11 Women Who Are Making L.A. a Better Place

They’re advocates, entrepreneurs, and trailblazers whose work spans from entertainment law to fashion to affordable housing

Luz Rivas

Want to teach young women how to create products and code using STEM concepts? There’s a non-profit for that

Photo by Christopher Patey

Luz Riva’s fate as  a STEM crusader may have been sealed by the time she was in fifth grade. It was the early 1980s, and she was learning to program computers at her Pacoima school. “I thought it was a fun toy because we didn’t have computers at home,” she says. “Most people didn’t then, no matter who you were.” By high school Rivas was game for anything that smacked of math or science, including a club for nascent engineers. A decade later the daughter of Mexican immigrants had graduated from MIT and started working as an electrical engineer at Motorola in Chicago. She eventually returned to California, where, after years of being dismayed by the lack of diversity— gender and otherwise—in her field, she decided to do something about it: In 2011, Rivas founded DIY Girls, which offers intensive STEM education to young women in under-served communities throughout the northeast San Fernando Valley.

The nonprofit focuses on after-school and summer instruction in electronics, coding, and product design for grades 4 through 12; last year it made national news when a team of DIY girls produced a solar-powered tent for the homeless (they picked up a $10,000 grant from MIT). Rivas decided early on to play to her community’s strengths rather than focus on what it lacked. “Sometimes the approach with education in low-income communities is ‘We’re going to teach them’ instead of ‘This is something they already do.’ My neighbors in Pacoima can make more things than someone in Beverly Hills because they have the know-how; that’s why I called it DIY. We just needed to take that to another level.” But Rivas wants them to go a step further, tapping into the region’s thriving tech, entertainment, and fashion sectors. “Why aren’t children learning the strengths of their own city: the science and engineering and technology?” she asks.

The newest appointee to L.A.’s Board of Public Works, Rivas is the liaison to the bureaus of street lighting and engineering. She plans to increase the number of women engineers within city ranks, partly through university outreach. “I’ve gone from focusing on getting girls interested in engineering to ‘Now that they are graduating, how do we get them jobs?’ Here everything you do is making a difference. And I think we can recruit women engineers because a lot of the time women want to make a difference. We engineers help Los Angeles.” —ANN HEROLD

Susan Burton 

She’s an advocate and author who’s using her experiences to help formerly incarcerated women get a fresh start

Photo by Christopher Patey

Susan Burton’s world was shattered in 1982, when her five-year-old son, K.K., died after being hit by a car. The driver, an LAPD detective, never apologized. South L.A. was in the midst of the War on Drugs, and Burton became caught in a vicious cycle of drug abuse and incarceration. “Alcohol had been numbing me, but it wasn’t enough,” she writes in her memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton, published earlier this year. “Wandering bleary-eyed onto the street, I found cocaine, and that took me into total blankness. A place devoid of thoughts, empty of feelings, a respite from the debilitating anguish.”

Each time she was released from prison (she served six sentences in 17 years), Burton found herself without the treatment and support she needed, and inevitably she ended up back in the system. After almost two decades, she finally discovered a treatment program in Santa Monica and was able to get sober. “The services—being housed in a drug-free environment, introduced to the 12-step program, and able to access weekly therapy—were crucial to me breaking that cycle,” she says.

Burton feels things would have been far different if she’d had access to support earlier on: “It would have been great if there were a trauma center located in our community, where you could access grief counseling and be able to address it in a healthy manner.”

So she founded A New Way of Life, which supports women who have been to prison. A full-service operation based in South L.A., the program provides sober housing, therapy, financial-literacy classes, and help with employment and education. Burton empowers people who’ve been in jail to be part of reforming the criminal justice system. In 2007, she launched the Employment Rights Re-Entry Legal Clinic in conjunction with UCLA’s Critical Race Studies Program, which helps remove employment barriers for people with criminal records; it’s now the largest organization of its kind in Southern California. “Jail had done nothing to stop my addiction,” she writes in the final chapter of her book. “Education, hard work, dedication, a support system, and knowing my life had value: These were what had made all the difference.” —JULIA HERBST

Helen Leung and Elizabeth Timme

The “wonkish” urban planner and “architecture geek” are out to solve some of L.A.’s toughest housing and small-business problems

Elizabeth Timme and Helen Leung are doing something radical: As co-executive directors of the nonprofit LA-Más, they’re using outreach and design to help underserved (and often gentrifying) communities gain more control over the future of their neighborhoods. The idea seems obvious, but putting the disciplines together is rare. For Timme and Leung, both L.A. natives, it was a natural partnership. Together they’ve tackled projects like building an affordable-housing unit in a Highland Park backyard and redoing small-business storefronts in Watts. “As these communities change, how can the people who’ve been here a long time—renters, immigrants, working-class families—benefit from investment?” asks Leung. Get a look at their methods.

Why building homes in backyards could help solve several problems:
Leung: “We did a Neighborhood Vision Plan to understand what people want to see—and don’t want to see—as this neighborhood changes. What we heard loud and clear is that they want there to be more housing affordability but don’t want big development.”

Timme: “Everyone was saying, ‘I don’t want to see someone else coming into my community. I don’t want to see something that doesn’t look like my community. But how do I build in my backyard?’ It’s not that these people are duplicitous. It’s just that they want to be able to control what’s happening in their neighborhood.”

Leung: “We were hired by the city to design a backyard home. Because Elizabeth has a background in architecture, she’s able to lead a design of a home that’s not just beautiful but fits into all the historic criteria of a neighborhood and is also affordably built. My background in policy means that we can figure out how to navigate through City Hall so that it becomes something that’s not a one-off project.”

How working together made them stronger:
Timme: “Helen is really good at meeting a community member where they’re at, and I think that’s because of her background in community work in Eric Garcetti’s office when he was a councilman.”

Leung: “Elizabeth’s background in architecture and design means that we can graphically make a case for something. Policy and planning are often just words. Without that ability to physically manifest something or test an idea, you’re stuck inside City Hall, making rules that don’t make sense to the average person.”

What’s behind their approach?
Timme: “L.A. has all of these worlds within it that need support to continue to thrive. I think that our approach is different—maybe because we’re women, or maybe because we’re millennials.”

Leung: “I love how you own that you’re a millennial.”

Timme: “I’m a senior millennial. We don’t come to the table and put something down. We’re really excited about what’s there and being able to provide a service through our approach. That’s a very basic kind of statement but one that I don’t hear a lot from architects or people in policy.” —JULIA HERBST

Miry Whitehill-Ben Atar

The founder of Miry’s List has helped more than 100 resettled families make a life in the U.S. Here’s where her inspiration came from

Photo by Christopher Patey

“I have absolutely no background in this. I’ve never worked in politics or the nonprofit sector. I spent ten years in digital marketing before leaving to raise my two kids. But Miry’s List didn’t come from a place of wanting to change the system of refugee resettlement. It came from me, as a mom, seeing a baby without a crib mattress and wanting to help.”

Just over a year ago a friend whose church was sponsoring refugees reached out to see if I had a Jumperoo to donate to a five-month-old baby boy from Syria. That’s when I met Najwa and her three kids. They’d been placed here three weeks earlier, but their apartment was undersupplied and critical items were missing. There was a crib but no mattress—the baby had been sleeping in a basket. I thought, ‘What the hell is up with this situation?’ I came back with the spare crib mattress from my garage and then walked room to room with Najwa, making a list of things her family needed. They didn’t speak English, so I called a friend who translated Arabic via FaceTime. At first it was diapers and formula, but soon it was clear they needed much more: toilet paper, cleaning supplies, furniture. I went home and posted the list on Facebook. Within two days I was loading up my ‘mom car’ with crowd-sourced supplies to take to their house.

Ahlam and Israa Al Mustafa arrived from Aleppo, Syria, in January

Photo by Christina Gandolfo

That was my first family. Today Miry’s List provides more than 100 new-arrival families across Southern California with everything from supplies and housing to emotional support and job creation. The goal is to take people from a mode of ‘survive’ to ‘thrive.’ We recently developed an app (basically a language-free version of Amazon) that puts the list-making into the hands of the refugees, allowing them to choose for themselves whether they want purple or white sheets—a small but powerful taste of freedom. Our New Ar-rival Supper Club events sell out within hours and feature incredible Middle Eastern foods cooked by, and served by, refugees. Our latest challenge is raising funds to pay off travel loans, which families are forced to take out because—get ready to have your mind blown—they have to purchase their own flights to the United States.

Like I said, I’m no expert. I’m just a mother who connected with another mother and saw a chance to solve a problem. A year ago I was in the throes of postpartum depression. Today I wake up every single day to my phone over- flowing with messages of gratitude. It’s changed my wiring—it’s changed my life.” —AS TOLD TO LESLEY BARGAR SUTER

Bethany Yellowtail 

Native American artists often aren’t given a voice in mainstream fashion. This one is working to bring authentic, indigenous designs to the masses

Photo by Christopher Patey

Bethany Yellowtail was raised on Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations in southeastern Montana. “There’s not a lot of opportunity,” she says. “When I said I wanted to be a fashion designer, I think my family thought I was crazy.”

Her knack for it, though, is innate. She learned to sew from her grandmother and discovered the art of powwow shawls from her aunt. She made her own clothes in high school during a home-ec class. “My teacher saw that I had a unique perspective,” Yellowtail says. “She encouraged me to consider a career in fashion design.” And so she did. In 2007, Yellowtail enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising downtown. “I felt so out of place, I almost left,” Yellowtail says of L.A. “Instead I threw myself into my studies.”

In 2010, she landed a temp job at BCBG as an assistant pattern maker. Four years later she knew it was time to strike out on her own. “I’m not happy when I’m not learning,” she says. “So I went all in for B.Yellowtail. The brand melds her Native American roots with modern silhouettes: Silk wrap dresses printed with elk teeth are a nod to traditional Crow Nation regalia; tribal patterns adorn tank tops and maxi dresses. The company also partners with Native American artisans who craft jewelry, bags, and quilts as part of an artist collective—an effort on Yellowtail’s part to give them a platform in an industry that freely poaches their aesthetic. “Brands like Pendleton have built a business on indigenous design,” she says. “It’s not OK. There’s something missing when it’s just topical.”

Yellowtail has made a name for herself among the celebrity set, and while her success is exciting, it’s also a reminder. “When I look at my designs, I see my ancestors,” she says. “There needs to be space for someone with a perspective like mine—someone who can give an authentic voice that comes directly from our people.” —LINDA IMMEDIATO

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer

As president and CEO of LA Family Housing, she’s taking steps toward addressing the homeless crisis by building a multimillion-dollar complex

Photo by Christopher Patey

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer first dreamed of the new Campus at LA Family Housing in 2007, on the morning of her second LAFH interview. Back then a state-of-the-art, 80,000-square-foot complex dedicated to helping the city’s homeless population seemed like a pipe dream. It took ten years for Klasky-Gamer’s vision to become a reality. Construction is well underway on the $50 million project, which will, in conjunction with the passage of measures H and HHH, make real strides toward reducing homelessness in Los Angeles. Situated on the site of the old Fiesta Motel in the San Fernando Valley, the campus will provide 50 units of permanent housing for families and single adults; a health center opening in 2018 will offer medical, legal, and mental health care to both residents and nonresidents. “Homelessness was caused by people and can be solved by people,” Klasky-Gamer says. “That’s why I feel so committed to working with a broader community to solve this crisis.” We asked her for three strategies that could help change attitudes about homelessness:

Get Involved:
“The first step is to engage: Understand what causes homelessness, understand somebody’s story. A friend of mine recently learned that his colleague and her daughter had no place to live. She is earning $50,000 a year, which does not sound like a low-wage job. But her daughter has medical needs, and Mom can’t make ends meet. They have been sleeping on friends’ and family’s couches for six months. That’s kind of crazy. People might have one image in their mind—and that’s not to say the image isn’t real, but it’s not the fullest picture. So say hello. Ask someone’s name. Volunteer.”

Become a Mouthpiece:
“I don’t just mean political advocacy. That friend of mine— he couldn’t picture someone like his colleague not being able to pay for housing. He’s learning something new, and he’s going to become a lifelong advocate because his eyes have been opened in a different way.”

Say No to Nimbyism:
“We are so dependent on philanthropy, but support comes in other ways, too. It could be coming out to tour a building in your neighborhood. When people have taken the time to do that, they are blown away. ‘The best housing on the block’ is our motto in the affordable-housing industry. People have some image in their mind, just like they might have some image of who we’re serving. This dispels those myths. Go hear a story and feel the direct impact you can have on someone’s life.” —MARIELLE WAKIM

Alicia Rivera

The community organizer details her quest for environmental justice in Wilmington, where residents live in the shadow of an oil facility

Photo by Christopher Patey

“I came from El Salvador in 1980, fleeing the civil war, and became really involved in human rights and refugee rights. One day I saw this position offered for a community organizer, and to my amazement, I got the job. There’d been a large explosion at the refinery in Wilmington, so this organization wanted an accountability campaign. When I went to see the community in Wilmington, it was mostly monolingual and low income.

The largest oil-extraction facility on this side of the Mississippi River is in Wilmington. They bought a facility that had 19 oil wells, and they put in 540 wells. Imagine: from 19 to 540 wells. They simply grandfathered the permit. So they can operate every day, 24 hours a day. When I went by the facility, you couldn’t hear yourself. I knew that kind of thing would not be  allowed in Beverly Hills or Santa Monica or Hancock Park. Only in Wilmington. People just have to put up with the noise, with the smell, the dust.

Just a mile and a half away is Palos Verdes, and they don’t even allow billboards there. But down below it’s like the dumping area. That’s because most of the people are immigrants, Latino. I visit people—that’s my job [at Communities for a Better Environment]: to try to get them involved, to fight for themselves. I am appalled about how ill people are. I met this woman who is really involved in the community, and her daughter has asthma. With tears in her eyes, she told me that when her daughter gets asthma attacks, she waits and waits until the point she needs to call 911. When she notices her daughter turning purple, she knows it’s time. But she always wonders if she’s going to make it in time. People cannot afford to pay for the ambulance.

How can those things be allowed? It’s overwhelming. But you can’t regress once you’re committed. I conduct trainings about environmental issues, and when I tell people about it, they are amazed. People change their habits: save more water, save electricity. The greatest reward is for people to accept me and see me as a leader. They offer me their homes and their trust and their limited time to support my cause—which is their cause. It humbles me that people say, ‘Alicia, you have to be here,’ and I say, ‘Why? I really don’t feel like I am anybody.’ But they do think I am somebody.” —AS TOLD TO JULIA HERBST

Niki Nakayama

The barrier-breaking chef bridges cultures with her innovative cuisine

Going into the restaurant business was never part of Niki Nakayama’s plan. Her parents, both Japanese immigrants, founded a company in 1986 that supplied seafood to L.A.’s growing number of sushi restaurants. In her youth she spent weekends at their downtown warehouse. “It was cold, it smelled bad,” she recalls. But during a long visit with her aunt in northwest Tokyo at 19, she experienced cooking’s magnetic pull. “There was something about working with my hands—about feeling connected with my heritage,” she says.

After graduating from culinary school, the 22-year-old Nakayama trained under chef Takao Izumida at his eponymous Brentwood sushi house. In 2000, she opened her own place, the all-female-run Azami Sushi Café, on Melrose. The restaurant closed in the wake of the recession, but even when business was good, she was faced with a tough cultural reality: “I saw this stigma around women making sushi,” she says.

It was in kaiseki, a  multi-course dining style Nakayama studied in Japan (see page 110), that she found freedom of expression. “There weren’t many chefs doing kaiseki in L.A., so there was no prejudice about who could cook it,” she says. Since opening her second restaurant, n/naka, in 2011, Nakayama has emerged as one of L.A.’s defining culinary figures. Her intricate tasting menus tack between tradition and innovation, drawing from the Buddhist philosophies that ground kaiseki and the ingredients she sources from across California (and her garden).

“It wasn’t about re-creating Kyoto on Overland,” she says. “Kaiseki is in using what’s around you.”

Despite garnering critical acclaim—and starring in an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table—Nakayama, along with her wife and co-chef, Carole Iida-Nakayama, are dedicated to omotenashi (placing a guest’s experience above all else). “The most important lesson I’ve learned,” she says, “is to trust yourself, even when well- intentioned people tell you otherwise.” —GARRETT SNYDER

Joanne Heyler

The Broad’s founding director is behind the museum’s marquee contemporary art

When more than 800,000 visitors flocked to the Broad museum downtown the year after it opened (double what was predicted), no one who works closely with its dynamic director was surprised. Only 26 when she became assistant curator of the Broad Art Foundation, Joanne Heyler has been ramping up the blue-chip collection of the billionaire philanthropist for decades.

The average age of your visitors is 33, while at art museums nationally it’s almost 46. The majority also identify as nonwhite.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better fulfillment of our mission, which was to bring contemporary art to a wide audience. What it comes down to is a combination of things but also to the fact that, in my view, downtown doesn’t belong to any particular type of Angeleno; it’s everyone’s center of the city.”

You’ve worked hard to break down the wall between the institution and the public.
“We’ve gone to a great length to change the way it feels to be a visitor at a museum. For example, someone told me that they saw a young girl getting a little too close to a painting. What was said in this instance, and I was really happy to hear this, was that it was a really smart thing to point out the painting, but you need to do it from this distance. That kind of approach to helping people engage—maybe even learn how to observe a work of art—is a big part of what we do.”

Any desire to be an artist yourself?
“As a kid, I was interested in both writing and art. As a teenager, I realized that through art history I could put those interests together. I never looked back after that.” —ANN HEROLD

Nina Shaw

She champions Hollywood’s artists of color, brokering their deals and offering sage advice

It was Shirley Chisholm—the first African American congresswoman and the first African-American to run for president—who said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Which is exactly what Nina Shaw did (quoting Chisholm along the way). At 62, Shaw is a 35-year veteran of the entertainment law industry and a founding partner of the boutique firm Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano. She masterfully strikes deals for clients like Ava DuVernay, Lupita Nyong’o, John Legend, and Misty Copeland in one of Hollywood’s most underrepresented cohorts: artists of color. “Many times I’ve underestimated myself,” DuVernay says. “Nina reminds me to place my value in context with other filmmakers who may not be black and who may not be women—to get out of the mentality of ‘I’m just happy to be here.’ Recently she says, ‘Why do you have to be happy with what he’s getting? Why can’t you get more?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes!’ ”

A graduate of Barnard College and Columbia Law School, Shaw started her career at O’Melveny & Myers, where she worked on some of Norman Lear’s groundbreaking sitcoms (The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, Facts of Life). “I was meeting people who had never met a black lawyer— much less a black female lawyer—in person,” she says.

Shaw eventually launched her own practice, where today about half of the lawyers are women. “In a profession that is 88 percent white men, there are not enough people like me,” she says. “There are a lot more women than there have been, but they do not advance to the highest levels in the same proportion as men do.”

Shaw helped DuVernay choose the four agents she works with—all women, three of whom are of color. When it comes to advising her clients about professional representation, “perhaps they’ll be drawn to a guy, and that’s OK,” Shaw says. “But I’d look at the rest of that guy’s business, and I’d say, ‘How many women work here? Are any of them owners?’ You have the right to ask. When you ask, it makes people think. And when people start thinking, they go from thought to action.” —MARIELLE WAKIM

Wardrobe by Black Halo and Ripley Rader

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