Loebs Give a Boost to the New Watts: 2014 Alumni Council Grant

Last November, Steven Lewis (LF ’07) convened a 2-day charrette, made possible by a Loeb Alumni Association Grant, to explore the feasibility of organizing a cultural tourism industry within the Greater Watts community in South Los Angeles. Loebs and colleagues converged from around the country to lend a hand.

The Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a prominent local organization, identified cultural tourism as a viable means of economic empowerment and self-determination for a historically underserved and marginalized population that has continued to produce art and culture in the midst of circumstances of poverty and all that comes with it. A major goal of the charrette was to examine the organizational structure of WLCAC as a principal change agent within the community and recommend strategies aimed at strengthening the organization’s effectiveness in achieving meaningful outcomes. Another objective was to identify potential public policies that could support cultural tourism in Watts. Of greatest importance, this forum allowed the Loeb panel to serve as a leadership advisory group to help clarify and prioritize the needs of WLCAC.

Lewis was joined by Loeb alums from all over the US: Maurice Cox (’02) from New Orleans, Deborah Frieden (’07) from Oakland and Damon Rich (’07 and design critic in urban planning and design) from Newark. India Pierce Lee (’09) flew in from Cleveland and Cathy Sloss-Jones (’07) came from Birmingham. Representatives of WLCAC and the Watts community and from Birmingham and Chicago also attended.

The community of Watts for too long has been synonymous with riots, danger, hopelessness and despair; however, the reality is that Watts is home to a citizenry best characterized as “resilient.” Because public agencies have been unable to bring about meaningful improvements to the area, both economic and physical, WLCAC undertook the cultural tourism initiative aimed at capitalizing on the artistic and cultural resources that are resident within the Watts community, and leveraging them to bring about positive change.

The charrette was structured along the format of the Mayors Institute on City Design, which offered a tested model for keeping things organized and moving on schedule. It opened with a forum for the community, during which Loebs presented their relevant experience and interacted directly with a wide array of stakeholders. The presentation was attended by City Councilman Joe Busciano, who was impressed with the importance of the cultural tourism initiative and issued an invitation to continue the dialog about how the city might aid the effort in the greater Watts community.

After reviewing introductory materials provided by WLCAC, participants took a tour of the Central Avenue Cultural Corridor from downtown LA through Watts to the harbor. Loebs and colleagues really got down to business during the strategy session, which focused on 3 areas: real estate, cultural programming and tourism and organizational sustainability. Following each of the sessions WLCAC provided dinner and entertainment, where members of the community and other stakeholder groups were invited.

As is usual when Loebs congregate, the informal discussions that continued late into the evening were rich and productive, adding to the formulation of ideas and strategies developed for WLCAC. The charrette generated over 75 recommendations for consideration and further action by WLCAC’s president and CEO, Timothy Watkins.

Here are some examples in the 3 key focus areas:

  • With regard to the real estate, take control over what WLCAC owns and improve frontage on empty lots, particularly Central Avenue properties. Set an example of excellence that encourages others to make similar investments in upgrading conditions.
  • Inventory WLCAC land and property holdings, capturing all useful data to help inform an overarching real estate strategy.
  • To advance cultural programming and tourism, preserve, conserve and curate the civil rights collections, and tell the story of Watts and of WLCAC.
  • Capitalize on the pending 50th anniversary of the Watts riots and the founding of WLCAC.
  • Partner with other organizations and institutions as a way of activating WLCAC infrastructure and making it productive on numerous levels.
  • To revitalize and sustain the organization, split-up enterprises into logical units or profit centers, each with its own leadership (for example: real estate, social services, cultural programming, organizational management, development).
  • Diversify funding beyond government social service grants.
  • Redefine the CEO’s role and function to focus on the most important areas and those where natural strengths can attain maximum results.

Steve Lewis summed up the experience, “Our value as an advisory seems to me to lie as much in the realm of leadership as it does in technically addressing practical problems or challenges. If the targets of project are organizations or institutions whose leadership will participate in the planned activity, it’s important to highlight the ‘organizational strategic planning’ benefit that is embedded in how we tend to engage.”

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