Jaime Carias in the Julie Chen/Leslie Moonves and CBS Media Center Media Center.
USC Annenberg / Brett Van Ort

Five Minutes with Jaime Carias: Why community engagement is so important

Inside the classrooms at USC Annenberg, students are the ones typically tasked with answering the hard hitting questions. "Five Minutes with..." turns the table on faculty and staff to ask them the hard questions.

Jaime Carias, USC Annenberg’s Civic Engagement Coordinator, grew up a few miles from USC and dreamt of one day attending the school.

He found himself in his current role at USC years after attending college in Santa Barbara and obtaining a Masters from the USC Price School of Public Policy.

His journey has taken him from picking up cans on the USC campus with his mother to organizing trips to Wallis Annenberg Hall for disadvantaged South L.A. youth. The author of two books, Project GRIT: Rethinking Youth from At-Risk to At-Promise and Buscando Vida, Encontrando Exito: La Fuerza de La Cultura Latina en La Educacion, Carias is working to bring more community engagement programs to Annenberg and engage youth from even more local communities.

Carias shared a few thoughts with us about connecting students with opportunities and why he got into community engagement.

What are your duties at USC Annenberg?

I work with our faculty, our school leadership, and our students at the graduate and undergraduate level to create service learning projects that involve nonprofits and high schools surrounding both the University Park campus and Health Science campus. We have done some amazing projects in Compton and Watts around gentrification in South Los Angeles. We have worked with over 13 high schools since we’ve been here. Last year, we had over 550 youth walk through Annenberg's doors for some type of program. That’s really my day-to-day. I also represent Annenberg in the community and build relationships and strategic partnerships that are going to allow Annenberg and USC to move forward.

Tell me a little bit about your life and how you became interested in working with high school students.

I was born and raised in South Central L.A., they call it South Los Angeles now. I grew up on Slauson and Figueroa, which is 2.5 miles south from here. I grew up in the neighborhood and I saw the 1992 Rodney King riots where the community was literally on fire. Seeing the community looting the neighborhood, seeing furniture stores on fire, K-Mart, the Pep Boys...I remember it all.

As a kid looking at USC, I remember thinking it’s a beautiful university. I also spent a lot of my childhood on the westside of town over at UCLA because my mom used to clean a lot of homes in Malibu, Brentwood and Westwood. The bus would drop us off on the Bel-Air side and my mom would give me two dimes and tell me to call the lady, her boss, to pick us up. We did this so much but never once did my mother say: “Hey, son. After we're done cleaning today, we are going to walk across the street and walk onto campus.” That’s something I express to parents now: exposure can change a life. But I asked my mom a few years ago why she didn’t do that and she said she was scared she had to pay to go onto campus. Here at USC, we would bring black trash bags and walk all over campus, take out the cans and crush them, then walk home.

What made me get into community programming was the realization when I arrived as a freshman at UC Santa Barbara that there weren’t that many people who came from the same background as me. I started grassroots organizing as an 18-year-old, bringing busloads of high school kids to UCSB from South L.A. for campus tours. At the age of 20 I wrote my first grant for $5,000 to launch “From the Barrio to Academia.” That program was dedicated to bringing the sons and daughters of UCSB's janitors to campus. None of their kids had ever set foot on campus.

I worked in Admissions as an Admission Counselor Intern at UC Santa Barbara, did that for a few years and then applied to the Price School here. I always said I wanted to create programming and opportunities for youth in that [pointing south to where he lived] neighborhood, because I grew up there and there was nothing like that for me. I graduated in 2010 (from Price) and went on to Cal State Long Beach and did four years there in Student Affairs for the College Assistance Migrant Program that worked with the sons and daughters of farm workers.

At that same time, I started doing a lot of speaking engagements to large audiences and sharing my journey as this kid from the neighborhood who got a Masters.

In 2015, Annenberg came knocking and everything kind of came together at just the right moment. Dean Ernest J. Wilson III made me an offer to lead community engagement. It felt right, like a full 360 had happened in my life.

Did you know what you wanted to do when you were in high school?

No, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in high school. I grew up with a speaking disability, a big stuttering problem, that still hinders me today. That really caused a lot of self-doubt in high school. But my parents would always say “we want you to do better than us.”

What’s your favorite part of working with students?

I don’t do this work for me or for the fame. I do this work for is the smiles the kids put on at the end a program. And to have the kids, at the very end, come up to me and say, “thank you for the experience, we learned so much.” Even the teachers saying “this was the best thing you guys could have done” really solidifies for me why we do what we do. My response to them is always the same: “Don’t thank me, it’s a total team effort from the top down. The Annenberg family came together to host this for you and we look forward to hosting another one.”

What new things are you cooking up for civic engagement?

The Annenberg Youth Academy for Media and Civic Engagement will be June 2017. It's a three-week, intensive program that will offer students the equivalent of freshman year college courses in communication and journalism. We will select 26 students from the neighborhoods surrounding UPC and HSC campuses. There will be an application process and we are expecting over 100 applications. Kids are already emailing me. It’s going to be free of cost. We really want to be able to identify some very young, talented minds in South and East L.A., in Boyle Heights. And we want to create an incubator that hopefully funnels students to Annenberg from these local communities. That’s just one of the things I’m looking forward to.