Michael Skiles was at a meet-the-candidates event in 2017 while running unopposed for Graduate Students Association president when he heard a new brewery wanted to open in Westwood.
It started a chain of events that would see him help subdivide Westwood into two.
Skiles, a graduate student in philosophy, former three-time president of the GSA, former president of the Weyburn and Hilgard Residents’ Association, leader of Westwood Forward and former president and current renter stakeholder of the North Westwood Neighborhood Council, is graduating this year.
Skiles said he has wanted to pursue a career in politics for as long as he can remember.
“I remember when I was in fifth grade, watching, intently, the 2000 election, and the Florida recount and what’s going to happen,” Skiles said. “How would you manage these situations? And then, (in school), you’ll learn about these cases and you learn about inspiring people who’ve changed the community.”
Skiles ended up making his start in community organizing at UCLA volunteering on the WHRA board, which represents the 2,000 graduate students living in Hilgard’s graduate student housing. At the end of his third year, the officers decided he should step up as president.
While president of Hilgard’s graduate student housing, he said a big issue came up – UCLA was going to tear down the Kinross Recreation Center, a gym for graduate students.
“I was seeing needs for the urban community, and I thought, you know, though I was able to impact the discussion about the gym and about rents in my Weyburn capacity, I thought I had an opportunity to influence these conversations more and bring a broader coalition together as president,” Skiles said. “So I ran for GSA president.”
Skiles won the office of GSA president for the first time in fall 2016. Early in his first term, his Save KREC Task Force succeeded and the administration agreed to build a new $5 million gym to replace the old one.
In his new role as GSA president, Skiles began working with the other graduate student advocacy clubs on campus to accomplish initiatives to benefit students.
Under Skiles, the GSA successfully advocated for prenatal care at the UCLA Arthur Ashe Student Health & Wellness Center, helped expand parking for graduate students during weekends and negotiated with UCLA to slow rent increases for graduate students in university housing.
Then, as he ran for his second term as GSA president, he learned the Broxton Brewery was attempting to open in Westwood.
The brewery had to first receive its liquor license from the Westwood Neighborhood Council during its meeting that night. After his speech at the meet-the-candidates event, he and about seven other students left early to attend.
There, Skiles gave a short speech to the WWNC advocating for more entertainment options for students in Westwood. But after a council member claimed she thought students shouldn’t have as much of a say in managing the Village because they don’t own property there, Skiles said he and the other students walked out enraged.
“You know, she gave this speech thinking that there was justification in her speech,” Skiles said. “But what I saw in that speech was an elitist disregard for our community.”
He said it made him wonder how long the WWNC had been dismissive of student concerns.
Research into past WWNC meeting minutes revealed the neighborhood council had opposed Rocco’s Tavern and Barney’s Beanery, tried to prohibit Target from selling alcohol and once denied an alcohol license to a cafe run by an Iranian immigrant because council members argued he wasn’t able to speak English well enough to understand California liquor laws, Skiles said.
Furthermore, he found that voting for WWNC council members took place far from UCLA. Residents couldn’t remove council members from office or force them to move the polling station, so the only way to effect change was to split the neighborhood, he said.
“And I knew that if only there were an opportunity for all of us to inclusively be able to decide the direction of Westwood, that the informed electorate would move to vote Westwood forward,” Skiles said.
It was then that Westwood Forward was born.
Westwood Forward is a coalition that led the movement to subdivide jurisdiction of Westwood between the WWNC and a new North Westwood Neighborhood Council. In 2018, the movement received enough votes to establish the NWWNC, and Skiles was chosen as its president.
“Skiles deserves the credit,” said Andrew Thomas, executive director of Westwood Village Improvement Association. “He led the effort, he put together the coalition.”
Thomas said Skiles started the Westwood Forward movement with UCLA students, but succeeded because Skiles was able to reach out to different stakeholders in Westwood and form a coalition to advocate for Westwood as a whole.
“So (Skiles) had a message, and I think that message really resonates,” Thomas said. “It is notable that he met with stakeholders all over the district, he didn’t just talk to folks who agreed with him. He talked to people who vehemently disagreed with him.”
Cristina Farkas, a resident at UCLA Health and Skiles’ fiancee, said she thinks Skiles’ optimism and curiosity ultimately helped him meet and enjoy the challenges he faced.
“With starting the neighborhood council, for example, (he) reached out and figured out how to submit all the paperwork,” Farkas said. “You know, things that other students may have found a logistical challenge. (Skiles) knows that he’s capable and focused, (and he) keeps going for it until he figures it out. And he always figures it out.”
Skiles said he kept the staffers in his offices focused by following exciting, but nearly impossible goals – similar to “Game of Thrones.”
“When there are great injustices in the community that students can work together to tackle … the common foe that people can fight are like the white walkers, and the squabbles among student leaders are like squabbles between whether Jon Snow or Sansa should rule Winterfell,” Skiles said.
Farkas said she and Skiles intend to stay in Westwood to focus on their careers.
“Other than taking care of my cat, and balancing our growing careers, we don’t have any concrete plans,” Farkas said. “See our friends and family as much as we can. Continue to play strategy board games.”