National Impact Community: Los Angeles, CA
FOUR YEARS LATER: MBK GRANT PAYS OFF FOR LA COUNTY’s PAY OFF FOR LA COUNTY’s YOUTH
I’ve never seen impacted individuals be centered the way I have in the last four years. We’ve reached some monumental systemic goals that will outlast the ‘sprint’ of MBK-LA’s two-year grant period, and we have built partnerships that will continue to bring to scale the changes we have all envisioned.”
—Julio Marcial, Vice President of Programs and Policy at the Liberty Hill Foundation
In 2018, Barack Obama’s initiative, My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), chose Los Angeles County to join its nationwide alliance, and gave Liberty Hill Foundation and California Community Foundation $475,000 to oversee MBK-LA. The two foundations used those funds to generate more than $10 million from private and public sources to invest in LA County’s youth—and those investments paid off.
Where 7 percent of the County’s population is Black, but Black youth account for 30 percent of the arrests, MBK-LA’s goal was clear: divert 50 percent of young people away from prison and probation and toward vocation and youth development. Since 2018, youth arrest and incarceration rates have declined more than 60 percent.
From Criminal Justice to Youth Development
Vincent Holmes, who served as the MBK-LA director and principal analyst for the Los Angeles County Chief Executive Office, said: “MBK made it possible to think big and have an explicit conversation about race. … In a county of 88 cities, 45 law enforcement agencies, and 88 school districts, doing programming at the local level wasn’t the way. … It would have to be a systemic approach to address issues for Black and Brown boys.”
Brianna Morris, from the Los Angeles County Executive Office, added that, for any change to be sustainable beyond the grant life cycle, “it would have to be embedded in existing infrastructure.”
With MBK funds, Liberty Hill’s leadership, and a groundswell of community support, LA County organizations and agencies transformed themselves into a robust and powerful network of support for struggling youth. Over a short period of time, the county drastically turned its focus away from criminal justice and toward youth development. One of the greatest accomplishments is Ready to Rise, which grew from a $3.5 million pilot in 2019 to a $40 million public-private partnership today that seamlessly directs county youth justice money to proven youth development programs. This historic reform has allowed community-based programs to touch the lives of 15,000 youth since 2019 through mentoring, academic support, life skills sessions, family engagement, and other services.
Lasting, County-Level Reforms
The commitment to prevention over punishment became codified at the county level with the creation of the Office of Violence Prevention, the Anti-Racism Diversity Equity Initiative, and the Division of Youth Diversion and Development. The Youth Justice Work Group also placed system-impacted youth at the center of decision making, and added 10 community members to the Youth Justice Coordinating Council to ensure independent oversight.
In 2020, 2.1 million voters approved Measure J, a referendum to explicitly implement a care-first strategy by amending L.A. County’s charter to permanently allocate at least 10 percent of existing, locally controlled revenues to community investment and alternatives to incarceration.
All of these efforts have led to tangible results. Below are a few examples of the work MBK-LA has made possible.
- BLOOM created new pathways for young men of color to graduate from high school and pursue their dreams.
- Fire Camp literally transformed a closed youth prison into a redesigned, live-in training program in firefighting.
- The Black Boy Resiliency Project provides wrap-around services to foster care youth most impacted by childhood trauma.
- Impact Justice’s Lead On program trains and employs system-impacted youth to become “system navigators,” helping other young people find their way out of the justice system.
- Parks After Dark created programming and employment to counter negative neighborhood influences.
- The Bridges Program worked with the Department of Human Relations to identify employment opportunities for youth.
An “Inside-Out” Recipe for Success
MBK-LA’s Holmes reflected that “the time was right” in 2018 to make this investment. Years of work by advocates and officials had already seeded the ground for meaningful results, but many participants recognize that MBK accelerated the process, making it possible to talk about race and systemic issues more explicitly. The nationwide program founded by Barack Obama also provided a legitimizing seal that inspired exponential investment from the public and private sectors, and moved local actors from competition to collaboration.
Holmes went on to cite three key elements that strengthened reform efforts from the inside out instead of top down.
#1 An Engaged Community
Advocates and youth in Los Angeles County wanted the system to change and then they made it happen. They voted officials into office who reflected their values; they backed Measure J; and they stepped up when called upon to use their creativity and their voices to bring forth real solutions.
#2 An Innovative Board
The 2020 election of an all-women County Board of Supervisors with an African American chair pushed reforms even further. The board used its platform and decision-making power to set the course. “You have to have people on the inside comfortable with this idea of change,” Holmes said. The County’s leaders were not just comfortable with change, but saw it as their mandate.
#3 Like-Minded Government Employees
Oftentimes, reform efforts face their biggest challenges after the work groups and political leaders cast their votes for change and the implementation begins. Success depends on the support of county employees to put the reforms in motion. Julio Marcial, Vice President of Programs and Policy at the Liberty Hill Foundation, said that MBK-LA’s efforts were successful not only because of community involvement and political leadership, but also because of the openness and imagination of the government staff tasked with bringing the programs to fruition.
Finding Common Ground
Partners across Los Angeles County have come together through the common ground they found through MBK-LA. “We went from never working together to being tied at the hip,” said Marcial. “It is not easy to get—let alone keep—crucial stakeholders in the same room.”
He cited “vulnerability-based trust,” as a key ingredient to success, along with genuine power-sharing that gave community groups decision-making power over what could become a blueprint for the next thirty years.