Eight Lessons We Can Learn From LA, Part Two

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6. The best child welfare begins at home

By Alyssa Katz

Peter Digre has run his agency with one main goal in mind: keep kids out of foster care. As director of Los Angeles’ Children and Family Services, Digre is fanatical about “family preservation,” a collection of services and programs designed to help mothers and fathers suspected of abuse or neglect be better parents, rather than taking away their children.

New York’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta has picked up on the concept–or at least some of it. It only makes sense that in sprawling and public transportation-deprived Los Angeles, a key part of family preservation–a mix of 23 different services from drug treatment to day care–is providing programs close to home. Scoppetta liked the idea of neighborhood-based services, and his agency’s current effort to move child welfare services into the communities they serve is explicitly modeled on LA’s program.

But Scoppetta still has a lot to learn from his West Coast counterpart. While New York offers most of the same services–after all, both are funded by their respective states and the feds–ACS still emphasizes foster care. “Preventive services” get just seven dispassionate words in Scoppetta’s sprawling plan for overhauling his agency. And new contracts now being issued by ACS, which pare per-case funding down to a bare minimum, call for agencies to adopt a standardized approach.

In LA, however, Digre has made family preservation the main focus of the neighborhood programs. Talk with him about the agency’s efforts, and he makes sure you know that foster care is only the last of seven components, a worst-case scenario he claims applies to only one out of every five cases.

The rest of his spiel is a blur of details about preservation: the efforts to allocate money where kids live; the need to work with institutions that have established community ties; caseworkers who make integrated plans for families with input from numerous community players; intensive home visits four to 16 times a month; spare cash for family emergencies.

“As a bureaucracy, we flit in and out of people’s lives,” Digre reflects. “But the community is there when we come, and it’s there when we go. The more we can knit people into churches, employment opportunities, social clubs, block clubs, the less problems we’ll have. The same factors that correlate with the problems we see are about isolation–these things happen in private. The more you get people out into the community and connecting with support, the less abuse and neglect you’re going to have.”

Digre isn’t alone in this. Nancy Daly Riordan, wife of Mayor Richard Riordan, is a child welfare advocate who was instrumental in selling Digre on family preservation. And a Children’s Planning Council, created in 1991 by the County Board of Supervisors, helps keep prevention on the front burner.

The system is decentralized into 28 Community Family Preservation Networks, reaching about 15,000 children a year. In each district, one private agency is the ringleader for a cluster of other community organizations. “They have to be community-based, including their boards and principals, and have strong roots in the community,” says Digre, “or we won’t work with them.” Some are traditional service agencies like drug treatment centers and day care facilities, but the list also includes domestic violence shelters and counseling programs.

“We don’t think families face a crisis and then you intervene,” explains Jacquelyn McCroskey, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California who helped design the system. “Families face a series of crises.” To deal with them coherently, LA makes a case team consisting of social service providers responsible for getting the right services delivered.

With new federal child welfare money and additional funding from welfare-to-work coffers, LA has also been test-driving “family support,” offering resources to families not otherwise involved in the child welfare system. Each area has its own variations. In South Central, for example, job training is the theme, and network members include local employers like Chevron and Sony Pictures as well as area community colleges. “What do our families have in common? Extreme poverty. So how do they get out, make better lives for their families?” asks Digre. “It’s a community development approach.”

Thoughtful philosophy aside, however, this is a system with an astounding 50,000 kids in foster care in a county of 9.6 million. And it must be noted that Los Angeles spends a fraction of what New York does on preventive services and serves fewer families.

But there are signs that neighborhood-based preservation is making a difference. According to Digre’s statistics, the number of children entering foster care each year has been going down appreciably, from about 20,000 in 1996 to an estimated 13,000 this year. During that same period New York City, which cut preventive services dramatically in 1995, saw its admissions to foster care spike from 9,000 to more than 13,000.

The big hurdle now is Digre’s surprise resignation, effective in June, at the end of a bumpy eight-year haul. Funding for family support “is not safe,” fears Joy Gould, who heads a support network in Norwalk. “Because it’s not a uniform strategy, it’s been hard for people to understand it.” Digre, however, remains optimistic. “We’ve created a massive constituency for community-based services,” he observes. “It’s absolutely impossible to dismantle it once it’s there.”

7. LA gears up for industry

By Carl Vogel

When you’re selling surf, sand and glamour, everybody’s buying. That might explain Los Angeles’ tourism trade, but it’s a little surprising to hear Hollywood attitude gives manufacturing a boost.

But as of last year, Los Angeles is the biggest hard-hat town around. With more than 660,000 manufacturing jobs, LA County’s industrial trades have surpassed those of rust-belt cities like Chicago and Detroit, and location has a lot to do with it.

Take apparel, an industry long associated with New York City. While the number of people who make a living making clothes has been falling in New York since the mid 1980s, over the same period LA has seen steady growth (see chart). It’s not just the big immigrant influx or the cheaper rent, although those factors do play a role. Instead, it’s what Los Angeles is selling.

The LA look, as sold by B.U.M., Guess?, No Fear, Quiksilver, Esprit, and countless smaller designers, is casual, with a mix of Latino, African-American and Asian styles. “It’s an anti-fashion statement. No one wants to be the same as the guy next door,” says Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association. “Middle-class Latinos, for example, have no desire to fit in with the fashions of Anglo culture.”

LA fashion is ascendant partially because it’s at the forefront of a casual-Friday world, but also because the city’s flagship industries–movies, television and music–move the local look into the national mainstream. If a dress is on Melrose Place on Monday, everybody’s looking for it in the stores on Tuesday. Hollywood propaganda is the city’s secret weapon, and it works for more than just clothes.

Los Angeles has a burgeoning biotech field, stalwart sectors like food processing, and blue-collar jobs associated with shooting movies and television shows. But much of the city’s manufacturing job growth comes through firms that make a living selling design-driven consumer goods like clothing, furniture, toys, jewelry or car accessories.

“There’s something very distinctively Southern California about these ‘cultural product’ industries, a sense of place associated with the images and fun of LA,” says Allen Scott, who teaches at the School of Public Policy and Social Research and the Department of Geography at UCLA. Los Angeles’ “cultural product” manufacturers take advantage of their urban location by producing consumer goods that harness the country’s fascination with all things LA.

Wages can be a serious problem in manufacturing jobs, especially in the apparel field, where an underground sweatshop economy competes with the relatively well-paying jobs in legally operated firms. But Scott argues that culturally specific manufacturing boosts pay as well. “The most successful cultural-products industries in Los Angeles have tended to maintain high levels of skill, worker remuneration, and market appeal,” he wrote in a 1997 paper on the subject. In other words, taking the high road is more profitable.

Can New York also grab manufacturing jobs by selling its local style? Scott suggests the city invest in technology and design centers, worker training, and industry associations to promote cultural production. But of course, other phenomena, like demographic and economic trends, are much harder to control.

8. Developers pay to play

By Bobbi Murray

It was a match that could have been scripted by Steven Spielberg himself: grassroots coalition versus corporate power brokers.

As recently as early May, things looked bleak for the challenger. The 3-year-old Metropolitan Alliance had been working for more than two years to get DreamWorks SKG–the entertainment giant run by Hollywood barons Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen–to give something back to LA. DreamWorks is building a new studio complex as part of Playa Vista, the biggest development in LA history. As Metro Alliance never let the moguls forget, the project is being built on nearly $580 million in state and local tax breaks, waivers for utility hookup fees and other enticements.

In a plot twist worthy of a movie script, a unanimous City Council vote in May gave the community coalition what it had long been asking for. The council decided that in order to qualify for a $35 million tax rebate tied to job creation, DreamWorks must contribute to a Workforce Development Fund–which could grow as big as $10 million–to train community residents for entertainment industry jobs. Metro Alliance will work with the company to establish the fund’s ground rules. DreamWorks will also develop a media production curriculum for LA’s community colleges. “I’m not aware of a development project [concession] that is as far-reaching as the DreamWorks agreement,” says Leigh Dingerson of the Center for Community Change, a national grassroots resource center.

The Metro Alliance win has given solid credentials to what has come to be known as LA’s “growth with equity” movement, in which community organizers demand that public subsidies for development projects result in dividends for the surrounding neighborhoods.

Because of LA’s stubborn local recession, growth with equity has itself grown slowly, building on campaigns such as the 1997 living wage ordinance (see “A living wage works”). Last year, Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg cut a deal with the development company TrizecHahn, which is building a retail and theater complex on Hollywood Boulevard. In exchange for more than $90 million in public funds, TrizecHahn will subsidize health insurance for retail tenants and urge them to pay a living wage. The deal also includes a pact that hotel management at the development won’t interfere with union organizing.

But the Metro Alliance arrangement with DreamWorks was the first time that a community organization won an explicit role written directly into a big-money development deal. Plans for the 1,087-acre Playa Vista site, on wetlands and bluffs overlooking the Pacific, include commercial space to accommodate 21,000 retail and studio workers and housing for 30,000 people.

Metro Alliance succeeded against its powerful opponent because the group had a careful plan backed by thorough research, a genuine community base with real leaders and the credibility that comes with them. Metro Alliance boasts 56 groups from throughout LA, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, the Pilipino Workers Center and the LA Alliance for a New Economy. It also has a long history with these issues: Metro Alliance leader Anthony Thigpenn was the co-founder of Jobs with Peace, which in the 1980s documented how federal dollars flowed to suburban military contractors while inner-city communities were hurting for jobs. Thigpenn went on to establish the South LA-based Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives (AGENDA), Metro Alliance’s anchor organization.

Metro Alliance formed in 1996 to fight Proposition 209, the California ballot initiative that ended affirmative action. Prop 209 enjoyed a landslide win statewide but was handily defeated in LA County, in part due to Metro Alliance’s get-out-the-vote efforts. Shortly after, some 150 of the community leaders involved decided that their next effort “had to have specific impacts on neighborhoods,” Thigpenn recalls. “At the same time it had to be broad enough so that we could really do coalition around it, so that it impacted multiple constituencies and multiple areas of the city itself.” Communities involved in the coalition–including South and Central LA, Inglewood, and the East Side–had common concerns about employment, job training and education. The DreamWorks campaign fit the bill.

The first trick was getting a sit-down with DreamWorks. Industry titans in an industry town, the company principals never imagined their studio would have to negotiate with a grassroots group headquartered at a South LA strip mall. Initial approaches were rebuffed in time-honored Hollywood fashion: They were ignored. So in the summer of 1997, Metro Alliance coordinated a postcard campaign. Hundreds of sympathetic clergy, neighborhood leaders, City Council members and college students asked DreamWorks to agree to a meeting, and the corporation finally relented.

Starting in November 1997, DreamWorks sat down for a series of pow-wows with Metro Alliance that also included representatives from local Councilwoman Ruth Galanter’s office and officials from the Los Angeles Community College District. Discussions centered on Metro Alliance’s proposal to bring media technology training academies to nine community college campuses.

“Two things attracted us to the community colleges–one is that their constituency were poor, working-class people, people of color,” Thigpenn explains. “And there are community colleges in almost every community in this city. It provided the opportunity then to put forward a model that addressed the specific needs of women, minorities and poor people, and at the same time have a potential regional impact.”

Discussions were going well, but as last year came to a close, Alliance negotiators did a dangerous thing. They talked money. Metro Alliance asked DreamWorks to ante up $5 million to $10 million in academy start-up costs and guarantee a percentage of studio jobs go to graduates. At that point, DreamWorks cancelled a planned January meeting, and never rescheduled it.

Metro Alliance asked Galanter to help effect a thaw. They were stunned when the councilwoman and DreamWorks principal Jeffery Katzenberg announced an Entertainment Studies Program within the LA Community College District that essentially co-opted the Metro Alliance proposal’s ideas, but failed to include any funding or hiring commitments.

Galanter is irked by Metro Alliance’s insistence on setting a fixed DreamWorks contribution based on the size of public subsidies. There are no subsidies, she insists: “I wish they would get off that.” Galanter argues that the tax reductions DreamWorks was offered in 1995 have become standard policy for show-biz companies that locate in city-designated “Media Districts,” while a sewer connection fee waiver now applies to all businesses. Metro Alliance counters that a subsidy is no less a subsidy just because it’s given out as a matter of course. And Playa Vista and DreamWorks are still getting $70 million in city tax incentives, including a $35 million reward for creating new jobs.

Before Galanter’s deal could close, a call from another council member, Mark Ridley-Thomas, persuaded DreamWorks that moving forward without talking to Metro Alliance could mean some high-profile headaches down the road. DreamWorks had no reason to doubt it, having seen the Alliance mobilize hundreds for public meetings. Negotiations reopened and went all the way. “All of us had an interest in reaching an agreement prior to the City Council deliberations,” is how DreamWorks’ director of corporate affairs Andy Spahn delicately puts it. He calls the deal “pretty tremendous.” There are still plenty of details to work out, including the sticky question of exactly how much DreamWorks will contribute to the jobs fund.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of other potential targets for growth-with-equity. The hulking Staples Center sports facility–projected site of the 2000 Democratic National Convention–is now under construction downtown with $70 million in outright city subsidies and easy-term public loans. The Coliseum is to be completely redone with $320 million in state and city money and tax breaks–part of a successful effort to romance a football franchise back to LA. Athlete-entrepreneur Magic Johnson is also developing a mall in Crenshaw with millions in public funds.

After helping lure the NFL to his district, Councilman Ridley-Thomas has introduced a motion to require companies receiving public money to work closely with their communities. Noting the struggles Metro Alliance endured, Ridley-Thomas sees it as a necessary first step toward structuring equity into city projects, so that arguments about what is and is not a subsidy don’t derail efforts to secure dividends for communities. “The ad hoc way in which it’s done to date is not the best way to negotiate a deal with developers,” he observes.

Ridley-Thomas is impressed with Metro Alliance’s victory. “They have worked very hard at becoming constructive and credible community advocates,” he says. “Without that input, I think the community is absent a vital resource.” Thigpenn sums up Metro Alliance’s goals on growth with equity more modestly. “The community will be part of the conversation,” he says.