Sometimes, ideas, like chemicals in a lab, come together. Whether it’s a big flourish or a small fizzle remains to be seen, but it’s all a part of the adventure.
I’ve worked in the city of Los Angeles since high school. My first jobs were public-facing in retail, and after returning from college, I started teaching high school English in Watts. Traversing the city each day from my home in the San Fernando Valley into South LA, I saw various aspects of the city in new, thought-provoking ways. So when the opportunity came to work for the city that I had been driving through since I got my driver’s permit at 15, I took it.
For the next 11 years, I worked for the City of Los Angeles as a city employee (for 4 different elected officials). Every day was different than the last and couldn’t really prepare me for the next. It was an honor to serve, regardless of the capacity.
So, when I finally left formal government service (employment), I knew that I wanted to stay engaged in the civic dialogue. I subscribed to digital newsletter updates from elected officials, advocacy groups, and nonprofits as a way to stay informed. With a flood of one-way communication in my inbox, this was a good strategy to keep me updated, but it wasn’t, perhaps, as effective in keeping me truly informed or as engaged as I wanted to be. I went to advertised meetings and meetups, but there was something missing. I still felt disconnected from my city.
During these same, last 15 years, I maintained regular communication with the high school colleague who had led our campus’ service initiatives. He and I would meet regularly to talk about ideas to help LA and its citizens. Those ideas morphed over the years from strictly nonprofit, to financially nonviable, to identifying the true need of the populace: education and strategies for engagement and, above all, the ability to connect with others doing good work for and in the City.
So, after over a decade of observation and conversation, a few job changes, and a knowledge that a growing family would soon change my ability to start new things, I launched the City Impact Lab in 2014 to achieve the things that I didn’t see any other group truly doing: bringing people together to share passion and strategy in order to advance causes that make an impact in Los Angeles.
I had co-founded Stratiscope a year prior knowing this new company would focus on supporting those doing good work. We consciously decided against becoming a nonprofit or B-Corp. because we believed a business in the United States could be dedicated to making good things happen without sacrificing the sound business principles upon which this nation was founded. (Lofty, I know, but it’s worked so far.)
After getting settled those first few months, I returned to this idea of an entity that could bring people together to help them advance their stated “good works purpose” (what positive work they were driven by and wanted to do). We looked at coworking spaces, civic incubators, startups, and other emerging civic initiatives to bring people together to solve city issues, but what we found were others focused too heavily on technology to bring people together rather than bringing people together for the sake of connection and mutual understanding. We began with the Social Impact Breakfast program, which has now grown to a monthly series with over 50 attendees coming to hear strategies from those working day to day to improve Los Angeles. We have also developed a round table program, a reflections program, and a variety of other activities for the sole purpose of bringing together and providing support and resources for those working to improve LA in the way that they believe is best. The City Impact Lab doesn’t say, “This is what needs fixing and this is how to fix it”; but rather, we ask, “Where do you see an issue and how can we help you get to where you see the city going?”
First time attendees and others ask, “Why a lab?” They get that “city impact” is focused on making an impact in the city, but a lab? My experience with laboratories is limited, as my coursework in high school and college focused more on history and writing versus chemistry and physics. But my limited experience is summed up, thanks to an undergraduate science class where the professor mixed two chemicals in an auditorium full of 300 eager students. He knew his audience, and he knew the visualization of the mixture would captivate the attention of the poets, athletes, and undecideds. He teased us with a preview of “Now, when I add this [pointing to a beaker half-full in his hand] to this [pointing to one just barely full on the table at the front of the lecture hall] — get ready. Watch what happens.”
We were all prepped and on the edge of our seats. He poured. There was a slight fizzle. Nothing really happened. That was that. The professor uncomfortably chuckled, muttering something about this not being what was expected. “Hold on,” he said, looking around at the packages on his desk, reading labels and seemingly checking expiration dates on the chemicals. Bottom line: it’s safe to say the experiment didn’t work the way he expected. We all learned something that day, and that lesson inspires my understanding of the lab: you can try things, and it might not work as expected, but everything you do is an opportunity for improvement.
This is a big, complicated city, and not everything works every time to address its challenges. But with a large enough roomful of people at the edge of their seats, the solution is there. We just need to keep trying, together, to realize the vision we each individually hold and share for the City we all call home.
Further Reading: City Impact Lab
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John Bwarie is an impact professional working to connect people and solve problems while focusing on an actionable outcome. John is committed to serve Los Angeles and support it as a laboratory for addressing issues in other cities, as well. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.