Mara Cohen’s parents used to tell her that most people “will pass through this world and leave it the same or a little bit worse.”
“And the implicit thing was that you want to be in that other group,” she said. “You want to be in the group that maybe makes the world just a little bit better.”
Cohen’s parents never believed in the persistent American myth of the self-made individual. Her mother frequently talked about the federally-subsidized housing that made it possible for her grandmother, who was raising kids on her own, to move out of the tiny room she was renting behind a grocery store, and into a new housing project in New Jersey. Cohen’s father, a mathematician, told her his success was made possible by a federal program that paid for his higher education.
“Those were their narratives that shaped my understanding of the world,” Cohen said. “And I really internalized how these policies have a profound impact on people’s lives.”
Cohen taught political science and urban studies at Loyola Marymount University and is a senior fellow at the school’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles. She’s an advisory board member of Kids in Need of Defense, which provides free legal and social services to unaccompanied immigrant children and separated families, and is also a longtime member of OneLA, a network of diverse religious and non-profit institutions fighting for equity and justice in LA County.
It was through her work with OneLA that Cohen first became acquainted with NLSLA during the foreclosure crisis of 2008, when the organization set up foreclosure prevention clinics to help people in danger of losing their homes in the northeast valley’s low-income communities.
“I just saw the power of this organization,” she said. “The team of lawyers was able to systematically document what was happening and connect these individual cases to a much larger picture, helping families hold onto their homes while also working to fix the problem on a larger scale.”
That combination of working on individual cases while building a strategy to address the larger issues left an impression on Cohen, who joined NLSLA’s board in April.
“I’m honored to join this organization which has already had such a huge impact,” she said. “And I’m excited about the ways in which the organization is expanding, and about the impact it will have on Los Angeles communities in the future.”
Cohen is especially excited about NLSLA’s growing advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities. Her own brother was born with a rare, incurable neurological disease in 1965. He was given only five years to live, but he lived to 28. Her parents struggled to get him the supports he needed to go to school and improve his quality of life.
“I just saw how systems and policies affect people with disabilities,” she said. “In addition to having to worry about his daily care and immediate needs, my parents really had to be advocates for him because there were no systems in place to protect him. They had to fight for everything.”
Cohen is looking forward to contributing to NLSLA’s work on behalf of marginalized communities, and to helping advance the organization’s mission of fighting for individual rights and social change. She hopes the work will give her another opportunity to leave the world a little better.
“I know for certain that just by being in the presence of the people doing this work, it will elevate me. It will leave me a little better.”