Los Angeles: Come for the Weather. Stay for the Social Good.
While Fenton’s history stretches back over 30 years, our Los Angeles office is relatively new—two years old to be exact! In honor of the big two year anniversary, our LA team took some time to reflect on the great people and inspiring projects we’ve had the chance to work with since our launch.
Sometimes it feels like LA gets short shrift in praise for social good and public interest work. San Francisco is our passionate, do-gooder neighbor; D.C. is at the center of policy and politics; and New York reigns as the hub of international development.
But did you know that Los Angeles County has more nonprofit organizations than any other county in the nation? In fact, LA’s unique characteristics have helped breed a flourishing base of incredible foundations, organizations and good businesses that are advancing the social landscape in ways that can serve as models for the rest of the nation.
Los Angeles thrives off the amazing diversity of ethnicity, religion, culture and community that is evident throughout this great city. LA can be seen as a microcosm of the problems and opportunities in the rest of America and our innovators are constantly developing new methods for creating change. We’re leading the way in every issue area: building stronger communities, making green sexy, taking down gang violence, advocating for healthy foods, modernizing the arts and so much more.
Over the past two years, we’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing groups whose approaches to a diverse range of issues can be great lessons for anyone looking to make an impact:
1. To Change Behavior, Meet People Where They’re At
The Carton Council, a group of carton manufacturers united to keeping cartons out of landfills, is reducing waste across the country by working with cities to expand their recycling programs to include cartons, and by promoting and raising awareness about recycling cartons among consumers. Piloting the campaign in Los Angeles, a city with one of the largest and most diverse populations in the country, helped the Council discover best practices to make the project a success in other areas.
It can be difficult to educate the public and change behavior in large, diverse cities. We learned that the best way to have a greater impact in LA was by meeting people where they are, partnering with trusted messengers and leveraging the early adopters. Along with an extensive media campaign, emphasizing the different platforms that Angelenos encounter such as radio (we do a lot of driving!), major newspapers, online outlets and public transit (we’re 2nd in the nation in transit patronage!), we also secured partnerships with a major supermarket chain to bring the message to people where they buy cartons. By partnering with local government and Mayor Villaraigosa, the campaign carried the weight and validation of trusted and well-known entities. Lastly, like most campaigns, the Carton Council needed to make the best use of their resources, and the diversity of LA residents makes it tough to reach everyone. Instead, we focused on the consumers and neighborhoods that were already recycling and audiences that lean towards green, so they could take up the banner and spread the word.
Through this comprehensive public education effort, we saw carton recycling increase in Los Angeles by over 300 percent based on recycling collection numbers. Since the inaugural campaign, we have also helped the Carton Council launch comprehensive public awareness efforts in the cities of Philadelphia, San Diego, Jacksonville, and Charlotte.
2. Empower People to Tell Their Own Stories
When the University of Southern California announced its plans to replace the nearby University Village shopping center with one of the largest redevelopment projects in South LA history, the local residents were apprehensive. Over the past decade, the university failed to provide enough student housing. Students and residents were forced to compete for limited housing, causing rents to skyrocket. As a result, thousands of low-income families had been forced out of their community..
A local organization, Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), convened a coalition of community members, faith networks and labor groups called United Neighbors In Defense Against Displacement (UNIDAD) to ensure that the redevelopment project created affordable housing and local jobs for area residents. But after months of negotiations with USC and the City of Los Angeles, talks stalled.
Working with UNIDAD, Fenton found that their arguments were sound, full of good data and facts and figures, but the stories of the people who were fighting for their livelihoods and families were missing. From the grandmother who has seen the neighborhood decline over the past 56 years, to the church pastor who has already lost half of his congregation due to rent hikes, the stories of the residents were the most powerful tool the coalition had to demonstrate the need to preserve their community and the devastating consequences of displacement.
Fenton worked with community members, including supportive USC students, to spotlight their struggles to stay in the neighborhood and underscore the impact leaving the area would have on their jobs, families and their health. The effort focused the attention on human impact and confronted decision-makers and influencers with a range of compelling stories they could not ignore. Residents and community leaders took reporters on a tour of their neighborhoods, emphasizing the desire for a win-win situation and calling for collaboration, rather than making demands.
After securing extensive media coverage of their efforts, UNIDAD garnered the support of local elected officials and brought USC back to the negotiating table. The coalition won $20 million in affordable housing, support for small businesses and other key community benefits to preserve the future of their community.
3. Use History to Change the Future
Twenty years ago, the infamous riots that tore through the streets of Los Angeles left an indelible mark on the city. The civil unrest exposed underlying tensions that intertwined complex issues of race, discrimination, violence and police relations.
The Advancement Project (AP), a public policy change organization rooted in the civil rights movement, was born out of this time, when its founders recognized the need to address the root problems that sparked the riots such as failing schools, lack of economic opportunity and police brutality. The riots catalyzed a push for reform in the LAPD culture, and the AP was a major player in creating the new model of community-based problem solving policing that has led to vast reductions in violence and improved police-community relations. AP’s belief in community-driven solutions also led to the creation of programs like Healthy City, an online data mapping tool that equips community members to effectively identify local problems to better solve them.
In April of 2012, during the 20th anniversary of the unrest, AP worked with Fenton to re-focus the media conversation on inequities that still exist in LA’s most vulnerable communities. Rather than simply focusing on the sensational aspects of that historical event, such as the violence, the Advancement Project was able to redirect the attention to recognize the complicated systems that influence a community, including poverty and access to opportunities, as well as to consider potential solutions.
Though it has been two decades since the historical events that shocked the nation, there is still a lot of work to be done to fix the broken system that led to that upheaval. The Advancement Project has done a great service for all who look to advance our dreams for a more just society by leveraging those painful events to shine a light towards a better future.
Being a part of Fenton LA over these past two years has brought an incredible opportunity to help move the needle on a range of issues that impact our community. It’s been an inspiring journey so far, and we can’t wait to see what year three will bring.