How the Center for L.A.and New Urban Leadership Plans to Unite the City

Cityside Column: A new initiative strives to enhance civic engagement and help bring Los Angeles together

About the only thing Angelenos love to talk about more than how much they love Los Angeles is what is wrong with Los Angeles. Interestingly, it is often those who are most passionate about the city who are also the most focused on digging into the challenges that prevent it from being better.

It’s a weird dichotomy, if hardly a new one. For all the adoration of the climate, the food, the (pre-COVID) nightlife, the beach-mountains-desert proximity, and the city’s diversity, there’s a festering recognition that L.A. remains a place of have-lots and have-much-less. There’s a ready acknowledgement that for everything that brings people together, factors such as the geography—the city sprawls across 472 square miles—access to opportunity and that same diversity too often serve to keep populations apart.

There have been copious attempts to understand and overcome the divides, everything from government-sponsored endeavors to faith-based programs to the Days of Dialogue discussions. A newly launched initiative takes an intriguing approach to bridging the chasms—by looking at and nurturing those who will emerge as leaders, not just today, but well into the future.

A raft of ideas was launched Tuesday at the introductory event for the Center for Los Angeles & New Urban Leadership. Housed under the umbrella of Arizona State University’s new outpost in the refurbished Herald-Examiner Building in Downtown, the initiative builds on the idea that Los Angeles has been reinventing itself almost since its founding, and that continued change can be even more advantageous with a guiding force and active community engagement.

“Leadership is not an add-on. It’s not an extra,” Donna Bojarsky, the founder of the organization Future of Cities and a co-founder of the new project, said at the Tuesday opening. “It’s integral to making the kind of dynamic, involved, engaged city that we need.”

In looking toward the future, Bojarsky referenced the past, describing how Los Angeles’ most significant periods of change occurred when there was strong civic leadership and infrastructure. But it is also a warts-and-all approach—historian Bill Deverell, who spoke via Zoom at the event, pointed out things often forgotten, such as the 1871 massacre of nearly 10% of the young city’s Chinese population by an angry mob. Nor are the atrocities assigned to the distant past—21-year-old Nallelli Cobo described growing up across the street from an active oil well, the frequent nosebleeds and other ailments she and her neighbors suffered, and how at 19 she was diagnosed with cancer, leading to a series of grueling surgeries and the loss of her ability to have children. She has founded the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition (she has also been cancer-free for a year).

A theme at the launch was that power and potential can flow if people can be pulled from their silos. The point was hammered by Cecilia Estolano, another project founder who formerly helmed the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.

(l to r) Tunua Thrash-Ntuk moderates a panel at the introductory event for the Center for Los Angeles & New Urban Leadership with Xavier Gutierrez and Michael Persaud. (Photo by Gary Leonard/Center for Los Angeles & New Urban Leadership)

“Real change is about radical collaboration. It’s about reaching across geographies, reaching across racial and ethnic groups, across generations, across sectors,” said Estolano, who now runs an urban planning and public policy firm. She added, “We’ll do some studies. We’ll do some talks. We’re going to do some cool, easily accessible publications. But it’s really about bringing folks together who might not otherwise know each other. It’s about believing in Los Angeles again.”

Ironically, the initiative built around bringing people together started when everyone was apart. Aaron Paley, who launched the biketastic CicLAvia and now is president of the group Community Arts Resources, said Bojarsky approached him during the pandemic and they began discussing possibilities. Estolano and others were brought in and ideas were hashed out. A willing partner was found in ASU President Michael Crow; the university’s foray into Los Angeles was built around a magnificent renovation of the Herald-Examiner Building, a 1914 Broadway landmark, designed by architect Julia Morgan, that originally housed William Randolph Heart’s newspaper.

The team opted to focus initially on the fields of climate resilience, economic and culture equity, and communication that leads to change. The Center’s inaugural program, dubbed the El Aliso Collaborative Leadership Project, aims to connect issues through what the group dubs “a diverse curated cohort of accomplished leaders.”

Any long term “success,” whatever the word means, will not come easily, in part because of the diffusion in the region—Los Angeles County is comprised of 88 cities, and more than 200 languages are spoken here. L.A. famously lacks the old-money-based civic and philanthropic infrastructure of certain East Coast cities. About the only things everyone can agree is on we all cheer for the Dodgers, and Russell Westbrook is a terrible fit for the Lakers.

While much of this could be spun as a disadvantage, the Center team sees opportunities. They noted that unlike many modern metropolises, Los Angeles has a history of continually becoming something new.

“You can’t walk into New York and say you’re going to transform it,” said Bojarsky, who once was a contributing editor at Los Angeles. “But here, we always have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. It’s one of our hallmarks.”

“Los Angeles is a place that is unlike any other place, and yet is like so many other places,” said Paley. “We always hear, what are they doing in New York? Or how does it look in Paris and Copenhagen and London? Actually, we don’t look like those cities. But we look like Bogota. We look like Johannesburg, and we look like so many places in the world. I think there are more cities in the world that look like us than look like Paris and Copenhagen.”

The Center is a heck of an interesting project at a time when so many people bemoan a lack of leadership, and when a shocking number of city residents have no idea that Los Angeles will elect a new mayor in just over two months.

While all that is frustrating, it also reveals where the project could help. Just don’t expect that fabricating a new municipal spine will happen rapidly or without some pains.

“We’re going to prod folks. We’re going to provoke,” Estolano said at the introductory event. “We’re going to ask difficult questions and entertain strange answers. We will always question the status quo because that’s what we have to do in Los Angeles to grow and embrace change and be better. We’re going to explore.”