Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Founder of Million Dollar Hoods

History Serves

How scholarly research can impact communities.

Living in San Diego, Kelly Lytle Hernández ’96 couldn’t have been older than eight when she witnessed something so troubling it had a lasting effect on the scholar she would become: She was playing in the schoolyard and came across her friend, crying. Her uncle had been deported the night before.

And as a student at UC San Diego when Proposition 187 was passed, she volunteered at a small health clinic where she helped migrant workers who feared a hospital visit would mean they’d never see their loved ones again. “I saw how painful the U.S. immigration regime is for families,” she says.

These experiences affected Lytle Hernández so deeply she would dedicate her life to uncovering the rise of U.S. immigration as a story of race, policing and mass incarceration.

This focus has resulted in two books; a UCLA professorship in history, African American studies and urban planning; and a unique big data project that maps the fiscal and human costs of mass incarceration in Los Angeles. It’s a body of work that recently earned her a MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as the “Genius Grant.”

Lytle Hernández’s academic roots run deep: her father, Cecil Lytle, taught in the music department for 34 years, and was a longtime provost of Marshall College and a founding member of The Preuss School at UC San Diego. “I pretty much grew up on campus,” she says with a laugh. “I remember back when there were many more trees and a lot fewer buildings.”

As a student, she initially majored in chemistry until an ethnic studies course sparked a passion that had long been lying in wait. It was a natural switch to make, she says: “To learn from some of the best critical thinkers on race and gender in the country? I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Thank God for GE requirements!”

After graduating, she spent a year in South Africa working on a farm school before returning to the UC system for graduate and post-doc work. She was driven throughout it all by her family’s dedication to community service and social justice, and a passion for history.

Lytle Hernández’s most recent book, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, takes a critical look at the rise of mass incarceration in Los Angeles, which currently maintains the nation’s largest jail system. In writing the book, she was initially stymied by the lack of historical records kept by the Los Angeles police and sheriff’s departments. She instead tracked down documents that comprise what she coined the “rebel archive,” records that survived state destruction and were saved by people seeking change. The archive allowed her to track how the rise of mass incarceration in Los Angeles across two centuries amounted to a system of mass elimination, designed to remove indigenous and racialized communities from the area.

This conclusion fueled her desire to join others in the movement to end mass incarceration. Working with organizers and advocates based in Los Angeles, she developed Million Dollar Hoods, a research project that maps how much public funds are spent on incarceration per neighborhood. The broad-based project revealed how certain neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted by L.A.’s jail system and how the county’s budget is inordinately used to incarcerate residents of a few neighborhoods, often on health-related charges like drug possession and driving under the influence. Honing into the costs of incarceration, Million Dollar Hoods has supported efforts to shift public funding away from police and jails, toward systems that are proven to create thriving families and communities, such as housing, education and health services.

For instance, a recent Million Dollar Hoods report titled “Policing Our Students” sparked such a change. With an analysis of arrest data collected by the Los Angeles School Police (LASP), the Million Dollar Hoods team revealed that deep racialized disparities persist in school-based arrests and that one of every four arrests made by the LASP was of a child in elementary or middle school. In response to these findings, the L.A. County School District pulled together a work group to find ways to end the disparities, stop arrests of children younger than 15 and divert resources into social support services. Lytle Hernández hopes that similar findings and resulting actions can likewise address other systemic issues. “Imagine if we diverted the money now spent to lock people up to fund substance abuse programs, better housing and more employment options,” she says.

It’s an example of what can happen when university research meets grassroots action to effect real, institutional change. This is the core of her work, and in a sense, what her life experience has led to: a deep-seated commitment to use research to advance racial justice in the United States by dismantling systems of mass deportation and incarceration.