When I started a nonprofit organization twelve years ago, I wondered to myself, “Why is it that this has never been done before? There is an undeniable need in my community, a sleepy little town of over one million people. Surely this has already been tried, and if so, why did it fail?” I feared that I was entering into some forbidden territory where nobody dared go, because it was too dangerous and impossible to achieve. Was I naïve? What was it that everybody else knew that I was doomed to learn?
It's been a long time since I asked myself those questions, but I know the answer. It wasn’t that what I was attempting to do was an impossible, unrealistic dream or not feasible. It’s that in my region of over one million people, the average resident is perfectly content to “Let someone else do it”.
I live in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California, where people stay in their houses and venture out to make a living, get their kids to school, or go to the grocery store. We don’t have a vibrant civic life or cultural center where people gather, appreciate good food, company, art, music, or learn anything new. It doesn’t exist. There is no reason for people to leave their houses, and the average Valley resident likes it that way. Even the celebrities. They move out here so they can be left alone and only leave their houses to further their careers (their housekeepers or personal assistants go to the grocery store for them). After Los Angeles became a boom town in the earlier part of the 20th century (oil, land development and the movie industry), the farmlands of the San Fernando Valley got gobbled up by tract housing, a chunk at a time, to make way for a new suburbia for Los Angeles. The original homeowners of the average home bought in to a suburban lifestyle where the people matched the houses – they were all the same. The subdivisions of the Valley haven’t changed much (except for gigantic mansions that have been built along the edges), but the demographics have changed dramatically. Original homeowners are getting older and passing away. The public schools at the end of the block where all the kids in the neighborhood went are now over crowded with children from people from all around the world. There are certain zip codes in the Valley (in areas where the homes are worth more than $600,000) where kids still go to the neighborhood public school, because the parents there have done enough fundraising on their own to turn their average school into a decent school. If they’re not satisfied with that school, and they can afford it, then they send their kids to private schools. The rest of us poor schmucks are left to apply to magnets, charters, or hope for open enrollment to get out of sending our kids to the neighborhood school. It’s not a fair or balanced system. But it’s the only system there is.
My oldest child attended our neighborhood school from kindergarten through fifth grade. There were two blonde kids in his entire kindergarten class and he was one of them. I was fearful of this school when we first moved into the neighborhood, because I paid way too much attention to the negative news reports and what everybody was saying at Mommy and Me and at my son’s preschool. Los Angeles moms are neurotic! The school system has made us this way. The message I got, loud and clear, is that good mothers do not send their children to LAUSD schools.
After snooping around our neighborhood school when my son was about four, I started to let go of the paranoia and started thinking for myself. My husband and I decided to give that school a shot. Contrary to popular, paranoid belief, I didn’t subscribe to the theory that every moment spent in kindergarten was going to determine the quality of the rest of his education or life. It was only kindergarten and if we didn’t like what was going on there, we’d pull him out. Seemed like a reasonable, sane plan, and a relief from the frantic Mommy Talk.
Soon after my son entered kindergarten, I started volunteering in the PTA and teaching art in his classroom. I learned right away that this school, and all schools, were dying for parent and community support, but that they had all been abandoned. They were left alone to try and educate a diverse group of children, with limited funding in a dysfunctional system, set inside a lifeless, disinterested community. That really bothered me. I could see that I could make a significant contribution to this little school by volunteering to teach art. The school was delighted to receive my help.
Soon after I started teaching art in my son’s classroom, I was approached by other teachers who asked if I’d teach some lessons in their classroom. How could I say no? But how was I going to be able to afford the supplies, etc., on my own? At the same time, I learned from my involvement in PTA that if schools didn’t have a PTA, their kids couldn’t go on any field trips. I was so naïve as a kindergarten parent I thought that buses came with schools and if you wanted to go somewhere you just called up the Bus Barn and they sent one out. But no, that’s not how it works. Everything costs in LAUSD – usually triple what you’d pay outside of the system, because everything is padded to maintain the top heavy status quo (a well known fact to most people who had been around, but a shocking revelation to me as a new parent). It didn’t seem morally right, or even believable, and I was outraged.
So I started doing some research on what I could do to raise money to purchase supplies for me to volunteer teaching art at my son’s school, and what I could do to raise money to take the kids on field trips to art museums and other cultural institutions (we have a lot in LA). I didn’t want to propose such trips to our tiny PTA because it was already committed to funding buses for every grade level for traditional field trips that enhance an “academic curriculum”. I may have been a naive kindergarten parent, but I wasn’t naïve about how people viewed the arts – they are the first thing to go when money is tight and I wanted to figure out a way to make these things happen without being weighed against other needs when money runs out.
What I learned, in my initial research, was that I should probably get set up as a nonprofit organization so that I wouldn’t have to spend most of my time “earning” and running a small business. And since the children that I hoped to serve didn’t have any money, it didn’t look like that would be possible anyway – I didn’t want to charge kids for art, nor did I believe parents or schools should have to pay for it. The arts should be offered in public school along with all other subjects. If parents were expected to pay, that would mean that some kids would get left out, most likely the kids who needed it the most. So I needed to learn how to set up a nonprofit corporation (501 c 3) so that all kids could benefit from an arts program, without burdening the school or their parents with financial requests.
I talked to a number of people who had already done it and then I purchased a copy of the NoLo Press’s The California Nonprofit Corporation Kit and did everything it said, a step at a time. I found a fiscal receiver, opened up a bank account and started fundraising. I learned very quickly how to write grant proposals and conduct various fundraisers. I taught the art lessons myself, adding 100 new kids every year (a new grade level) at my son’s school, fine tuning the curriculum that I wrote. As the money came in, the programs expanded and in a few years we adopted another school, and then another school. We put on festivals and art shows that benefited the entire Valley. We donated supplies to many other new schools and partnered with almost every arts organization in Los Angeles along the way. Los Angeles foundations have been the most generous with us – most of our funding has come from them. But our own residents and the business community of the San Fernando Valley? Very, very few have taken an interest in us, or any other local charity, because the average Valley business and eligible individual is not philanthropic. We have a lousy reputation for being civic minded, culturally astute, or community based (except for a few annual galas where the same old people who give to the same, popular causes, get the same old pictures taken and are published in the Daily News). Other regions of Los Angeles have a lower median of income (like portions of the Hollywood area) yet their residents are active in their communities and donate time and money to causes they believe in. Then there are other areas like Pasadena, which are flooded with generous donors who fully understand how critical it is to support education, arts and culture, and many other causes in their community. And it shows. So what’s up with the Valley?
The Valley mentality hasn’t changed much since it was first developed as a post war suburban utopia. The people may have changed, but the “Let someone else do it” attitude is alive and well. The sleepy suburbanites cocoon themselves up in their own little worlds and send their kids anywhere but to the neighborhood school, if they can. Then the large immigrant populations are content to let the neighborhood schools take care of everything and do it all. They don’t support their children’s schools the way they should. The answer to my question twelve years ago “Why hasn’t this been done before?” has to do with priorities. To fight for something, you have to value it first, then you have to make the time for the fight. It’s not enough to say you care about something. That just makes you look good. For communities to be healthy, vibrant and active, we all have to make some sort of personal contribution by doing it ourselves. "Someone else" left the building a long time ago.