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$1 Million Challenge to Shape the Future of Los Angeles

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With 4,084-square miles of ground to cover, Los Angeles is not without problems. Despite the region's reputation for innovation and creativity, the county continues to struggle with internal contradictions. Hollywood red carpet affairs, sun-kissed days on the beach, grand vistas on the canyons -- they exist alongside gritty low-income neighborhoods, under-performing school systems, and food deserts.

In a bold move to take hold of the county's future, the Goldhirsh Foundation has embarked on the LA2050 initiative, a collective effort to build a blueprint for the future Los Angeles.

A commissioned report breaks down the current state of Los Angeles using eight indicators: education, income and employment, health, public safety, housing, environmental quality, arts and cultural vitality, and social connectedness, and projects how the region will fare should nothing change. As you can imagine, the results aren't encouraging.

Guided by these findings, LA2050 is asking organizations working in (or on) Los Angeles to apply for ten $100,000 MyLA2050 challenge grants to implement bold ideas that would put the region on a course for enviable success.

KCET sat down with Ben Goldhirsh, Chairman of the Goldhirsh Foundation, and Tara Roth McConaghy, president of the foundation, to find out what drives this ambitious effort.

The Goldhirsh Foundation has been around for more than 10 years now. Could you give us a little history as a groundwork for LA2050?

Goldhirsh: My father started the foundation. Originally, it focused on cancer research since he was fighting brain cancer research at the time. It was a real vehicle to pursue outcomes relevant to anyone with cancer, but there was some self-interest on his part like, "Hey, I've got a terminal illness I've got to try to get ahead of this thing." Sadly, that didn't happen, he passed away in 2003. My mother also passed away from cancer in 1999.
After both of them had passed, a lot of people would have expected that I would want to dedicate my life to cancer research. But the response I had was somewhat different. It was, "we're definitely going to die."

My focus was less on avoiding that outcome and more on how to make things better while we're here, and so the foundation took a broader focus on different opportunities to drive maximum social progress with dollars that we had.

How has LA2050 become the logical extension of what the foundation does?

G: There are really three pillars of our work. One is -- and this is really Tara's work -- grantmaking. Who are the people with great work that the foundation can support with dollars? Another is scalable investment, helping organizations either at early stage to build infrastructure. Caine's Arcade is an example of that. You could call that scaling capital.

The next step in that spectrum is entrepreneurial efforts. LA2050 marks the first example of that out of the Goldhirsh Foundation. Whereas clearly grantmaking and scaling capital is something coming from outside an organization, LA2050 is one of those things where we're going to be incubating something in the safe harbor of the foundation, but it's going fly on its own to achieve its goals. It needs to be owned by the people of Los Angeles.

Why hone in on Los Angeles?

McConaghy: Los Angeles has about just about every problem represented worldwide. We're such a global and diverse region that we really should hunker down and see if we can solve some problems here. If we can solve them here, we can solve them anywhere. We can be a source of inspiration and a model of scalability for other cities, counties and regions.

Why is LA2050 something that needs to be done?

M: A little over a year ago, we had convened a group in Mayor Villaraigosa's house to talk about the state of Los Angeles because half of all philantrophic dollars every year leave Los Angeles. We're taking a stand that we want to make our own backyard better.
Sitting at this table and listening to people talk about wanting to use their resources to help locally, what we realized was that there wasn't a roadmap for deciding how are people are supposed to help.

We then commissioned Estolano LeSar Perez Advisors to figure out what's the current state of Los Angeles. Now, we're in the "let's communicate this out to people and what are we collectively going to do about that" mode.

G: We arrived at LA2050 through our different paths.

For me, when you're confused, it's easy to get scared. I was scared because I felt confused given the complexity of the ecosystem of Los Angeles. While not understanding how it all worked together, I also was hearing problematic things coming.

In one ear, I heard about L.A.'s low graduation rate (46 percent versus 73 percent national average). Then, in the other ear, I heard about what jobs are available and what incomes people of a certain educational accomplishment can achieve. Put together, what does that look like? It's really scary.

At the mayoral dinner, a couple of things became super clear. One, man, there are awesome people in the city doing awesome stuff, across the board. Two, somehow with all this awesome people, we still have facts and stats about the city that just stink. There's no way to say that's winning. Three, the mayor has so much on his or her plate that it's not reasonable to expect he or she can also be a long-term facilitator of team play.

There are so many shooters, but there's no gameplan. Goldhirsh Foundation, Broad, Annenberg, all the non-profits are shooters, but we're not playing a team game. That allows the reality where even with all these awesome people, we're still not winning.

That gave way to a real want to understand, that's why we commissioned the report. The next question is: can we actually collectively arrive at some vision of what success is.

Courtesy of the Goldhirsh Foundation.

What role do the eight community meet ups set up around LA2050's indicators play in all of this?

G: The community meetings are trying to arrive collectively at where we want to get to. That way, we have some sort of North star that facilitates team play. Absent that, it's often like, "I'm going to respond to X problem or Y problem." It's like a whiplash, as opposed to being able to tangibly, accountably move in a direction together.

It's also a jam. It just reminds you of how many awesome people are working really hard to make the city better.

M: LA2050 is really this team game. It's that philanthropy will take care of this and government will take of this. This is really about all of these people who have a vested interest in the region, who need to come together. This shouldn't be owned by any one political figure or one organization, or the non-profit space or the business space, this needs to be all of the different industries and interests talking to each other.

So, who are you trying to reach with LA2050?

G: The "we" related to LA2050 isn't like "we the people at Goldhirsh foundation" or "we the organizations involved in these meet ups." It's "we who live here in the city, who have a stake in the future of the city."

A large part of LA2050 is the $1 million challenge grant. What types of proposals are you expecting?

M: We specified metrics in our report, but those are limited. If you have an idea outside of those metrics, that doesn't mean you can't apply. We're leaving it very open so people can dream big. On a practical point, the challenge is partly based on a public vote.

Sounds like you've got everything figured out. Has LA2050 always been planned like this from the beginning?

M: No, no. We had the report. Then, oh wow, what are we going to do with this report now? We had a few big ideas of how we can get the report out, including launching the $1 million challenge. That way, we could add some support and infrastructure.
After asking people to read the report, we wanted them to dream big and put forth their ideas. With the $1 millon challenge, we're saying we're willing to put some money in the game.

G: It's a super fun start-up. With any start-up you gotta go and then learn from what happens and iterate.

The MyLA2050 grants need to be spent by the end of the year. What do you hope to see out of LA2050 by then?

G: That LA2050 is substantive. That it isn't just talk. That it's actually driving impact on ground in terms of grants but also in terms of reflection.

The other things is that can we collectively arrive at some clear metrics for success. I feel like in philanthropy -- in social impact frequently -- people don't put themselves in the position to fail. If you don't put yourself in the position to fail, you're also not in the position to succeed.

It sounds weird, but if we need to be somewhere in 37 years, we should be able to track back and know where we should be doing in 10 years, or 5 years. That way, we can be like, "Hey, fuck! We're not there. We're not tracking towards it."

I would like to see those metrics come together by the end of the year. I would be wicked stoked. I think that's a hard thing to do.

M: I don't like using the failure message, but we do need to put some stakes in the ground to which people will hold LA2050 accountable and we'll strive to achieve together.

What happens next year? Will this be an ongoing effort?

G: Oh yeah, we don't know all the answers but it certainly isn't a static thing. This is a first volley of effort to give this ideal substance.

You can't ask people to take over things that don't have value. We have to show that this thing has value so people want to own it. Our tactic here is to create a mechanism that will have that vision of LA2050 be owned by citizens of Los Angeles. I don't know if that's realistic within year one but I'd like to see movement in that direction.

Read the full LA2050 report here. Apply for the grants here. Deadline is on March 28, 12 p.m. PDT.

Top: The Goldhirsh Foundation team. Shauna Nep, Anna Silverman, Tara Roth McConaghy and Ben Goldhirsh. Photo by Carren Jao.

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