Lily Larsen headshot

Building Community Through Connection

Lily Larsen, SPA/BA ’23, is no stranger to changemaking.

A 5th-generation Los Angeleno growing up in Mid City, Larsen has been involved in community organizing since childhood. She would attend local meetings with her mom as an elementary student and became known as the “Adolescent Activist” in her early teens. At 15, Larsen joined the Mayor’s Youth Council; at 19, she ran for Los Angeles City Council.

Larsen, however, doesn’t measure her accomplishments by these metrics. For her, changemaking is about human connection and “esteem-able acts”— building relationships, seeking out new perspectives, sharing stories.

She explains that her activism started locally. “I just kept looking for any opportunity available to learn about how politics works—not even ‘politics’ as in the game, but just how can I make sure that the people who raised me in my neighborhood feel like they are being taken care of and feel like their needs are being met.”

Larsen cited Mid City’s shortage of parks, recreation centers, and public art programming as her motivation to get involved. She believed the neighborhood’s youth felt this shortage most acutely. Inspired by her mother (actor and Shakespeare Youth Festival, LA founder Blaire Baron) and informed by first-hand experiences with theater education in Kenya and Mexico, Larsen started organizing after-school arts programs.

Her last project before coming to American University was a festival in which local artists and community members came together to create over 20 murals at elementary schools. Larsen hoped the murals could open doors for students who “maybe now would want to pursue art or pursue a creative outlet.”

It was this commitment to impact that led Larsen to study political science at AU. “What drew me to AU was the fact that there's a university where one of their main values is service and community,” she says.

With years of on-the-ground organizing and an AA in Public Policy from Santa Monica College, Larsen believes that she has brought unique lived experiences to a political science classroom.

One Larsen’s most significant takeaways stemmed from interpretations of “politics” itself.  During seminars with her SPA peers, she observed contrasting approaches to political involvement. Some students shared her local focus, while others gravitated toward macro-level structures.

Larsen wanted to have conversations with students to talk frankly about this spectrum of perspectives. She started with a question. “Why don’t we just create our community and then talk to other students and see how they feel about certain issues?” recalls Larsen.

What Larsen didn’t realize at the time was how this inquiry would shape her own passions and the future she envisioned for herself. Whereas she initially planned to return to LA politics after AU, she now saw opportunities in storytelling. She wanted to broach opinions head on.

“Politically, it seems like you're either on one side or the other. And what I learned from talking to students was that it's not true,” Larsen explains. “A lot of students really want to learn from different sides and get a well-rounded perspective on all these issues. That's what it means to be an SPA student, and that's a thing that most of us students, if not all, have in common— we just want to grasp and try to understand other people's opinions.”

Larsen has found radio to be a medium well-suited to these kinds of conversations. As host of her own radio show “Capitol City Chaos” on AU’s student-run WVAU, she provides a dial-in number for students to call and debate current events. She also works part time at WAMU 88.5—AU’s licensed public radio station for NPR news and information in the greater DC area—and hopes to join their full-time team after graduation.

Although Larsen’s foray into journalism might seem like a departure from local organizing, she reframes it as an evolution. Her focus remains on raw human connection. Even within media spaces, she doesn’t shy away from on-air disagreements or a turbulent comments section.

In Larsen’s view, creating change starts with encouraging honest conversation—something she practices personally. Her discussions with AU students over the past two years have helped  destigmatize issues such as food and financial insecurity. Larsen speaks openly about her own experiences utilizing AU’s Market Food Pantry and working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

She also credits the Marjorie Fraser Webster Memorial Scholarship for “changing the whole trajectory” of her final year at AU. While financial challenges initially threatened her ability to graduate, Larsen is now on track to complete her degree this May. She has felt a new freedom to “really be a student” and prioritize intellectual growth.

“This scholarship has been the biggest impact to my academic career because now I can finally focus on my studies without the heavy weight of financial stress on my shoulders,” Larsen explains.

Previously, Larsen often had to pivot quickly from classes to jobs. The scholarship has enabled her to spend more time on campus and nurture her own creative outlets. She has even starred in an AU Shakespeare production—a childhood passion that she hadn’t had time to pursue due to organizing and working.

Most poignantly for Larsen, the scholarship signals that she is valued member of AU.

“To receive this scholarship means that my dedication to my community service and striving for academic excellence have paid off. It means that I am recognized for my work and someone believes it should be awarded.” Larsen continues: “It also means that in times when I feel the least support, I am supported.”

Larsen holds this theme of recognizing others close to her heart. Whether back in Los Angeles or on the DC airwaves, she is driven to effect community change through connection.

“What I've learned here at AU is that you can create and work towards something that uplifts others—that's what it means to be a changemaker” she reflects. “It's not about me. It's about what do I have that I can bring to the table and what can I learn from others. And, how are we all uplifting ourselves.”

AU is committed to ensuring that financial challenges don’t prevent students from pursuing their paths to purpose. With a $25 million goal and university match, the Elevate Scholarship Initiative—a vital component of the Change Can’t Wait Campaign—helps students remain at AU and achieve their goals. To learn more and support, visit the Elevate Scholarship Initiative webpage.