Challenging Assumptions, Changing Perceptions in Los Angeles

By LIFT on October 30, 2013

Categories: Events, Our Work


An impressive group of CEO’s, non-profit heads, entertainment/technology executives, and other activists gathered to try to solve problems faced by the poor in Los Angeles.  LIFTopolis, held on October 1, 2013 at the Magnolia Place Family Center in Los Angeles, provided this group with a unique opportunity to both experience what it is like to navigate through the social services system and then come together to brainstorm solutions to the problems they faced.

Michelle Rhone-Collins, Executive Director of LIFT-Los Angeles, articulated the primary goal of this evening event: “It is important for us to come together to find innovative solutions to lift our communities out of poverty for good.”  Rhone-Collins wanted the night to be “an idea incubator and conversation starter that will spark innovation to be implemented in the short and long term.”  And that it was.

Chris Essel, president of the Southern California Grantmakers (SCG), kicked off the event by welcoming the participants, many of whom had been invited by SCG to experience LIFTopolis.  Each participant was then assigned a character in need of social services in LIFTopolis, a fictional city with a high rate of poverty.  For example, you might be an unemployed single mom of 2 with unacceptable family housing and child support as your only source of income.  You were then sent out to a series of tables offering food stamps, public housing and other social services, along with potential employers.

In navigating through these tables (with very long lines and no instruction), participants quickly grew frustrated.  Those manning the tables were often rude and rarely helpful.  There was no coordination among the services provided and participants would find after standing in one long line that they needed to go to another table before obtaining the services provided at the first line.

After 45 minutes, most participants were successful at getting no more than one service and in many cases none.  Cara Esposito, ‎Executive Director at Leonetti/O’Connell Family Foundation, expressed what many were feeling, “I have to be honest – that was one of the most upsetting and frustrating experiences I have ever had.”

Alex Morales, CEO of Magnolia Community Initiative, seconded Esposito’s emotions: “It was so frustrating that I gave up.  I didn’t succeed at anything. … We really lived for 45 minutes the way people live their lives and it was exhausting.  Imagine people who have months and years of dealing with this.”

As frustrating as the LIFTopolis simulation was, it did successfully serve a purpose – to motivate the participants to creatively solve the problems they faced in the experience.  Esposito of the Leonetti/O’Connell Family Foundation announced the call to action, asking each of 15 tables to brainstorm solutions.  Without restrictions or limitations, participants were asked to conceive of a system that better serves our communities.

Left to their own creativity, tables devised a range of solutions, some simple, some more complex, but all surprisingly relevant and insightful for the short time frame given.  Simple actions included community ambassadors and partnering with another organization to give rides to social service locations.  More complex technology-oriented solutions involved a centralized interactive database that would allow agencies to immediately find out what services (for example housing) are available in real time and online forums for sharing information about social services.

The most motivating aspect of this exercise for many of the participants was Rhone-Collin’s announcement that LIFT-Los Angeles would pursue one of the solutions to make it a reality.  “It felt good to know that something will be done,” said Denise McCain-Tharnstrom, who works both on the funding side with Everychild Foundation and on the non-profit side as a Board Member of Children’s Nature Institute, “It drives home how worthwhile this process was.  Having all of us in a room together pushes the needle, instead of thinking it should be someone else’s role.”