The city of Los Angeles recently honored Mike Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design, for his civic leadership.
Woo received special recognition, along with philanthropist/chemist Myung Ki Hong, founder of DuraCoats Products, Inc., during a May 30 ceremony. The event marked the conclusion of a month of festivities celebrating Asian Pacific Heritage Month.
Councilman David Ryu honored Woo for his pioneering role as the city’s first Asian American council member. Woo was elected at age 33 to represent the 235,000 residents of District 13, which encompassed Hollywood, Highland Park, Elysian Valley, Laurel Canyon and their surrounding communities. Congresswoman Judy Chu also celebrated Woo at a lunch reception at Los Angeles City Hall’s Bradley Tower.
“He is the true trailblazer who helped pave the way for countless Asian Americans who aspire to work in public service, including yours truly,” said Ryu, the city’s second Asian American council member. “To this day, Councilmember Woo continues to give back by building and shaping the next generation of leaders as dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona. Councilmember Woo brings a unique background in public service, urban planning and community building to his students.”
Woo’s ceremonies at City Council chambers and Bradley Tower were attended by his family and relatives, a small delegation from Cal Poly Pomona and his college, and about a dozen of his former city council staff.
“Even though I do not have a PhD, I consider my eight years as a member of this governing body to be the PhD that I got,” Woo said, addressing councilmembers. “It was a PhD not in a traditional subject, but it was a PhD in learning how to provide leadership for a fully ethnic community. That is the degree that I will submit to you that is still much needed in other cities, in other countries and around the world…If any of you know of young people in your districts who would like to become architects, urban planners, landscape architects, graphic designers, art historians, who want to go out and help change the world, please send them to me.”
Woo served two terms in office, from 1985-1993. During his tenure, he spearheaded the Hollywood Redevelopment Plan and played a key role in choosing the route and station locations for the Metro Red Line. In a move considered politically risky at the time, he was the first council member to call for the resignation of former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates after the police beating of Rodney King, an African American motorist. The acquittal of the four white police officers involved sparked the 1992 Los Angeles Riots – five days of civil unrest and violence that left 60 dead and 2,000 injured, and cost $1 billion in damages.
“When I introduced a resolution declaring the city of Los Angeles a sanctuary city, some wondered, why did an Asian American do that and not a Latino, or when I became the first member of the council to call for the chief of police to step down, some people opened their eyes and asked why did an Asian American speak out on that issue?” Woo said. “What I learned after eight years on this council is that in LA as well as elsewhere in the United States, and actually around the world, there is a need for leadership which gets beyond the kind of tribalism that tends to separate us, a leadership which tries to move us ahead for what’s best for the city overall.”
The riots connect Woo and Hong. In addition to demanding Gates’ resignation, Woo pushed for reforms in the LAPD. Hong pledged millions of dollars to help rebuild the Korean American community, where Asian-owned businesses were targeted and destroyed.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who endorsed Woo’s 1993 mayoral candidacy, once recalled walking the streets of Los Angeles together after the riots and conversations about investment and business development. In a press conference in the same year, he acknowledged the uncommon involvement of a national figure in a city election.
“I think Mike Woo is the better candidate because I know him, I know how he thinks, and I know he can figure out how to make this stuff work,” Clinton said. “And in the end, the test of our endeavors is not how well we speak or what we say as much as whether we can change the lives of people. That’s the way we ought to ultimately keep score. So that’s why I took this position.”