Collaboration and Coalition-Building in Greater Los Angeles

For a region known for its storytelling, many of the broadly shared narratives about Los Angeles over time have focused on the individual. From Midwestern farmers seeking more fertile farmland in the Golden State to aspiring actors coming to Hollywood with dreams of making it big, individuals have struck out for Southern California to reinvent themselves and to make their fortunes.

Greater Los Angeles’s sprawling development pattern and freeways jammed with single-occupancy vehicles contribute to this narrative of a city and region that, for all of its dynamism, can foster a sense of isolation. It’s no wonder that when one of the most iconic L.A. characters ever put forth by Hollywood, Jack Nicholson’s hard-boiled detective Jake Gittes, is asked the innocent question “Are you alone?” in the movie Chinatown, he coldly replies “Isn’t everyone?”


These depictions of L.A. as the land of the individual, however, increasingly are coming up against a very different modern-day reality. During this fall’s Leadership Exchange in Los Angeles, we will learn about several examples of collaboration and coalition building aimed at addressing key regional issues. Drawing upon its diversity and culture of creativity, L.A. has developed promising approaches to broad-based collaboration across politics, community development, and philanthropy that can yield lessons and models for more compact and historically networked regions, including Greater Philadelphia.


Political Realities and a Labor Renaissance


As Los Angeles has grown into one of the most diverse regions in the country, coalition politics has become the necessary path to electoral success, particularly in citywide races. For decades, diverse, multiethnic coalitions have elected L.A.’s mayors, from Tom Bradley’s south-side African-American and west-side Jewish community support that delivered five terms between 1973 and 1993 to the rainbow coalition that in 2005 made Antonio Villaraigosa Los Angeles’s first Latino mayor since 1872. With no majority ethnic group in the region (45% Hispanic, 31% white, 15% Asian, and 7% African American) and more than one-third of L.A. zip codes without an ethnic majority, candidates must build multiracial coalitions in order to win.


L.A.’s political and leadership culture experienced a major turning point during the 1990s in the wake of two tumultuous events – the civil unrest of 1992 and the fight over Proposition 187 in 1994. The Rodney King riots revealed the interracial tensions that existed across several ethnic communities in Los Angeles and the risks associated with economic and social isolation. The unrest gave rise to a new generation of leaders and organizations committed to multiethnic engagement and cooperation for social and economic justice, including fighting for long-overdue police department reforms.


Shortly after the 1992 riots, a statewide ballot initiative called Prop 187 that aimed to deny public services, including education and health care, to undocumented immigrants galvanized immigrant rights communities throughout California and especially in Los Angeles. Voters passed the controversial measure in 1994. It was later struck down by the courts, but not before sparking a revitalized immigrant rights movement and a new wave of Latino activists who recognized the need to band together with a broad range of ethnic communities and progressive causes to protect immigrant rights from efforts like Prop 187.


Also during this period, a reinvigorated local labor movement in L.A. played a leadership role in rallying diverse coalitions around political change and progressive policy reforms. Throughout much of the 20th century, Los Angeles had a well-earned reputation as an anti-union town with a weaker labor movement than most comparable U.S. cities. This historic weakness became an advantage amidst the rapid population and immigration growth of the late 20th century. Without union leadership deeply entrenched in business or urban politics, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (the Fed) had room to experiment with new approaches and alliances and chose to focus its efforts more broadly on worker rights and economic justice, with an emphasis on organizing immigrant workers.


The Fed saw L.A.’s expanding immigrant base as an opportunity to revitalize the labor movement in a region where one in three residents is foreign-born and nearly one in 10 is undocumented. This included employing immigrants to knock on doors for get-out-the-vote efforts even when they themselves were not eligible to vote. In fact, the L.A. Fed’s embrace of immigrant organizing heavily influenced the national AFL-CIO’s 1999 break from its historically anti-immigrant stance to adopt a platform supporting immigrant rights and immigration reform.


While immigrant organizing became a primary focus of labor in Los Angeles, they also aggressively sought to build coalitions across religious, community, and environmental groups for successful, high-profile campaigns to secure rights for low-wage workers in the hospitality, health care, transportation, and construction industries. Labor-led coalitions put Los Angeles in the vanguard of policy reforms that have since been replicated across the country, such as living wage laws for employees of companies with public sector contracts; community benefits agreements establishing local hiring requirements for major construction projects such as the Staples Center and the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport; and last year’s passage of a $15 minimum wage. Much of the underlying analysis, policy development, and even organizing framework for these campaigns emerged from the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), a labor-led progressive think tank formed in 1993 to help weave together workplace and community strategies.


Building upon these organizing and policy successes, L.A. has been one of the few places in the U.S. to experience recent unionization gains, as nationwide private sector unionization dropped from 9 percent in 2000 to 7.6 percent in 2008, compared to a rise from 8.9 to 10.6 percent in Greater L.A. During this renaissance, labor has successfully recruited new candidates for political office to further build its influence.


Collaborative Community Development


Another realm where Los Angeles has shown a propensity toward collaboration and coalition building across traditional boundaries is the community development field. Whereas the model for community development organizations across much of the U.S. is strictly neighborhood-based, many such organizations in L.A. are instead ethnicity-based, starting with a focus on an immigrant group within a particular location and then expanding their geographic footprint and engagement with other ethnic communities. In a field where resource and capacity limitations often curtail progress, this collaborative community development model has fostered capacity-building and joint advocacy in Los Angeles.


A prime example of this collaborative community development approach is the Little Tokyo Services Center, which has expanded beyond its roots in serving L.A.’s Japanese-American community to support a range of Asian immigrant communities. Little Tokyo Services Center (LTSC) was established in 1979 as a neighborhood-based social services agency in one of three remaining Japantowns in the U.S., focusing on low-income, mono-lingual Japanese-American immigrants, particularly seniors and youth. LTSC quickly took on a real estate development and preservation role, as urban renewal and redevelopment placed pressure on Little Tokyo, shrinking its footprint from 30 blocks to eight and threatening to displace residents. LTSC developed capacity and expertise in affordable housing, building 900 units since the 1990s.


After expanding its social services offerings to the broader Japanese American community in L.A., LTSC started to be approached by organizations in other low-income neighborhoods for assistance with housing development. They sought to partner with LTSC on development projects for their experience in affordable housing and to become more competitive for funding. LTSC now provides technical assistance and has partnered with other community-based organizations for real estate projects in South L.A., Koreatown, Chinatown, Filipinotown, Van Nuys, and the San Gabriel Valley. These projects have covered a broad range of housing types, including multifamily, senior, transitional shelters for domestic abuse survivors, and supportive housing for the formerly homeless.


These real estate-based collaborations have helped LTSC strengthen its relationships across several Asian-Pacific Islander (API) immigrant communities, laying the groundwork for other programmatic and advocacy efforts. LTSC is now part of a successful API small business program coordinated across ethnic Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Thai, and Japanese American communities. And LTSC called upon its expanding network of community partners to fight a proposed new rail station that threatened to displace Little Toyko residents and place further pressure on its cultural heritage. Their collective efforts led to a revised, below-grade proposal that would minimize negative impacts.


Another high-capacity community development organization employing an engagement and partnership model similar to LTSC’s is the East L.A. Community Corporation in Boyle Heights, a historically Latino community. Known for its capabilities around community organizing and affordable housing development, East L.A. Community Corp. is now reaching out to other Latino communities throughout L.A. for partnership and technical assistance opportunities.


This collaborative approach has also taken hold across the region’s many immigrant integration and legal rights organizations, such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which initially focused on Chinese legal services and has grown to serve a variety of Asian immigrant communities. Other highly networked immigrant rights organizations include the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the Central American Resource Center, the South Asian Network, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. These groups have adopted a progressive orientation to advocate for policies that would benefit all Angelenos and not just immigrant communities, including a stronger and more inclusive economy, cleaner environment, stronger educational system, and more just criminal justice system.


Syncing Up for Funding

With so much wealth in Greater Los Angeles, philanthropy has a significant opportunity to align and leverage private funds for social impact. Toward this end, regional foundations have taken on a leadership role in trying to improve outcomes for one of the most challenging and contentious issues facing all urban areas – K-12 education.


Los Angeles’s philanthropic community has rallied around the Partnership for L.A. Schools – a “third way” approach to turning around low-performing schools that aims to find a middle group between the traditional public and charter school systems. The Partnership was formed in 2008 to transform a portfolio of 18 historically underserved public schools in Watts, South L.A., and Boyle Heights. While the Partnership’s 14,000 students is still far fewer than the more than 100,000 currently enrolled in charter schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District – the most in the nation – the Partnership is attempting a scalable transformation model within LAUSD.


The Partnership has enjoyed impressive results since its launch in 2008, with its schools having more than doubled their four-year graduation rate from 36% to 77% in 2015 and one high school achieving a 100 percent graduation rate. The Partnership has achieved this by operating the schools as part of the district with unionized staff, but with greater autonomy and flexibility and an emphasis on investing in principals, teachers, and parents.


Beyond its impressive results in student achievement, the Partnership has managed to affect district-wide policy changes, including the issuance of report cards for schools, an online credit recovery policy, differential pay for principals, and automatic testing of all elementary school students for gifted programs. The Partnership’s promising efforts have been made possible by sustained and near-universal philanthropic support that contributes an additional $500 per child above average district spending.


Another collaborative philanthropic model worth attention is LA n Sync, a partnership that brings together the nonprofit, business, academic, and civic sectors to pursue and win major funding opportunities for Greater Los Angeles. This coordinated approach to pursuing highly competitive government and foundation funding opportunities has resulted in 13 grants totaling $156 million and four federal designations resulting in over $114 million for the region. A key tool for LA n Sync has been its Strategic Response Fund, which provides a repository of pooled, matching grant funds that can be committed to meet match requirements from federal and state funders and foundations.


A Bigger Tent and a Can-Do Attitude


These examples are not meant to suggest that regional collaboration and coalition building in Los Angeles is either easy or at the level experienced in highly collaborative metros such as Portland or Minneapolis-St. Paul. Los Angeles’s business community, in particular, is seen as a weak link in these efforts due, in part, to L.A.’s dearth of major global headquarters, with only two Fortune 100 companies in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The business community, however, has been active in advancing solutions for the region’s two biggest current pain points – its homelessness and mobility crises.


United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce are among the civic leaders that have elevated homelessness as a front-burner issue, as L.A. County now has the largest chronically homeless population in the country. Progress has been difficult, with 47,000 homeless individuals in the county as of the most recent count. However, targeted efforts to reduce the homeless veteran population have yielded results, with the number of homeless vets dropping 30 percent last year from 4,400 to 3,100. The homelessness crisis has led to rare levels of city-county collaboration and the release of a joint action plan earlier this year. But funding of this shared action plan is a major question of political and community will, as needed housing efforts alone are estimated to cost at least $2 billion over the next decade and the city and county are slated to spend $60 million and $150 million respectively in the next two years on homelessness programs.


Decades of frustration over traffic congestion and long commute times contributed to the passage of landmark funding for transportation and transit investments in 2008. At that time, L.A. voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase to provide $40 billion for transportation projects over the next 30 years. The successful funding campaign was supported by MoveLA, which brought together a broad constituency of business, labor, environmental, and civic groups to advocate for the importance of transit options for Greater L.A.’s future. With former Santa Monica Mayor Denny Zane leading this coalition and a $4 million campaign to support the funding measure, it passed with 67.9 percent of the vote. A subsequent effort to remove the 30-year sunset provision for the sales tax increase barely missed the two-thirds threshold for passage in 2012, garnering 66.1 percent of the vote. Another attempt at a permanent extension of the sales tax for transportation and transit investments will be on the ballot this November.


This willingness to take on such a bold and dramatic approach to address Greater L.A.’s transportation challenges speaks to what may be the region’s secret sauce when it comes to regional collaboration – L.A.’s culture of creativity and its can-do attitude. While Angelenos will be the first to point out that the entertainment industry does not define them, the nature of film, TV, and music production centers upon the creativity of different people coming together in pick-up teams to create something. This can-do attitude has permeated other innovative industries that have shaped modern L.A., including aerospace and fashion. With polling of Angelenos consistently showing high levels of pride and optimism about the region’s future, Greater L.A.’s greatest asset in continuing its streak of regional collaboration just might be the optimistic outlook of its residents.


In September 2016, the Economy League traveled with 130+ emerging and established leaders from Greater Philadelphia to Los Angeles for a learning and leadership exchange. We met with more than 40 Angeleno leaders across the business, government, nonprofit, labor, and philanthropic communities.