and working a block away.

    I experienced missed opportunities from political leadership, really detrimental decisions happening at the government administration level. I knew we needed a change in leadership to have a real chance at reaching our full potential. I started trying to recruit other people to become mayor. Everyone told me, “Absolutely not. You’re crazy.”

    I decided to just take the leap of faith and do it myself. I was very clear about what I was set to do when I sat down in the mayor’s desk and the community definitely gave me a strong mandate to do so.

    Governing: Talk about turning your campaign platform into action.

    Brown: We instituted a community benefits agreement, a policy lever that mandated 35 precent local hiring for all city-assisted development projects. This resulted in 1,000 new jobs and millions of dollars in reinvestment in parks and youth programs.

    We were able to secure over 2 million square feet that had laid dormant for many decades for new redevelopment. We recruited a UPS fulfillment center, a Best Buy fulfillment center, Walmart, Smart and Final, and several health providers. We secured several million dollars of private investment in youth performing arts centers and other family wellness centers from notable Compton alumni. My training helped me design a realistic and pragmatic navigation strategy.

    Governing: How did the guaranteed income program come about?

    Brown: In the middle of the pandemic there was high need, and funding that government wanted to deliver to communities. But because of disparate government systems and inefficiencies, it was difficult for communities like Compton to do this.

    We designed the Compton Pledge to create a safety net and transfer of benefits to 800 randomly selected residents. We delivered resources in the range of $300 to $600 per month for two years. At the time, it was the largest guaranteed income pilot in the U.S.

    We delivered these resources completely outside of government. We used a separate technology platform to transfer funds and were able to navigate around the red tape families can experience with existing aid or benefit programs.

    Governing: How does your new role at FORWARD relate to your past work?

    Brown: I witnessed that it’s impossible to have equity without data. Governments can have the most audacious policy goals and desires to route resources where they need to go to lift people out of poverty, but without data, it’s very difficult to do that.

    Systems like FORWARD provide governments with a platform to deliver resources and to track data and outcomes. They can ensure that aid is directed to areas that have the greatest need and then report out on that.

    Governing: In practical terms, does this mean providing web-based tools that make it easier for citizens, businesses and nonprofits to access resources and for government to track where they go? Is that the goal?

    Brown: That is the gap we are filling. A unified portal centralizes how people touch government and their ability to receive help. Instead of having to go to three separate bureaus, they can upload their critical information one time.

    Government staffing shortages and technology gaps in disadvantaged communities can make it harder for people who really need these resources to access them. These kinds of tools scale the capability of these governments.
    Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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