Rudy Espinoza credits his mother, a waitress who put in long hours to support him and his younger brother, with drilling into him the importance of education. He took her experience to heart when he chose a business major at UC Riverside. But he grew listless academically — until he took an intro ethnic studies course.

“I was struck by the one week we had on the Chicano movement, because I had never seen brown people fighting for the rights of their community,” he recalls. “After that, if you look at my transcript, you'll see my grades go up.”

His priorities later shifted again, from a desire to make money to the need to answer a higher calling, when he was an urban planning graduate student at UCLA.

“I realized I need money to support my people,” says Espinoza, 32, now executive director of the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network. “If we can't figure out a way to buy a house on our own, then we have to figure out a way to buy a house together.”

His time at UCLA also solidified his love for the city of Los Angeles, which informed many of his career decisions. While overseeing an emerging-leadership board for the nonprofit Proyecto Pastoral in 2008, he met Alfred Fraijo, a lawyer who'd helped initiate a gathering of humanitarian L.A. professionals. From a cross-section of 30, including attorneys, artists and architects, the group eventually was whittled down to what became the founding board of the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network.

Espinoza and the board intend the nonprofit to run like a startup. “We're building the plane as it's flying,” he says.

LURN's projects include a multi-organization campaign to legalize street-food vending, which will protect micro-entrepreneurs, and consulting work with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. The latter led to the creation of a food purchasing co-op, which buys necessities in bulk for six South L.A. grocery stores that otherwise don't meet wholesale requirements. LURN also hosts an annual summit called PLUS 2, where leaders in various fields are invited to exchange ideas on design and land use, from water conservation to garage conversions.

Gone are days when a Che Guevara T-shirt was a regular part of Espinoza's wardrobe, and he cut his long hair a decade ago. But that doesn't mean he's shed his sociopolitical ideals.

In fact, he's chronicling them in new ways. Espinoza maintains a photo Tumblr on street vendors. Alongside his photography, he keeps a blog as an avenue to share urban planning research.

All of this helps remind him why he got into this line of work in the first place.

“When I do a lot of the work that I do, especially with street vending,” Espinoza says, “I always kind of see my mom.” 

Check out our entire People Issue 2015.

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