Something To Talk About: Town Hall Los Angeles

As the speaker series celebrates the big 7-5, new president Kim McCleary opens up about the organization’s most memorable moments and its 2014 goals

Town Hall Los Angeles is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. What’s the mood like over there?
We’re excited! With the fragmented media, the polarization, the fact that it’s much more difficult today to get a non-partisan objective overview on topics, the fact that we have this wonderful, historic organization where people can come face to face with key leaders and hear firsthand what’s going on is really essential.

One of the things I hear over and over again is that Town Hall is one of the few significant convener organizations. People can attend and connect and network across a whole diversity of sectors. L.A. tends to be very siloed. People tend to stay in their fields of interest, and in their geographies. We don’t have many opportunities where you can go and meet someone in the banking area or the accounting area, or the entertainment area, or somebody who is a city council person. We have lots of opportunities to go to conferences that are specific and more niche, but nothing that cuts across so many different disciplines. What Town Hall offers people in this crazy big region is really a sense of community.

You mentioned the diversity of your audiences—I was going to ask about the diversity of your programming. The organization has featured celebrities, politicians, sports figures, philanthropists, writers, activists, religious figures… Which type of guest do you typically find most enlightening?
We had Stan Kasten, the new president of the L.A. Dodgers, speak last spring, and he was so fun! He stood up there and did what I can’t do: He spoke for 18 minutes or so with not a piece of paper, and with such enthusiasm and energy and focus. He talked about where he was taking the Dodgers and how he was going to make it the terrific team it is getting to be. What’s surprising is when you get that level of intimacy, the inside scoop, information you can’t get anywhere else. He spoke so candidly, particularly during the Q&A period, about what parts of the Dodgers he needed to rebuild and how he was going into the locker rooms and building up the confidence of the team. He told some inside stories that had the audience just howling with laughter. It’s what I love most about Town Hall: you can’t show up expecting a canned speech. We don’t allow our speakers to do that. Not only do we not pay them, but they have just 15 minutes to frame their key focus and then we spend equal if not more time in an interactive Q&A with the audience, which I think is the best part.

Are there other events, perhaps from before you joined the organization, that you wish you could have attended?
I would have loved to have seen the one with Steve Martin, because you never know what to expect with him. I read excerpts of his transcript and he was very funny at parts of his talk and then at other parts he talked about his love for the arts. You got an inside peak at who he is as a person, versus the personality.

Henry Kissinger would have been an interesting one—the inside scoop on his strategy. Margaret Thatcher, oh my gosh, I would have killed to have seen her. What a remarkable woman.

At Town Hall you get exposure to people who have not only changed the world but who have tremendous influence on us. We walk away from those one-hour sessions and can’t help but think about ourselves: What could I be doing differently? What are the things I liked about what they said or didn’t? You can’t stop thinking about what these people share with us.

You joined the organization as president last year. Has anything surprised you about the job?
I wouldn’t say surprised. After I left the Times I worked with a non-profit in Santa Monica for three years and I learned how much work there is working with a non-profit, because you don’t always have the resources to do everything you can, so you end up wearing many hats. I’m continuing to do that here. I work with my team on identifying program opportunities and recruiting good board members and also looking for our vision and growth opportunities and how to get us out into new venues. I’m talking with some cable TV and radio stations for potential partnerships. It’s not a surprise, but there’s so much going on all the time. We produce about two programs a month with a relatively small team. I’m always amazed at how much we’re getting done.

The other thing that is wonderful is about a third of our speakers are people who approach us! That’s nice. There is a strong name recognition with Town Hall Los Angeles, so when we approach someone, like former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is going to speak March 3, she said ‘I’d love to do that!’ She’s going to come and speak on civic education and how we’re losing that in our schools. She said that’s one of her passions.

What does the organization need to survive another 75 years?
We need to continue to build a passionate board. It’s a phenomenal board, but we need to continue to grow. We need to make sure that the board is more representative of Los Angeles. I want more women on the board. I want more voices. The number one role I look for with our board members is to help tap me into what’s going on, because what Town Hall Los Angeles is doing is serving as a filter to say ‘here’s what you really need to know about.’ We need to be ahead of the curve on what information people want to know.  

If I can get people to realize that Town Hall is a phenomenal, objective, non-partisan resource that they can count on like a trusted voice, then they’ll say “Here’s a speaker that Town Hall is bringing to us. I’ve never heard of them, but you know what? I always have a great experience at Town Hall events, so it might be wise if I attended this one.’ If I can get us there, I will have really done my job.

This year’s series of engagements kicks off tonight with Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Horacio Gomez talking about immigration. Why is that first on the list?
Part of it is speaker’s timing. We’re always inviting people and then the timing is often dictated by when it’s a good time for the speaker. But it’s perfect because Obama wants to put this issue back on the table and the senate has made great progress on putting together a new immigration bill. [Gomez] comes at it from non-political perspective. He comes at it with a human interest, almost moral, approach; How do we want our communities to be growing and living? You can’t really have a viable, healthy community where a significant amount of the people can’t drive, can’t vote, can’t participate and are in their own segregated world. I think he’s going to be phenomenal.

In addition to Sandra Day O’Connor, what other speakers and what other issues are part of this year’s program?
We haven’t confirmed some of the dates for these, but we’ve been talking with Dr. Keith Black, who is chairman and professor of the department of neurology at Cedars Sinai, and he is a renowned expert on Alzheimer’s. He’s a phenomenal speaker, so that will be really interesting. We also have Dr. Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is the go-to data specialist for Obama and all the health care constituencies. It’s where they go for the real facts on who is not insured, who is, and what the impact of different aspects of Obamacare is. He’s going to come and be a non-partisan, objective voice on the health care trend, which I think we need.

I’d love to have Mary Barra, the new CEO of General Motors, the first woman head of an automotive industry. What a model for all of us! I would also love to get Kamala Harris, [the California Attorney General].

Down the road I’d love to get some international representation. China is going to be playing such a significant role with Southern California. Within two years, China is going to be the number one place where Southern Californians travel and vice versa, so the implications for tourism and business—it’s huge.

If you could get anyone in the world to speak at a future event, on any topic, who would it be and what would the title of the event be?
I’d love to have the prime minister of South Korea. California and particularly Southern California is so dependent on what’s happening in the Pacific Rim, and there are also issues going on between Japan and Korea. As they go, so go we. We don’t live in a world anymore where we can just read about what’s happening between South Korea and Japan and think, Well, that’s nice but its not affecting me. The title would be “What This Means To Us: South Korea and the Future of Southern California.”

I’d also love to get Sheryl Sandberg. We hope to get Janet Yellen back. I’d love Michelle Obama. I’d love Janet Napolitano. Maybe Steven Spielberg on the future of content, where it’s going and how we will be consuming it in the future.

L.A. gets a reputation for being less than engaged in civic issues. The low voter turnout last year didn’t help change that perception. How do you think Angelenos rate on that front?
I don’t believe in cop-outs. I don’t accept that people can’t vote because there’s not a choice—there’s always a choice—or because they don’t know what the issues are. Well, why not? I’m not very patient with people who say they don’t have time or can’t focus on key issues because it ends up impacting us all anyway.

There’s opportunity to grow and improve. It’s a challenging market because it’s so disperse and people have long commutes and we don’t have the transportation system yet that we need to, so time is a tremendous constraint, but I also know there are people who are raising families, working full time, finding time to volunteer, and who seem to be the ones out there voting, as well. We’ve got the model. It can be done. We just need to do a better job, and we’ll play a role here at Town Hall in terms of helping people understand the importance [of civic engagement]. Yes, your one vote, your participation makes a difference.