Angelenos might be an overall optimistic group, but when it comes to affecting city policy through voting we can also be a fractured and apathetic one. Los Angeles has experienced some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the nation for a city of its size, with a dismal 10% of eligible voters participating in the most recent municipal elections in March 2015.
Believing that City Hall is only responsive to powerful developers, unions, and interest groups, many Angelenos feel that voting in local elections is no longer an effective way to make change. California lawmakers have attempted to make voting more successful by moving local elections to even-numbered years so that they align with higher turnout state and national elections.
But what if there was another approach to stimulating change in our city, one that harnessed the entrepreneurial enthusiasm of start-up culture along with the grassroots organizing power of the Internet? Could Los Angeles crowdsource social change? Does civic engagement now live and die on the web? These are questions perfectly poised for the 21st century, and ones that are currently being explored by the Goldhirsh Foundation's LA2050 initiative, as a way to spark a new wave of civic activism in Los Angeles.
Earlier this month, LA2050 announced its much-anticipated list of 2015 grant winners. After a two-week online voting period totaling in approximately 70,000 votes, of the 302 proposals that were submitted, five winners were chosen by popular vote and five winners were chosen by jury selection. This year's top-voted winners, listed by category, are:
LEARN: Citizens of the World will incorporate a "social-emotional learning program" into its curriculum to teach students skills in self-regulation and collaboration in highly diverse environments.
CREATE: Los Angeles Review of Books will profile a local writer or artist each day of the year to increase exposure to the Los Angeles creative community.
PLAY: Grand Park will install permanent shade structures designed by a local artist.
CONNECT: Los Angeles Promise Zone Initiative will give students summer jobs as ethnographers to conduct 1,800 surveys measuring the impact of the initiative.
LIVE: Heal the Bay will launch a multi-lingual program to educate Angelenos in water-saving strategies.
The jury-selected winners are:
LEARN: Girls Academic Leadership Academy is LAUSD's first all-girls public STEM school and will create a makerspace to provide its students with hands-on training in science and tech.
CREATE Los Angeles Bioscience Hub will create the Biotech Leaders Academy at East Los Angeles Community College to help establish East L.A. as a leader in the biotech industry and support local students in achieving careers in biotech.
PLAY: People for Parks will provide 25,000 Angelenos with safe green space by transforming school playgrounds into community parks on the weekends.
CONNECT: CASA of Los Angeles will recruit and train 250 new volunteers to act as court-appointed special advocates for foster care children.
LIVE: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America will provide at least 180 Los Angeles veterans with support services as they transition back to civilian life.
Beginning in 2013, organizations seeking grant funding have submitted proposals for projects intending to positively impact Los Angeles, home of Foundation Chairman Ben Goldhirsh (also CEO of GOOD), within one of the five categories that were crafted with community participation.
But before the Foundation could award any grants, LA2050 needed to understand exactly where the city's needs were. In 2012, it published a report analyzing the current state of Los Angeles based on eight human development indicators (Education, Income and Employment, Housing, Health, Environmental Quality, Public Safety, Social Connectedness, and Arts and Vitality), which unfortunately revealed Los Angeles' many municipal shortcomings.
LA2050 then called on Angelenos to develop a new set of goals for the city through a series of community-led conversations called #LA2050Listens. Angelenos responded in whatever ways best suited their respective populations, organizing public discussions over basket-weaving groups or in their native languages, for example. "We really wanted Angelenos to feel like they could take ownership of the future and of progress," says Angie Jean-Marie, Social Innovation and Marketing Manager at LA2050. "[LA2050] became a new way to refocus attention in L.A. and involve the community in a new process of identifying good ideas and organizations that are trying to move the needle forward on critical issues."
While most of the winners -- a mixed bag of nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and for-profit groups -- might not represent what most of us think of as "start-ups," Tara Roth, President of the Goldhirsh Foundation, has a different idea of what function start-ups might fulfill in the renewal of Los Angeles. "I think of start-ups as really being a response to a market failure," says Roth. "That's partly why we started LA2050. We're looking at social market failure. It's recognizing a need and then responding appropriately with a fresh idea that's able to be nimble and flexible and responsive to the market."
The truth is that this "social market failure" is widespread in Los Angeles. Our city's story might be one of creativity and aspiration, but it is also one of negligence and inequality, particularly in the realms of education, employment, housing, and environmental health. According to the LA2050 Report, nearly one in five LAUSD students will not complete high school, with African American students reporting the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group in the district at 18%. Los Angeles also ranks third in the nation for income inequality with unemployment rates highest among African Americans and Latinos, who are still 50% more likely than their white peers to develop cancer from environmental toxins. The rate of homelessness is worsening too. In 2013, there were an estimated 57,737 homeless persons countywide, signaling a 15% increase from the year before.
It is still too early to quantify the impact that grant winners will have on the city's larger societal gaps, but we can already witness past winners leading Los Angeles in a more positive direction. In response to the city's underperforming school system, for example, Angelenos have shown support for a significant number of alternative charter schools and after school enrichment programs. 2013 grantees 826LA and The Salamander Project are just two of the programs that have been given the space and capital needed to help improve achievement among LAUSD's most vulnerable student populations. CicLAvia, which promotes car-free streets, has also gained popularity since winning a LA2050 CONNECT grant in 2013 and now boasts a more than 20% reduction rate in ultrafine air particles on event days.
Mayor Garcetti's office has without doubt been making efforts to address some of the issues noted in LA2050's initial report. This includes the city's investment in transportation and renewed focus on the L.A. River. Much like LA2050, Garcetti has acknowledged that the old ways of navigating city life in Los Angeles (both figuratively and literally) are neither sustainable nor acceptable. There is a critical need for greater connectivity among Angelenos in the future, without sacrificing the rich diversity that makes Los Angeles a great place to live.
How exactly that connection will be cultivated across Los Angeles' many varied neighborhoods and populations is still unclear, as many Angelenos struggle to accept the idea of a denser and less private city than the one they have come to know. It is interesting to note, however, that LA2050 has so far been successful in engaging diverse groups of Angelenos via its GOOD Maker online platform and community-designed dialogues. Incredibly, many people have even equated voting in LA2050's online grants challenge to voting in a local election. "It's a little bit scary because we need to show up at the polls," says Roth, "but it also shows me that there's possibility there. People do want to be engaged, and when people get engaged with LA2050 they typically stick around."
LA2050 participants also tend to view collaboration and partnerships as critical strategies in achieving change in Los Angeles. Roth understands this as one of the most important outcomes of the initiative as a whole, stating, "They're not just getting money. They're becoming part of a cohort and a broader conversation so that we can hopefully take these ideas to a new level."
Ultimately, the hope is that the connections fostered by LA2050 will enable more socially innovative organizations to continue to scale up. For now, LA2050 is a productive alternative to more sweeping policy change. The question that lies ahead is whether LA2050's community-level method of city-building is a fair enough replacement for government action.