Aja Brown wasn’t raised in Compton. Her mother fled the city to raise her children after her own mother—Aja’s grandmother—was raped and murdered. Though Aja moved back in 2009, it was last July Aja had truly came home. She was sworn in as mayor.
At 31, Aja (pronounced like Asia) seems so much the opposite—and perhaps the antidote—of what her city is known for, the cradle of gangster rap. She was a kid when NWA dropped their Straight Outta Compton, a shotguns-and-misogyny-laden record that painted a particularly violent urban landscape. Then there’s Aja, she studied urban planning at USC, has been written up in Vogue, and is pragmatic about being a visionary leader.
"You have to be able to see past your circumstances, especially working in a city like Compton," she says. "You really have to be focused on what it is you're trying to achieve."
Her goal: Make Compton the new Brooklyn, a center for foodies, indie rock, and plaid shirts. But the transformation isn’t about putting an American Apparel at every corner; it’s a matter of leadership—especially in a town that had its last mayor convicted of corruption. She says:
In the community of Compton they've had so many leaders that have abused the public's trust—there was a small segment of the community who just weren't sure, people weren't willing to bet on change. I'm very deliberate in making certain that people can see and touch me and make sure I'm real and see that my passion for the community is sincere.
That accessibility is a theme with Brown. Every quarter she hosts a "coffee with the mayor," where anybody can ask her about what’s happening in the city. She’s on Instagram, and just like you and me, she takes pictures of her banana pancakes. Her Twitter is for real—she recruits interns, retweets constituents, gets stoked about bald eagles. She goes to schools and talks to students and principals. When she and her husband aren’t at their home church on Sundays, they're touring others. As Brown says, this is a matter of building bonds, re-establishing a relationship between the government and the people of the city.
At the start of her term she had a nonprofit call to action, bringing together all the churches and organizations in the area together to take an inventory of what they're providing and address the communications gap between nonprofits and the needs of the community.
But it’s not all Instagramed pancakes. Much of her workday is about keeping a commitment to her priorities. So she keeps a clean schedule—Monday for internal meetings, Tuesdays for the City Council Meeting, and on Fridays city hall's closed so she can actually get some research and execution done. She always refers back to her 12-point plan of initiatives. Each day she has a handful of priorities, listed on a big board in the office and on her iPad.
"There's only one of me and you only have 24 hours in the day," she says. "People will always want a portion of your time. I prioritize it that way—if it's not specific to what I'm working on right now or in the next 30 days, then I just have to put it on the back burner. There's so many good things that you can do, but you have to be specific and focused to be effective. My goal is to be as effective a mayor as possible."
In her mayoral office, there's no "big I" and "little you," she says. She delegates—it empowers people and if mistakes get made, then inefficiencies get addressed. If something can't get done, she fills in the gaps. It's about that big picture vision. Attending to it requires accessibility.
"Even though I'm the mayor, we all have an equal stake in this, and the team doesn't work without each person being in place," she says. "I learned that from my mother: she instilled in my brother and I that we were a team. Even though she was the team captain, she definitely had the authority and she was the team member—she's going to do her part, I'm going to do my part. That's how I grew up."