Sustainable Solutions to Los Angeles’ Wicked Problems: Using Human Rights to Implement the SDGs in LA



Organizations/areas of the university involved

The Institute on Inequalities in Global Health, University of Southern California (USC) with funding from the USC Provost’s Office, in cooperation with faculty from the USC Spatial Sciences Institute, USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, USC Gould School of Law, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, USC School of Cinematic Arts, and graduate and undergraduate students from these entities as well as from the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.

United States

In the Fall of 2018, the University of Southern California (USC) initiated a practicum that tested the application of human rights principles to operationalizing the SDGs at a local level. The practicum was coordinated by the USC Institute on Inequalities in Global Health in support of the LA Mayor’s Office city-led SDGs initiative involving several local academic institutions. A select group of undergraduate and graduate students from across USC were given the opportunity to assist in devising and fortifying LA’s plan for implementation of the SDGs using international human rights standards. To this end, the practicum aimed to train students in applying the SDG framework to local issues, cross-disciplinary research methods, community engagement and to provide students with experience working with stakeholders from multiple sectors. Given the city’s public commitment to alleviating homelessness, the students identified a need for and an opportunity to reexamine the issue from a combined SDG/human rights perspective. The practicum sought not only to find “gaps” but to use human rights standards to make evidence-based recommendations to the city. As preparation for analysis, the students were assigned reading materials and provided instruction about the SDGs, the current state of homelessness in LA, and international human rights standards. The practicum placed heavy emphasis on the application of a human rights-based approach to engage the SDGs. At the end of the semester, the students provided recommendations to the city with respect to potential steps forward, and to the participants of the next phase of the initiative held at Occidental College with respect to further research needs. The value of human rights concepts and methods as a framework for analysis and action around the SDGs at the local level provided important lessons, easily applicable to other such efforts.

Results and impact measured or expected

The methodology for the analysis was meticulously documented with students and faculty recording the reasoning behind each decision made, as well as the process used. In combination with lessons learned, the process as well as the findings. The Los Angeles Mayor’s office received the initial report and recommendations, and brought these findings into their internal discussions as well as using the practicum’s findings to help generate the next phase of the work at Occidental College. Occidental faculty were regularly in active communication with USC faculty and, encouragingly, with no credit offered several practicum students supported the Occidental students in this next phase of work, including attending weekly sessions with them. On an educational level, the course provided 16 graduate and undergraduate students with training in the application of the SDG framework, human rights and cross-disciplinary research methods in ways that are shaping many of their professional trajectories.

Connection with the SDG framework

Using both publicly accessible data and data provided directly by the city, the relevant SDGs were grouped into three broad categories (excluding 17) – poverty and health (Goals: 1, 2, 3, 6, 8); social equity (Goals: 4, 5, 10, 16); and environment and infrastructure (Goals: 7, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15). Around these categories, the students divided their work, adjusting the targets and indicators, and then using the relevant agreed to “toolbox” of human rights principles – non-discrimination, accessibility, acceptability, availability, quality, informed decision-making, privacy and confidentiality, participation, and accountability, as well as the operational definition of each principle, to use the SDGs as a lens to analyze and suggest ways forward to the City of LA’s current response to the homelessness.

Barriers and follow up

Much of the learning happened contemporaneously with the work as we were in constant engagement with the city, and so many decisions had to be made quickly and collectively between students and faculty. The first few weeks required familiarizing the students with new topics, issues and skills and it took more time than expected for students to be trained to ensure consistency in methodology. All lessons learned were documented, the final analysis served as a base for the work then taken up by local partners. The next phase of work began in June 2020. USC created an SDG Leadership Academy, and in partnership with the LA Mayor’s Office city-led SDGs initiative, and several local academic institutions including Occidental College, students are working in small teams on specific topical issues with specific departments within the Mayor’s office, and providing the city with clear deliverables and outputs based on this initial effort.

Updated June 2020 by Sofia Gruskin