It may be the image capital of the planet, but Los Angeles itself suffers from a huge image problem. If you watch cable news, LA is little more than the location for a never-ending disaster movie: fires, gridlock, droughts, earthquakes, riots. While New York cultivates writers and Chicago molds future presidents, Los Angeles offers Octomom and Khloe Kardashian. In LA, Mario Lopez actually passes for a journalist.
Yet, the City of Angels seems a well-deserved name because it's a city that frequently prompts our better angels. Despite the negative press, LA is a vibrant hub of ethnicities and ideas, a thriving metropolis that spurs continuous innovation for the common good. Among its 20 million residents, LA has nurtured a number of remarkable hands-on social entrepreneurs. Indeed, the city hosts some of the pioneering, pro-social organizations in the world.
These groups work across a wide spectrum of issues from the micro- to the meta. Some are nonprofits, others for-profits businesses. Despite their diversity, they share one powerful trait: all strive to serve the public interest and strengthen community through activism and action.
So who are the top social enterprises in the Southland? Here is a short-list of the leading forces for positive change, groups that work to repair the civic fabric in Los Angeles each and every day. And, not only do they improve life in Southern California, these organizations set the bar nationally and globally for social innovation and human impact.
Education & Literacy - If the California public education system is a catastrophic mess, LA is ground zero for this disaster. The district's average score of 681 is 60 points below the state average. However, charter school operators are changing the paradigm. In LA, Green Dot leads the pack. Since 2000, it has created a new dynamic in primary education across the Southland, one that is spreading to cities and towns all over America. Green Dot has pioneered a compelling model that takes over large failing institutions, breaking them up into smaller, nimble schools. It then engages parents and teachers in a highly collaborative approach that abolishes tenure and achieves dramatic results, such as test scores that often exceed those of peer institutions in the district. While many feel that Green Dot is still a work in progress, enigmatic founder and education visionary Steve Barr has the ear of US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and superintendents across the country who want to import his model and understand his new path. Walking the halls of a Green Dot school, you are struck by more than test scores - its the sense of pride that pervades the environment and stays with you long after a visit.
Environmental Activism - LA is among the most environmentally conscious cities in the country. It hosts offices for NRDC, Sierra Club and other national groups, yet Global Green has emerged as its leading contribution to the worldwide movement to combat climate change. The US chapter of Green Cross International, Global Green is helmed by former Sacramento political aide Matt Petersen. Under his leadership, Global Green has earned widespread recognition for its hands-on involvement and relentless advocacy. Petersen has enlisted A-list talent in his campaign to battle climate change and build a better society. Leonardo DiCaprio and Ed Norton sit on the Global Green board. Brad Pitt works with Global Green to spread the gospel of green design in New Orleans. Whether hijacking the red carpet at the Oscars to promote sustainable consumerism or managing an innovative demonstration center to promote residential green building, Global Green sets the pace in LA and beyond.
Civic Engagement - Every city attempts to foster civic engagement. Here in LA, the leading light in the field is City Year Los Angeles, the 18th local franchise of the national organization. By now, community service has become a bipartisan priority. It's been embedded into federal policy, notably via the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act that was signed into legislation earlier this year. But look no further than City Year to see the transformative magic of volunteerism up close. The 150 young leaders recruited to spend a "gap year" in Los Angeles are powerful examples of heroism. These individuals spend almost 2,000 hours as tutors and mentors to at-risk children in some of the most economically challenged neighborhoods across the city. From their inspiring opening ceremonies to the small acts of kindness that these role models perform every day in schools all over the city, City Year LA earns high marks for its commitment, discipline and integrity. Beyond the red jackets and Timberland boots, the results speak for themselves: lower dropout rates, enhanced civic energy, and higher participation in civic institutions.
Global Development - In a city whose residents hail from 140 countries, it should come as no surprise that LA hosts a number of nonprofit groups who take a global view of civic engagement. Among those organizations working to enable sustainable livelihoods around the world, International Medical Corps ranks as the most impressive in the LA area. For 25 years, IMC has worked to build the institutions overseas that relieve suffering on an ongoing basis. IMC was founded in 1984 by Dr. Robert Simon, a UCLA physician, who sought to build medical training facilities in Afghanistan as the country sought to rebuild after the trauma of the Soviet invasion. Since then, IMC has expanded its work to 25 countries, encompassing some of the most desolate and war-torn regions of the world. As documented in their stunning new book, A Thousand Words, their singular focus on helping post-conflict communities achieve long-term self-reliance is inspiring and worthwhile.
Poverty Alleviation - Among many groups seeking to break the cycle of poverty, Chrysalis stands out for its extremely innovative model of aiding economically disadvantaged and homeless people attain self-sufficiency through employment. Launched in 1984 by former investment banker Adlai Wertman, Chrysalis boasts an alumni network of 30,000 individuals that have been impacted through its programming which spans pre- to post-employment. But Chrysalis is most notable because its work is fueled by the revenue generated via Chrysalis Enterprises, its network of wholly-owned businesses that employ more than 1,500 people. The companies include Chrysalis Works, a professional street maintenance service and Chrysalis Staffing, a temporary staffing agency that allows clients to reenter the job market through short- and long-term temporary work assignment. With its successful earned income model, Chrysalis is considered among the most effective job-creation programs in the US.
This is my short list of the leading social enterprises of Los Angeles. What groups have I missed? What categories have I omitted? Use the comments section below' to add your thoughts, challenge my points, and build a conversation. Let's shift from monologue to dialogue and create a guide to social justice and community enrichment here in the City of Angels.
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