Education, Arts & Culture

Virtual Reality Exploration at the Natural History Museum

Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas joined the Natural History Museum in launching its first virtual reality adventure – theBlu: An Underwater Virtual Reality Experience.

With a high-tech VR headset, visitors can explore the ocean without ever getting wet. In this six-minute immersive experience, they can wander around a sunken ship as manta rays and a blue whale swim past. Next, they can interact with colorful anemones at the edge of a coral reef while turtles and swarms of jellyfish glide by. The journey ends with a deep dive into an iridescent abyss, where hidden creatures such as angler fish appear with the use of a virtual flashlight.


Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors

“The Museum’s mission is to study and teach the relationship between the whole spectrum of the human species and the natural world, and this experience does that and more,” Board Chair Ridley-Thomas said. “Using virtual reality technology in this exhibit makes this learning experience an immersive and interactive one. It makes learning fun.”

“Engaging and inspiring visitors is what we do – and theBlu is beautiful, powerful storytelling,” said the Museum’s director and president, Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga. “It would not surprise me if the next generation of marine biologists and VR developers are inspired by this exhibit.

“Here’s what it’s like, from someone who has done a lot of SCUBA diving: it’s cool to see all those plants and animals and not be underwater and cold – especially the deep sea chapter, where you couldn’t even dive in real life,” added Dr. Chris Thacker, the Museum’s fish curator. “It’s incredible to see all the animals up close, particularly the whale and the turtle, and interact with jellyfish and see how they respond.”

theblu_screen_007“The experience is scientifically accurate and does a good job of replicating what it’s like underwater, but you’re just standing there, warm and dry,” he added.

The virtual reality studio Wevr created theBlu in consultation with scientists from the museum and film director Jake Rowell (Call of Duty, Final Fantasy). It was among the New Frontiers Selection at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

theBlu will be on exhibit from March 6-April 28. Tickets can be purchased the Museum’s website,, at a cost of $8 for members and $10 for non-members. Children must be at least 10 years old to participate, due to safety reasons and ability to follow instructions. Guests under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

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theBlu director Jake Rowell, NHM director and president Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, and Board of Supervisors Chair Mark Ridley-Thomas. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors



AC Bilbrew Library Reopens


All photos by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors.

The Willowbrook community came out in droves to join Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas in celebrating the grand reopening of A.C. Bilbrew Library after a $5-million renovation.

Located at 150 East El Segundo Boulevard, the library underwent a complete makeover. It now has twice as much seating capacity as before, with newly installed state-of-the-art technology – including laptops that can be borrowed from a vending machine – and recently acquired artwork that have transformed the 1970’s-era structure into a cultural center.

FullSizeRender8“This is not just your everyday library,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said during the ceremony, which also commemorated African American History Month. “A.C. Bilbrew Library is more than a simple repository of books. It is a gathering place for the community and a safe haven for children and families, where knowledge, art, culture and technology are all within reach.”

“A.C. Bilbrew Library has long been a community asset. However, the old library had outgrown the needs of the community and required a major renovation,” Library Director Skye Patrick said. “Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas recognized these needs and championed to modernize this library.”

Aside from the transformed library, the community is also getting a completely renovated senior center, located just down the street and operated by Los Angeles County Department of Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services.

blc_003The 21,843 sq. ft. library, named after a community leader, poet, musician, and radio pioneer, has been updated with seating for nearly 200 people, providing additional space for reading and studying. There are also 18 adult desktop computers, three teen computers, four homework center desktop computers, two early-learning desktop computers and a laptop vending machine with a dozen laptops that can be checked out for use within the library.

There are three self check-out machines, and study tables with USB charging capabilities. In addition, the library features an updated community meeting room with a kitchenette and state-of-the-art audio visual system. There are two group study rooms with audio/visual capabilities and a whiteboard wall, a children’s activity room, and separate areas for teens and younger children.

Throughout the library are 50 paintings and sculptures recently acquired from the Golden State Mutual Arts Collection. The interior courtyard has a civic art piece developed by artist team Greenmeme, who incorporated native plantings and a trellis, as well as seating, to create an outdoor garden and a gathering space for the community.

BCB_7783The AC Bilbrew Library is the home for the African American Resource Center, which carries many precious archives and holds an important role in the preservation of African American culture and history. Some of the materials have long been out of print and are the only remaining copies available in the world. “Improvement has been made to the way the archives are stored so that these resources are preserved for many generations to come,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas.

Built with sustainability in mind, the library is equipped with energy-efficient LED lighting, air conditioning and heating, drought-tolerant landscaping and other water-efficient features, making it the County’s second “net zero” energy facility.




Pan African Film Festival Celebrates 25th Year in Los Angeles

This year, the Pan African Film Festival celebrates its 25th year with a 12-day movie marathon taking place February 9-20, at the Cinemark Baldwin Hills Crenshaw 15 Theater located within the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, at 3650 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard near Leimert Park. The festival will screen 202 films, 124 of which are feature-length. The 78 short films screened are up for consideration for Academy Awards. The Academy approved the PAFF as a qualifying festival.

“Cinematic stories matter,” said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas. “And this film festival taking place just blocks from Leimert Park has become an international cultural resource to showcase new narratives over the last quarter of a century. We are indeed privileged to have it in our backyard.”

During Black History Month and representing 56 countries on six continents, the festival will screen the largest selection of black films ever screened at one event. The PAFF screened the first films of such prominent black filmmakers as Gina Prince Bythewood (“Beyond the Lights”), Malcolm D. Lee (“Best Man”), Michael Jennings (“Moonlight”), Ava DuVernay (“Selma” &“13th”) and Academy Award winner Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”). The PAFF also screened films by Raul Peck (“I Am Not Your Negro”), Oscar nominated Mahamat Saleh Haroun (“Gris Gris”) and many others.

“It’s been an incredible experience to witness the growth of this PAFF and at the same time witness the tremendous development of the Pan African film Industry,” says Ayuko Babu, PAFF Executive Director. “Both have allowed me the pleasure of working with thousands of filmmakers and honoring the artistry from South Africa to Atlanta – all of whom tell their own stories and present their images to the world so beautifully. So now in our 25th year, PAFF will again present the largest selection of Black films ever to be screened at one event and honor the best storytellers and artists for their work.”

Watch an exclusive interview with Executive Director and co-founder Ayuko Babu below:

This year, the festival will celebrate the work of actress Alfre Woodard with The Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by PAFF Co-Founder Ja’net Dubois during the Opening Night Gala, Thursday February 9th held at the DGA Headquarters in Los Angeles. The Lifetime Achievement Award will honor Woodard’s’ extraordinary career, having captured the hearts of theater-goers, moviegoers and TV watchers. Woodard has been able to transcend both genre and medium with work that scans over 30 years– all reflecting strong yet flawed black women. Alfre will share her journey with the PAFF audience in a hosted, one-on-one “Conversation With Alfre Woodard,” on Sunday February 10th at 3pm, narrated by Director Neema Barnett held at the Cinemark Baldwin Hills Theater.

“I get excited every year right about this time because I know the Pan African Film Festival is coming. This means that I have felt this exhilaration 25 times!,” says honoree Alfre Woodard. “PAFF always delivers artfully curated entertainment and information in diverse genres. This year I’m particularly thrilled that they have invited me to represent their legacy of bringing engaging stories from filmmakers of the African diaspora to Los Angeles, the birthplace of American Cinema. As always, Feb 9-20th promises stimulating conversations and lively celebrations. You won’t want to miss it!”

The complete Screenings, Special Screenings & Events Lineup are available here:

Paying Tribute to the late California Historian Kevin Starr

_3MZ0039Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas mourns the death of Dr. Kevin Starr, a noted California historian and visionary leader in the field of public education and literacy programs.

“The Golden State has a golden history and thanks to Dr. Starr we now have a wonderful record of our glorious past. He was a friend, a beloved history professor at USC and supporter of the Empowerment Congress, a national model for civic engagement. Dr. Starr provided an eloquent keynote address at the 15th anniversary of the Empowerment Congress Summit. My deepest condolences go out to his family and to the countless people he helped over the years through his steadfast commitment to educating the public.”

Acting on a motion by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas in September 2009, the Board of Supervisors honored Dr. Starr for his contributions to public education and longtime promotion of literacy.

Dr. Starr is best known for his multi-volume history of California, America and the California Dream. Dr. Starr served as the California State Librarian from 1994-2004 and was subsequently named as State Librarian Emeritus by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2006, President George W. Bush awarded Dr. Starr the National Humanities Medal for his work as a scholar and historian.

Inspiring Girls to Reach for the Stars

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Photo courtesy of the LA Promise Fund for Public SchoolsStriving to inspire girls to reach for the stars – literally and figuratively – Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas joined Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”), Grammy winner Pharrell Williams and Grammy nominee Janelle Monae in screening the acclaimed film Hidden Figures to nearly 10,000 middle and high school girls from across Los Angeles County.

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Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Octavia Spencer. Photo by Martin Zamora/Board of Supervisors

The LA Promise Fund for Public Schools sponsored the screening for Girls Build LA, an initiative that challenges middle and high school girls to better their communities. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, through a motion approved in September 2016, committed funding from the Board of Supervisors to transport the students from their respective campuses to USC’s Galen Center. He said, “It is important that we empower girls and women to break the glass ceilings that remain, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).”

Hidden Figures tells the story of African-American women mathematicians at NASA who were instrumental in launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit in the early 1960’s, despite the racial and gender discrimination that existed. Before the screening, Williams told the girls he decided to co-produce the film to “kill that very old school mentality that STEM is made for a male mind.”

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Dr. Knatokie Ford, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Aldis Hodge and Pharrell Williams. Photo courtesy of LA Promise Fund for Public Schools

Spencer, who plays mathematician Dorothy Vaughn in the film, urged the girls to “be what you want to be and don’t allow anyone else to tell you that you can’t.” Her co-star Janelle Monae, who plays engineer Mary Jackson, spoke of how her mother had been a custodian and how she herself used to clean houses to earn money to go school. Monae also appears in Moonlight, which recently won Best Picture – Drama at the Golden Globes. “Take advantage of every opportunity,” she told the girls. “Embrace what makes you unique.”

The girls also listened to the success stories of White House senior science and technology policy advisor Dr. Knatokie Ford and NASA/JPL engineer Dr. Diana Trujillo, an immigrant from Colombia who didn’t know any English and had only $300 in her pocket when she arrived in the U.S. as a teenager, but now is among the leaders of the Curiosity Rover mission to Mars. They also heard inspiring messages from Hidden Figures actor Aldis Hodge, as well as astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson, who delivered a video message from aboard the International Space Station.

Video courtesy of NBC Los Angeles.