Going to LA: A Trip of Extremes

In January, about 30 students from the Kennedy School traveled to LA (California, not Louisiana, for Southern readers) for 5 days of exploring the city, its leaders and its organizations. It has taken me this long to blog about it because: 1) They were 5 very full days rich with inspiring people, and 2) I absolutely needed photographs from the Center for Public Leadership to show some of the people and places.

A CITY LARGER THAN MISSISSIPPI

What continues to be striking is the range of perspectives we received. From the Chief of LAPD to the Guerilla Gardner and Homeboy Industries, we observed dedicated individuals working on homelessness, prisoner re-entry, healthy eating, K-12 education, and immigrant’s rights.

I spent a large amount of time on our trip trying to grapple with the size of LA. I worked on state level issues for a population of 3 million in Mississippi, and in LA we were observing local-level services for a city of 3.8 million. In the beginning of the week, the feeling of working on issues over such a large area felt overwhelming. Heck, getting from LA to Compton on the freeway felt overwhelming. On our second day, we met with the Chief of the LA Police Department. As he talked about his career, he described the dozens of different roles a police officer can serve in across the city. I left our meeting with a respect for managing systems so large.

But our trip to LA was full of contrasts. While we might leave with respect for LAPD’s management and scale, we were also confronted with frustrations with LAPD in neighborhoods across LA. Gang injunctions, unsafe neighborhoods, violent crime and skepticism of the police also came out in other conversations with advocacy organizations. These differing stops were a reminder that working on issues in the public space often means incorporating differing perspectives and taking each into account during decision-making and problem-solving.

CONNECTING WITH INSPIRING LEADERS

By far one of my favorite decision-makers and problem-solvers from the trip was Mayor Aja Brown. At 31, she became the Mayor of Compton, CA. Compton is bigger than the largest city in Mississippi (where we use to live), AND she is only 4 years my senior. (Can we say role model?) She spoke to us passionately about her plans for Compton and compellingly about how her background in urban planning informed the way she thought about ‘smart’ development for her city.

When Mayor Brown spoke about the decision to run for mayor, she underscored that it was never in her plan. She was a numbers person, a powerpoint person. Eventually she came to the realization that she needed to be the one to step into the lead for Compton. When I asked her about what she didn’t anticipate about being mayor, she said she knew what it was like  from her previous work in city administrations, but that she didn’t anticipate that she would never again be able to go to the grocery store or Target during normal hours without being recognized.

I left our time with Mayor Brown really excited for what young, informed leaders can do in our nation’s cities, and I’m excited to follow her leadership and career going forward.

The staff at CPL also intentionally built contrast into the parts of LA we visited and the types of organizations from which we learned – from Participant Media to Los Angeles Alliance for A New Economy.

We spent a powerful morning with Susan Burton and the staff of A New Way of Life Reentry Project. Susan spent 15 years in and out of the criminal justice system and has now built a non-profit focused on housing and uplifting women trying to rebuild their lives after time in the criminal justice system.

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Susan Burton and an organizing staff member

Because of my previous work with GED programs and community colleges, I was particularly drawn to Susan’s thoughts on how women she worked with were supported in returning to school. Often, resources and support on college campuses are slim. Financial aid may be limited, and some social support programs are not available to women leaving prison. At the same time, returning to school is a large life adjustment for many adults. Susan verified that processing financial support is especially hard for women in the program, and just that week she had bought books for a woman who was waiting on financial support that hadn’t come in in time to buy her books before her classes started.

Finally, regardless of which organizations we met with, I was struck by similarity. I was struck by how similar the obstacles leaders faced in LA were to Louisiana or North Carolina or Boston. And I was struck by how in each of these places I have experienced communities of leaders that informally shape a network of people that collectively have tangible, positive impact on communities. The organizations we visited were scattered all across LA and working on distinct issues, but collectively, our time visiting with each of them gave a sense of communal action and progress that is leading to greater good.

It goes without saying that our time in LA left a mark, and I continue to reflect on many of the individuals and organizations we met. I hope these small pieces of our trip give you a sense for the good work being done and what we learned from our time. I could say more, but I’ll leave you with a few more photographs from our AWESOME week. Many, many more photos can be found here. One hundred percent of the credit for these fantastic images goes to our dear friend, Tom Fitzimmons.

I’d welcome thoughts, comments or other ideas of organizations in LA about which I need to learn more.

Until Next Time!

SA

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