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In Tough Budget Times, Let's See What We Can Do

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In this busy room in South Los Angeles lies a crossroads of politics, government and community activism. It is a meeting of community members and front line government workers who have come together to try and solve the problems of the neighborhood. I am fascinated to see what happens as their paths join.

In the world of politics, we have the news jumping with movie star Meagan Fox protesting budget cuts to education, the City wrestling with unions and the Department of Water and Power over money, and politicians raising and spending insane amounts of money to get elected to office.

In government we have a lot of belt tightening and planning going on, trying to figure out how to manage with really large cuts.

And then there is the community, where the idea that politics or government will come to the rescue seems a little far-fetched these days. In this South LA community, residents tell decade's worth of stories of their kids struggling with violence and failure in school . The trend I have seen in the past is for such groups to complain a lot and blame the schools, police officers, politicians (except, oddly, the ones they vote for) and everyone else.

Not here. Formed by my non-profit A Better LA (www.abetterla.org), guided by a skilled facilitator, but directed and owned by the community of West Athens/Westmont, this group of people believes that they can solve problems themselves. Trouble with schools? Let's form an education committee. And let's have the principals of the schools show up to the meetings to pitch in too. Worries about violence? Let's work with police officers, intervention workers (usually former gang members) and current gang members to stop it.

As I watch this develop, I wonder how far it can go. In tough budget times, how much can we do to pick up the slack?

If an overwhelmed mother lacks needed resources or assistance, can she or her social worker call upon this group to help with watching the kids or overcoming the daily obstacles of poverty? If the police feel like they can't have enough of a presence to deter crime, can the intervention workers and other community members step up to help stabilize the neighborhood? It seems very doable.

And if we succeed, what would that say about the current state of politics and government? Perhaps people would have a better understanding of why campaign slogans, and even laws passed in Sacramento and Washington D.C. rarely translate into real change in our neediest communities. Perhaps we would become more sophisticated about where our tax and private dollars should be spent.

Perhaps government could learn to operate differently, by empowering the community to take the lead in solving social problems and partnering where necessary, as opposed to the other way around.

And, perhaps, instead of having three separate roads for politics, government and the community, we could have just one.