These 9 Women Are Radically Transforming L.A.

These leaders include an NBA executive, a labor lawyer, and a Buddhist monk. All make L.A. a better place.

Margo Feinberg
A union lawyer who’s amplifying workers’ voices


Photo by: Ryan Young

When it comes to improving public policy, a major city like Los Angeles often leads the way for large-scale change. Labor lawyer Margo Feinberg would know; in 1997, she helped draft the original living wage legislation in L.A., which increased pay and benefits for city workers. Since then, the ordinance has been a model for pay standards in hundreds of cities and counties nationwide. In her more than 30 years practicing law, Feinberg has fought for fair wages, sick leave, and safe work environments alongside everyone from teachers to University of California postdocs to marijuana dispensary employees.

Why the recent increase in minimum wage is key:
“Many came forward to tell their stories of what it’s like to work full-time in the City of L.A., to work several jobs and still live in poverty. The impact if the increases is tremendous because it isn’t only individual households that will have a bit more money. I believe we will see the transformation of certain communities because the money will be spent directly.”

How things have changed:
“The job that I’m in today is the job that I took coming out of law school. There weren’t very many young labor lawyers then. I was working with guys in the ship-yards and steel mills who had never seen anything like me. But it doesn’t really matter your size or shape or race; if people think you’re fighting for them, you’re good with them.”

Why she does it:
“I do find it shocking that for so many years I’ve been fighting for the same things. You might think that would make me despair, but it’s why we’ve got to keep fighting. My role as a lawyer is to help support whatever creative avenues the union is using. I’m lucky because I like what I do, who I do it for, and who I do it with.”

Beth Stelling
A hilarious stand-up who’s speaking frankly about a taboo subject


Photograph courtesy Mindy Tucker

Beth Stelling has had a busy year: She filmed a stand-up special for Comedy Central, released her second album (Simply the Beth), and landed a coveted gig as a staff writer on Crashing, a new HBO show directed by Judd Apatow. It’s also the year she went public on social media about being a survivor of rape. “There are many reasons not to make an abusive relationship public, mostly fear,” Stelling wrote on Instagram. “Scared of what people will think, scared it makes me look weak or unprofessional. It’s unhealthy to keep this inside because my stand-up is pulled directly from my life. My personal is my professional. So now I’m allowing this to be part of my story.”

Stelling has started to discuss the experience in her stand- up, and the response has been overwhelming. “The audience doesn’t have to laugh about it,” she says. “But enough people have come up to me afterward, saying things like ‘I’ve never been able to laugh about it, so thanks’ or ‘That really helped.’ My point in sharing that was to free myself from it and be honest. Because I’ve always fucking been honest.”

Hows she’s finding her voice:
 I first started, I didn’t know who I was. People would say, ‘Well, who are you and what do you talk about?’ I’d be like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how I come off.’ I still don’t totally feel like I am where I’ll end up, but I think I’m getting closer to who I am as a person onstage.”

What it felt like to get a writing job for Crashing:
“I remember getting the call and being so, so excited. They were telling me what I would be paid, and I was like, ‘Wait, so I get paid every week?’ and they said, ‘Yes, that’s how it works.’”

On joining the L.A. Comedy scene:
“I was terrified that 
I would have to do my best stuff all the time, so
 I’d never grow or write anything new. But obviously time proves that wrong. I’m so thankful that I was welcomed and did prove myself. Now I can go up and say what happened to me that day, whereas before I would have been terrified that wouldn’t be funny enough.”

Gillian Zucker
She’s a major player in the sports world


Photograph courtesy Gillian Zucker

In 2014, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer announced that Gillian Zucker, former president
 of the Auto Club Speedway, would become the new president of business operations for the basketball team. For her, it was a dream come true. “I said when I was a senior in college that I wanted to run a professional sports franchise,” says Zucker, who has also worked in the NFL and in minor league baseball. “I spent the last 25 years strategically developing a foundation in every area of the sports business to understand how it works.” That background helps Zucker oversee the Clippers’ finances, ticketing, marketing, and outreach. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the types of initiatives that’ll drive the business forward and connect us more with the community,” she says, adding that she’s motivated
 by the way basketball can unify fans. “I’ve always been attracted to the way sports brings people together—not just on the field or the court,
 but in the stands as well.”

Here’s a typical day in the life of the only other woman (besides the Lakers’ Jeanie Buss) at the top of a U.S. professional sports franchise:

6 A.M.
Zucker squeezes in a quick workout on her treadmill at home.

 8:30 A.M.
Arrives at the office across from Staples Center, grabs some coffee, and catches up on e-mail.

 9 A.M.
Attends a budget meeting in the Hoop Dreams Conference Room to discuss the team’s locker room renovation.

 1 P.M.
Heads to the L.A. Clippers Foundation’s year-end recap and planning session. Last year the foundation provided vision services for students in the Inglewood Unified School District and donated $3 million to bring City Year mentors into Watts schools. “The types of programs we’re doing really make a difference,” Zucker says.

 3 P.M.
Meets with architects about the construction of a new season-ticket-holder club at Staples Center.

 4 P.M.
Jumps on a call with Gary Sacks, the Clippers’ assistant general manager, to talk about a possible location for the Clippers’ 2017 preseason games. (Hint: Aloha?)

 5 P.M.
Reviews the marketing budget with Clippers chief financial officer Chris Leotis and vice president of marketing Matt Paye. Zucker says there will be many surprises for fans next season, including free T-shirts.

 10 P.M.
Approves owner Steve Ballmer’s appearance on Celebrity Apprentice, which airs this fall. (Spoiler alert: Someone gets terminated.)

Renee Tajima-Peña
The filmmaker helps others share their life experiences


Photograph by Claudio Rocha

When Renee Tajima-Peña is looking for a topic for her next documentary, she focuses on one thing: what makes her angry. “First, something pisses me off—and keeps pissing me off,” says the director, who teaches at UCLA. Something, for example, like the story of a group of Latina mothers who were coerced into getting tubal ligations after giving birth at L.A. County Hospital in the 1960s and ’70s.

Her film about their resulting lawsuit, No Más Bebés, premiered last year. It drew attention to the discrimination that immigrants often face while also highlighting the bravery of the women involved. “To be a Mexican immigrant woman who is not English-speaking 
in the 1970s in L.A.—the bottom of the hierarchy—and to stand up against the biggest institutions in the city, that took a lot of cojones,” she says.

For Tajima-Peña, whose 1987 film, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, was nominated for an Oscar, giving others a voice is
 an important part of her filmmaking. “Part of that is centering your own voice and the authority of people who have been marginalized,” she says. It’s a message she tries to impart to her students as well. “When you’re making documentaries in that vein, you’re not only documenting culture, you’re creating it.”

Next on her list? Working on an Asian American history series that incorporates virtual reality.

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Tracy Fullerton
She promotes diversity in the booming gaming industry


Photograph by Christina Gandolfo

While working with her students to develop ideas for games, Tracy Fullerton will often have them keep journals. “The material of our lives is the material that we have to make games of,” says the chair of USC’s Interactive Media & Games Division, considered the top game design school in the nation. “For anyone wanting to break ground in gaming, you have to turn to the personal, the social, and maybe even the political. It’s not enough to just take something you love and remake it.”

The question of how to create a successful game—and who is doing the creating—has never been more relevant. A 2012 study found that a mere 11 percent of game designers were women. Two years later the so-called Gamergate controversy drew attention to how sexism remains prevalent in the global industry, which brought in $91.8 billion last year. Fullerton, who has been designing games for 25 years, notes that as advances in digital distribution and technology force rapid change, inclusivity is not just politically correct, it’s good for the bottom line. “The way that you grow a medium is by building communities of makers who can support each other,” she says. “One of the most important things about the community at USC is how welcoming it is to people who may not have envisioned themselves as game designers early on in their lives.”

In 2014, under Fullerton’s leadership, the game program at USC reached an important milestone: For the first time female students outnumbered their male peers. “We’ve put together some ‘best practices’ to help our students and faculty remember that it isn’t a given that people come into an environment and feel they can
 work there,” she says. “You have to actually think about all of the people who are working in a community and continue to build a place where they can do their best work.”

Fullerton is currently working with a small team to put the final touches on an epic six-hour game called Walden, which is based on Henry David Thoreau’s experiment in simple living in the woods of Massachusetts. The project—to be released next year—represents Fullerton’s belief that games can
 be far more than entertainment; they can provide a way to explore a different side of ourselves.

“When we think of video games, we usually call to mind a constrained view of what ‘play’ is, but those aren’t the real boundaries of the form,” she says. “I’m very interested in all of these other ways we might play. We haven’t even scratched the surface 
of what we can make games about.”

Bamby Salcedo
A trans Latina leader who’s fighting for marginalized individuals


Photograph by Christina Gandolfo

Growing up poor and transgender in Guadalajara, Mexico, Bamby Salcedo began life the hard way. Before completing her education (she earned a bachelor’s in Mexican American Studies from Cal State L.A. in June), she was homeless and spent time in jail. But all this has only served to make her a more effective advocate for people who face similar struggles. As president of the [email protected] Coalition ([email protected] is a gender-neutral appellation), Salcedo tackles issues—including HIV awareness and job training—that are especially relevant to immigrant LGBTQ communities.

She’s overseeing the launch of the Center for Violence Prevention and Transgender Wellness and is fighting for policy reform that improves the quality of life for trans people. Recently she met with the Office of National AIDS Policy in Washington, D.C. “Because of the continuous violence that trans people face, I was called to do different types of activism,” says Salcedo.

One way she’s changing L.A.:
“In 2015, we met with the mayor and proposed that the city invest in trans people by developing a relationship with them. Since then, the city has formed the Transgender Advisory Council. We also asked the mayor to come out publicly and say that Los Angeles is a sanctuary for trans people to live in.”

On the need to humanize trans people:
“We are capable of doing anything, but societal constructs continue to limit and marginalize us. When our neighbor realizes that we are people just like them, then there won’t be more violence.”

 Future goals:
“To continue to uplift and acknowledge the existence of trans people by being persistent and making sure that we understand the power we have to create the changes that need to happen.”

Rodri J. Rodriguez
A pioneering producer who’s shaping the L.A. music scene


Photograph by Ana Montgomery

The first time Rodri J. Rodriguez stood on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, she was receiving her diploma from Immaculate Heart High School. Even then she knew it was a special place. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing. I would love to do something here,’” Rodriguez says. More than 15 years later, in 1990, she stood on the very same stage to introduce Mariachi USA, a four-hour-plus celebration of Mexican music and heritage that she’s been producing for packed crowds at the Bowl ever since. “I call Mariachi USA the heart and the soul of the Hollywood Bowl,” she says. “It’s brought Latinos to the Bowl who didn’t even know 
it existed. Then their kids started going and their kids’ kids. I have a close relationship with a lot of the people who started coming to the show
 at the very beginning.”

Rodriguez, who’s Cuban born—“but with a little bit of a Mexican soul,” she says—cut her teeth working for a record company, Latin International, in the ’70s and soon began working with big acts (from David Bowie to Ella Fitzgerald to Julio Iglesias) throughout the Americas. Rodriguez says she quickly encountered sexism in the music industry. Men she worked with often “thought I was a groupie or somebody’s lover but never the person signing the contract,” she says. “My mother said to me that you have to be willing to let it go in one ear and out the other.” She did—and eventually started her own company, Rodri Entertainment.

She’s passionate about making art accessible to all Angelenos. In addition to serving as a Cultural Affairs commissioner for the City of Los Angeles in the ’80s, Rodriguez started the Mariachi USA Foundation, which provides K-12 students grants for instruments and musical instruction. Her next endeavor? Putting together the first annual CubaFestLA in May to salute Cuban art and culture.

Kafi Blumenfield
She brings a love
 of science and the environment to an underserved community


Photograph courtesy Discovery Cube LA

After stepping down as director of the grant-making Liberty Hill Foundation in November 2013, Kafi Blumenfield initially planned to take a year long sabbatical. Instead she agreed to become the founding executive director of Discovery Cube LA, a new children’s museum in the northeast San Fernando Valley. It was a bit of a gamble, since the area didn’t have a strong philanthropic tradition or many cultural institutions. “There was this question of ‘If you build something in a region that doesn’t have a lot of sites like this one, will people come?’” she says.

Apparently they will. More than a quarter of a million people visited the museum—which promotes science, technology, engineering, and math (known as STEM), along with environmental stewardship—in its first year of operation. Describing her approach to promoting the place, Blumenfield says, “Part of what I do is make the case for the region as well as for the site.”

The job provides her a direct
 way of using her strong nonprofit expertise, which includes fighting air pollution with the National Resources Defense Council and serving as a commissioner on the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. These days fundraising is a large aspect of the job. “When we opened, people would say things like ‘You know, we didn’t think it would be this good,’” she says. “We believe that everyone deserves the very best in education and resources.”

Blumenfield likes to bring potential investors to see the hands-on exhibitions, which focus on everything from recycling to the science of hockey, so they can observe kids getting excited about STEM. “Understanding how you ask questions and how 
you problem-solve: Those are important life skills,” she says. “We think that we’re creating stronger leaders.”

Wendy Egyoku Nakao
The abbot has created a sanctuary in the middle of the city


Photograph by Kendall Roclord

Wendy Egyoku Nakao discovered Zen practice in 1975 on a whim, after 
a friend dared her to participate in a seven-day silent retreat. “The experience of doing that was so powerful,” she says. “Something got unleashed that I just had to follow.” When she returned, she told her husband she was leaving him and threw herself into her spiritual practice. In 1999, she became abbot and head teacher at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, where she is known as Roshi, or spiritual leader.

Roshi Egyoku has made significant changes at ZCLA, which is located in Koreatown. She’s incorporated women’s names in the liturgical recitation of lineage, created a less hierarchical method of running the center, and emphasized the importance of communal interaction. “One of the purposes we serve is that this is a refuge for people who are on the front lines of their life,” she says. “This is a place where they reconnect with what is true in themselves.”

What can be learned from interfaith exploration:
“Whenever I can, I go to the Women’s Mosque in Pico-Union. It’s wonderful to see another religious tradition where the women are coming together and informing that tradition and supporting each other.”

On ZCLA’s tenets of “not-knowing,” “bearing witness,” and “taking action”:
“Not-knowing” is just being open. Then from that place of openness, you’re witnessing what’s arising. It means I’m totally present and listening deeply to what is present, beyond points of view. When I can really do that, something arises that is an action. It’s usually spontaneous, but the amazing thing is it will serve the whole situation.”

On what the future holds:
“Recently I’ve thought, ‘You know what? I’m doing what I need to be doing in this lifetime!’ I’m just so interested in where my practice will take me and what I’m going to be exploring.”

This article originally appeared in our September 2016 LA Woman issue. Read our profile of film and TV director and L.A. Woman Ava DuVernay here.