When President Rosenbaum was approached by former Pasadena Mayor, Terry Tornek, with an idea to demystify local government and encourage community involvement, his office sought out the Y – well known for civic engagement and public service programming – to take the lead on what would become a local government seminar series for students. Although Mayor Tornek knew that scientists are well educated and have analytical thought processes that could be applied to local issues, local government is often a mystery, which can make participation unappealing. He was interested in providing information that could allow citizen-scientists to apply their critical thinking to benefit their communities. The Caltech Y staff assembled a planning team, including student leaders from the Student Executive Committee (ExComm) and the Student Activism Speaker Series (SASS) Committee, to partner with him to craft a program to meet his impressive goal.
The resulting Local Government Seminar Series took place over six weeks in October and November with four interactive, 2½-hour seminars providing an overview of local government structure, roles, and services; an examination of relationships with local businesses (Caltech), state, and federal governments; and an exploration into current issues like affordable housing, YIMBYs / NIMBYs, and grassroots politics and citizen participation. Participation was capped to ensure an intimate experience, and applicants committed to attending all four seminars. The series proceeded with eight undergraduate students, six graduate students, and one staff member.
Participants benefited from the wealth of experience that Mayor Tornek brought to the role of facilitator. He was mayor from 2015 to 2020, the second-longest serving in Pasadena’s history, and before that, served on the Pasadena City Council (elected 2009, re-elected 2013). He was Chairman of the Finance Committee, a member of the Municipal Services and Legislative Policy Committees, the City Council appointee to the Fire and Police Retirement Board, was Pasadena’s representative to the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments, and the Secretary of the Burbank Airport Authority. He was deeply involved in the city’s financial planning, affordable housing initiatives, and the City’s planning and development decision-making process. Tornek graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School with a degree in Public and International Affairs and earned a Master of Science in Urban Planning from Columbia University’s School of Architecture. He served in the Army National Guard and Reserves for six years.
The seminar sessions were interactive and engaging, and most participants arrived half an hour before the start time each week to join each other and the mayor for dinner outside on the patio. After the series, one student said, “It was fascinating to get so much time with someone who knows our city so well. As scientists it can be easy to get caught up in a bubble, but the Caltech Y is great at connecting us with the wider world.” The series was a great success and one that we hope to repeat or expand upon in years to come.