By Cristy Lytal
In the 2020 races for city councils and school boards, candidates from the USC Price School of Public Policy are putting their graduate degrees to good use. Current student Brian Burley and alumni Zhen Wu, Danielle Guillen, and Peter Wright offer a glimpse into their 2020 campaigns for the city councils in Huntington Beach and San Clemente, and the school boards in Redlands and the Santa Ynez Valley.
Brian Burley: Candidate for Huntington Beach City Council
A native of Wayland, Michigan, Brian Burley first stepped onto the sands of Huntington Beach in 2007, while his mother was receiving cancer treatments at the City of Hope.
“I came out here, and I would jump in the ocean, which in the winter’s really cold,” he said. “People would be in sweatshirts looking at me like I’m crazy, but I just came from Michigan, where it’s below zero. I fell in love with it—Huntington Beach, Surf City USA, that whole vibe.”
Meanwhile, back in Michigan, the Great Recession shut down his grandfather’s automotive consulting company. Eventually, his grandparents moved West—first to Arizona, and then to Nevada.
“Politics truly impacts every part of your life,” said Burley. “And that was a time when it became more and more prevalent through my life, whether it was our family potentially foreclosing on our house or my family losing businesses.”
His mother passed away in 2011, and Burley started college the following year. It was during the 2012 election that he developed a full-blown passion for politics.
After receiving his associate’s degree in political science and government from California State University, Fullerton, he transferred to his dream school—USC. While he was a still a student majoring in political economy, he moved to Huntington Beach, deciding it was well worth a longer commute to campus.
After graduation, Burley remained a dedicated Trojan, working in IT at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and pursuing his Master of Public Policy at USC Price. He also started his own IT consulting and social media marketing business, called Burley Technology LLC, and campaigned for Huntington Beach City Council in November 2018, and for the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2020.
Although he wasn’t elected in his race that year, he learned a lot and decided to make another bid for Huntington Beach City Council in November 2020.
“I wasn’t going to do this race, and then COVID happened, and then everybody kept asking me to do it,” he said. “And I had all the name recognition from March. And so running now for City Council, hopefully, this works out.”
If elected, his number one priority will be to improve the City’s financial planning by requiring the creation of a 10-year budget framework, updated on an annual basis. He’ll also work to address the issue of homelessness.
Burley sees public service as a way to give back to his community: “I’m doing it to fix some things.”
Zhen Wu: Candidate for San Clemente City Council
Price alumnus Zhen Wu traces his interest in urban design, architecture and planning back to his earliest childhood.
“My father was a mason, so I played on construction sites,” said Wu, who grew up in the city of Yixing in China’s Jiangsu province.
After graduating from high school, Wu pursued a degree in architecture with a minor in urban design from Tsinghua University. After working for 5 years as a planner and architect in China, he moved to the United States to pursue dual master’s degrees in planning at USC Price and architecture at the USC School of Architecture.
At the same time, his wife was pursuing a graduate degree in computer science at State University of New York on the opposite coast.
After graduation, the couple settled in San Clemente—the perfect halfway point between Wu’s job in Newport Beach, and his wife’s work in San Diego County. They bought a house and had a baby—who now attends San Clemente High School.
“We are very happy living here in San Clemente,” said Wu. “We have perfect weather. And especially the City of San Clemente has lots of open space. It’s a coastal community, and we pretty much have everything here. We’re happy, and we want to retire here.”
Wu eventually founded his own practice, ZW&A Planning and Architecture, in San Clemente. This allowed him the flexibility to serve his community as a member of the City of San Clemente Planning Commission.
Recently, San Clemente had some major changes in leadership, and the City Council deferred many important decisions, including hiring a City Manager.
“The biggest reason I want to step forward is that I see the city government is a little bit dysfunctional, so I believe I have the capability to help,” said Wu. “And the other reason is that the Planning Commission makes the recommendation to the City Council, and they don’t always follow it, for their political considerations. And I feel that if I were on City Council, I can make those decisions based more on rationality and reasoning, based on professional judgments.”
If elected, Wu also hopes to facilitate the reopening of the local hospital, renew legislation to permanently protect San Clemente from the construction of a toll road, set up a regional homeless shelter, and pursue economic development opportunities and conservative fiscal policies to ensure long-term prosperity. Overall, his goal is to preserve San Clemente’s character as a “Spanish village by the Sea.”
“I want to run for City Council,” said Wu, “because I believe I can make a positive impact on the community.”
Danielle Guillen: Candidate for Redlands School Board
When it came time for Danielle Guillen to start public school in Redlands, her parents used the address of the only people they knew who didn’t live in the low-income part of town. This enabled Guillen to go to a better public elementary school than the one in her neighborhood.
“In the 90s, that was a felony, and there are still parents who get arrested for that,” said Guillen. “So I remember not being able to tell my teachers my home address, and memorizing our friends’ address—things to access kindergarten that I don’t think other kindergarteners have to do.”
Guillen excelled in school and earned admission into Yale University, where she majored in history and gained an even deeper perspective into the educational equity issue in the U.S.
“I volunteered in New Haven public schools, and there were certain things that my tutorees did not have, like textbooks,” she said. “And then compare that to the experiences of my colleagues at Yale, who talked about taking trips to Europe that were paid for by the school and being able to have 3D printing before it was even a thing.”
Her experiences inspired Guillen to sign up with Teach for America and spend two years as a teacher on the Navajo Nation in Gallup, New Mexico. Her students faced many educational barriers, including a lack of running water or electricity in some homes.
Inspired to better understand the government policies that affect schools, Guillen pursued her Master of Public Policy at USC Price.
“I wanted to figure out: is it just education policy that is affecting our schools, or is it housing policies, environmental policies and policies around transportation? What exactly is it that’s making my job so hard as a teacher?”
After graduating from USC, Guillen served as the Director of Organizing and Policy for the Board of Education at the Los Angeles Unified School District. She now performs a similar role at the national level as the Director of Strategic Policy and Organizing Support for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity.
Recently, Guillen decided to move back to Redlands to be closer to her family and particularly to her little sister, who is 16 years her junior.
“I realized that the school board seat was up, and I had been working with my sister and spending a lot of time just navigating the racism in Redlands schools for students of color,” said Guillen. “We at least need a school board member who knows these issues. And then, we need leadership, at the minimum, that is responsive to community needs. And also we need equity focused leaders that truly believe that all students deserve access to an education.”
Guillen assembled a campaign team led by fellow USC Price alumni Lorraine Sturdevant and Mitzi Salgado, and bolstered by several other supporters and volunteers from the school.
“One thing I do want people to know about the race is that I’m going against a white male incumbent,” said Guillen. “And research out of the University of California, Riverside, when looking at women running against incumbents, particularly in San Bernardino County, says we don’t win. And what’s cool about this campaign is we really have a shot at winning and a shot at overturning this incumbent, and that’s all because I’ve leveraged a lot of my connections from Price, not only in fundraising, but also in campaign support and phone banking. And it’s been cool to see how my grad school community in particular has come through, and that’s important to this race.”
Peter Wright: Candidate for Santa Ynez Valley High School Board
As a candidate for the Santa Ynez Valley School Board, Peter Wright has found it helpful to be the son of a local celebrity.
“My mother was a second-grade teacher,” said Wright, “so a lot of folks know me through my mother.”
Wright grew up in the Danish capital of America, Solvang—a town famous for its aebleskivers, pastries, and pinot noir. He developed an early interest in civic life.
“My friends in school always put my name on the ballot, at some point, at every election,” he said. “I grew up getting to do a lot of fun things on student council and student government.”
As a politics major at Occidental College, Wright was one of the students chosen to staff a state commission on education excellence, chaired by Occidental College President Ted Mitchell. This sparked Wright’s passion for educational policy.
After graduation, Wright taught kindergarten and elementary school in rural North Carolina through Teach for America.
“I’d be so tired at the end of the day that I’d fall asleep on my reading carpet after all of my kindergarten students left,” he said.
With the intention of diving deeper into educational policy, he pursued a Capital Fellowship in the Office of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He ended up finding a mentor in the Governor’s homeland security advisor, which eventually led to a job as the first ever Director of Emergency Planning and Preparedness for the California Community Colleges. In this role, he designed and implemented plans to prepare the state’s community colleges for emergencies ranging from active shooters to fires, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis.
While working for the California Community Colleges, he earned his Master of Public Administration degree from USC and subsequently began a PhD program in Political Science at University of California, Santa Barbara.
During his PhD program, he became the Policy and Programs Officer for the California School Boards Association.
“I had this dream job there,” he said, and I was in this little think tank where we got to just come up with ideas to help school board members be better school board members—whether that was understanding the role as the governing body of a school district or thinking about how to help kids learn better. It was just a really fun time.”
He also began working as an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco (USF), teaching courses in the School of Management’s Master of Public Administration Program.
“The reason I am at USF is because Rich Callahan, one of the associate deans who was one of my mentors at USC Price, went over to USF to become a department chair,” said Wright. “He called me up, and he said, ‘Would you consider teaching this class?’ And that was the start of a very long relationship with USF.”
He started teaching at USF while living in San Francisco, and continued to commute to the Bay Area weekly after moving back to the Santa Ynez Valley. He’s currently teaching remotely due to the pandemic. Although he doesn’t miss the long drive up the 101 freeway, he does miss being in the classroom with students.
Recently, he was presented with an opportunity to run for the school board of his alma mater, Santa Ynez Valley Union High School. He jumped at the chance.
“It’s something I always wanted to do, because I do love school boards,” he said. “Being so connected locally, it’s a democratic institution that everyone can feel like they have a part of. Everyone either went to school or had a kid that went to school.”
If elected, he plans to prioritize academic excellence, and to create a positive environment for all students by listening and responding to community voices.
“It’s a really important role that I take very seriously,” he said. “And it has the possibility to create a lot of positive change.”
November 2020 election results were not available for all candidates mentioned in this story at the time of publication.
Are you a Price graduate, current student, staff or faculty member who has been recently elected or seeking an elected position? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Please email [email protected]