This week John met with Dr. Raphael Sonenshein, Executive Director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA, who is working to unleash the power of civic participation. We met at Homegirl Cafe, the cafe component of the innovative social enterprise Homeboy Industries that provides hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women. Raphe and I discuss his work studying and developing city coalitions and how they can politically empower marginalized communities, as well his mission of increasing widespread civic literacy…
Links to subjects mentioned:
- The Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA
- Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley
- Congresswoman Karen Bass
- The California Eagle
- The Los Angeles Sentinel
- Raphe Sonenshein’s Twitter
- California Community Foundation (CCF)
- Weingart Foundation
- Congresswoman Maxine Waters
- Speaker Anthony Rendon
- Supervisor Hilda Solis
- Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)
- The Los Angeles Herald Examiner
- California State University, Fullerton
- Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
- League of Women Voters, Los Angeles
- Center for Nonprofit Management
- Theodore Roosevelt High School
Listen to our other podcasts here or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Play
John Bwarie: Hello, this is John Bwarie, and welcome to another episode of Community Intelligence, where we explore how leaders engage and build community. Joining me for this episode is the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA, Dr. Raphe Sonenshein, who’s working to unleash the power of participation. We met at Homegirl Cafe, the restaurant component of the innovative social enterprise Homeboy Industries that provides hope, training, and support to formerly gang involved and previously incarcerated men and women. Raphe and I discussed his work researching and developing city coalitions and how they can politically empower marginalized communities.
Raphe Sonenshein: So I called Yale.
John Bwarie: Were you still a student?
Raphe Sonenshein: Hard to say, but I called my advisor, and I said, “I think I want to come back and finish my dissertations.” And he laughed. They all laugh, and they said, “Sure.” So I did my dissertation out here on Tom Bradley.
John Bwarie: What was your thesis?
Raphe Sonenshein: Well, it was not a very good dissertation.
John Bwarie: Oh.
Raphe Sonenshein: I didn’t know how to do a dissertation, but I used the research of the dissertation to really do what I really wanted to do, which is talk about racial coalition politics. And that became my first book, Politics in Black and White. And I wanted to challenge the notion that was very dominant on the East Coast and especially in academia, that interracial coalitions died with the end of the civil rights movement. And I believe that that was dead wrong. And I had come out here to a city nobody was studying. People didn’t even think it was a city in political science and found the Tom Bradley had built a dominating African American Jewish coalition that the literature said could not possibly exist.
John Bwarie: And when you say the literature, I’m going to just guess here, the East Coast literature… I mean, is there an East Coast West Coast divide that helped inform this misinformation in the literature?
Raphe Sonenshein: That would give too much credit to the literature. There was no West Coast side of it. Political science has been, and less so today, but back then was very much New York City, Chicago, especially in the area of urban politics. From the standpoint of race, it wasn’t very highly developed. Sociology was much more developed in that. That’s why I ended up using a lot of sociology literature in my work. But they didn’t think L.A. Or California was even worth having part of the conversation. So I was having a ball. I mean, because I was an upstart.
John Bwarie: And you were on the forefront because today, L.A. is the model for sort of Southern California for politics and community and the differences in people and how you come together to solve problems.
Raphe Sonenshein: It was funny because I was trained on the East Coast as a political scientist but exercised my work on the West Coast. But I mean, I certainly respected the literature, but I thought L.A. and the Western experience had to be incorporated into the study of racial politics, or we were never going to get anywhere because interracial coalitions had pretty much evaporated in New York City, just collapsed completely. So people were giving up on it, and that would have been a terrible mistake. And as you see in the recent elections going on, where African-American candidates are doing very, very well, it’s partly in coalition with other communities, not just whites, but other communities, and those lessons continue to be quite relevant.
John Bwarie: So go back then. What you’ve said so far is that you’ve been interacting with African Americans in leadership positions. As part of your research, did you actually get a little bit more granular into the neighborhoods, into the people, into the community organizing groups?
Raphe Sonenshein: Oh, yeah.
John Bwarie: How did you get that information? What’s that process as the white guy from Jersey to come in to south L.A. or a African American community to understand what’s happening?
Raphe Sonenshein: I wouldn’t overestimate my understanding. I mean, I’m pretty humble about these things. I know mostly what I don’t know.
John Bwarie: That’s a good place to start.
Raphe Sonenshein: But I also found coming to L.A. that people were just always very nice to me and very welcoming. And as long as I was working in a campaign or doing something useful… I got the great opportunity in the ’90s to spend some time with Karen Bass who was running the Community Coalition against, regarding substance abuse and training. She was trying to close down liquor stores in South Central L.A., then called South Central. I just found the barriers while significant in L.A. don’t compare to the barriers on the East Coast where when a stranger walks into a neighborhood, everybody knows they’re a stranger. I never felt that here, but I don’t think I had any special qualities. I mean, I just think that people were just very interested that I was interested.
John Bwarie: I think that’s the key though, that you were interested in them. You weren’t there to observe in a spectator way. You were there to be truly curious and interested.
Raphe Sonenshein: Yeah, and people, I just learned stuff just by reading. For my book, I went to UCLA to look. They had the archives of the LA Sentinel and the California Eagle, and I just read every issue for 40 years that… They’re weeklies, and other than the fact-
John Bwarie: The African American newspapers.
Raphe Sonenshein: And other than the fact that I would get diverted into the sports page, because whenever anybody does archival research, either sports or entertainment, you have to remember that you’re there for a purpose. But one of the things that just was so shattering to watch was how many cover stories were about-
John Bwarie: I’m not sure how that’s going to play with all this scraping on the floor.
Raphe Sonenshein: That’s all right. We’re keeping it real.
John Bwarie: Ambience. Ambience.
Raphe Sonenshein: One of the things that was kind of shattering in some ways was how every week, especially in the Eagle, but often in the Sentinel, there’d be a cover story of someone who had been beaten by the police, dramatic photography. And you think, well, that’s journalism that you’re not seeing in the L.A. Times. You turn over to the L.A. Times, and they’re talking about what was going on in Europe and whole of administration and it’s as if… So you could actually see, putting them next to each other really until Watts, that the Times has no interest at all in South Central L.A. So of course Chief Parker is able to operate with impunity because he’s a hero to the larger community. But you read the papers, and you realize there’s a whole other world of significance here.
John Bwarie: And how does that play out today? I mean, what’s your filter for media today knowing what you know? Because you have firsthand experience of the historical bias.
Raphe Sonenshein: Well, for all the complaints people have, it’s way better than it was then. I mean, until Otis Chandler man took charge of the Times, it was a terrible paper. It was awful. We no longer depend on the Times. Which by the way remains, despite the horrifying ownership stuff they had until recently, it’s still a very good paper. You can’t kill the Times. They tried, and it’s going to make a big comeback now. It’s great. But now, because I think of all the travails the Times had and all the changes in local media, there’s all kinds of people doing interesting stuff all over town. There’s blogs. There’s public radio’s doing great stuff, even commercial radio.
John Bwarie: But do you see a source that is truly giving the full picture, or is your approach to look at multiple sources? How do you inform yourself? Because there’s so many sources.
Raphe Sonenshein: I read everything, and I don’t watch cable news.
John Bwarie: So how many papers do you subscribe to?
Raphe Sonenshein: Well, I subscribe to the Times, and I read all the other papers online. So I follow the New York Times, The Washington Post. I follow the Atlantic. I follow news magazines, Newsweek and Time are kind of evaporating. But in their place, those opinion magazines like the New Yorker and everybody are doing great work. They’re getting more people out here in L.A. than they used to. Now every once in a while the New York Times, God bless them, even though they have some wonderful reporters out here who do great reporting, they have to send somebody out to do a culture story about what idiots we are. And it’s almost like the editor says, “It’s been six months-
John Bwarie: Let’s do it again.
Raphe Sonenshein: So they sent somebody out a few months ago, and I actually was on Twitter about this, which I spend a lot of time doing Twitter. I like Twitter. And I said that I thought that it was satire. I thought it was a satire on the New York Times article. I thought it would be brilliant. I thought it was like the… Or The Onion or something. And he said, “We all sit in our cars, and we don’t talk to each other, and we’re idiots, and we eat. We don’t care about anything. We don’t get out of our house. We don’t know our neighbors.” And I thought, who is this fool?
But it’s the generic fool. I mean, you can put a different name on it. There’s less of that than there used to be is a long way of saying… You got Jennifer Medina and Adam Naguorney who are excellent reporters and turn up really good stuff. I think there’s tremendous numbers of sources of information out here. And I’m very careful what I read though because two thirds of it turns out to not be true. And I’m also always looking for things that we as an institute can weigh in on, promote a discussion of. So if I see an interesting discussion, and I’ll call our staff, and then we’ll say, “Maybe we should do something.”
John Bwarie: Well, and just recently, is it last year you guys really took an interest in the, what we call the Gateway Cities, Southeast Los Angeles. So Los Angeles is a huge county, the largest population in the country, over 10 million residents in L.A. county with diverse neighborhoods that are sometimes just blocks apart but sometimes groups of neighborhoods that are in areas that are very interesting and diverse in and of themselves and very misunderstood by the rest of the population. So you guys said, “We’re going to shine a spotlight on an area that is interesting.” So tell me about Southeast L.A., the Gateway Cities and why you’re there.
Raphe Sonenshein: We didn’t start it. In a sense, really the California Community Foundation came to us and then in association with the Weingart Foundation wanting to do a big initiative in Southeast L.A. And Southeast L.A. is a number of about 10, 11 cities south and east of downtown L.A. And so this area, when Maxine Waters ran for the assembly in ’76, South Gate was part of her district. But in those days, South Gate was all white, very conservative. And in fact, Maxine put me in charge of winning South Gate for her, which I wish we did, but they weren’t used to having a black candidate coming and making their case, but she did successfully.
Well over time, those white working-class communities, middle-class and working-class turned into Latino working-class and middle-class communities, but in the process, they became rather isolated. These are areas with large immigrant populations, with a younger population, but with a lot of assets in the shadow of the big metropolis, okay? And we see this now a lot in urban politics, which is areas outside the urban core with large populations of color but don’t have access to all the institutions, including the L.A. Times.
The L.A. Times was covering Southeast L.A. because it was covering Bell’s scandal. Beyond that, it wasn’t getting regular coverage the way Eastside… So Boyle Heights, everybody knows Boyle Heights, right? So the idea, which really came to us from CCF, it’s a really powerful idea, why have these little cities just operate on their own, one against each other in competition? For one thing, it’s easy to play them against each other. We’ll run a train line through your city. That’ll make you happy. Then we have to work with the other cities. Why not create a regional concept of something called Southeast L.A., and then it would have a bigger voice. And that’s what’s been happening.
So the idea has been for the Pat Brown Institute to help generate research and conversation about the region, not about Bell, not about Cudahy, but about the region.
John Bwarie: So generally, there are 50, 40,000 each city, 100,000 somewhere in there. What’s the whole area population? What are we talking about?
Raphe Sonenshein: So we’re talking about around 750,000 people. And that’s a pretty significant quad.
John Bwarie: Three quarters of a million people.
Raphe Sonenshein: And when we put that information out to places like Metro, which is trying to reach out in the Southeast, we want them thinking of those 750,000. Not how’s Bell doing? How’s Cudahy doing?
John Bwarie: So what’s the strategy to get people with divergent interests? You have city leaders who are beholden to their constituencies, right? But then you’re asking them to work collectively. How do you make the case that it’s worthwhile, and how do you balance competing interests?
Raphe Sonenshein: Well, you reframe the conversation by saying you can all do better if there’s something bigger, and it helps to bring in elected officials who represent the area but not the individual city. So Speaker Anthony Rendon, who’s lives in Paramount, in the area, very dedicated to the Southeast. He convenes a lot of the elected officials, local council members, and has them… Supervisor Hilda Solis plays a very supportive role. And we basically are able to say, “Look, we, these two politicians have a big area. The foundations have a big area. There’s nonprofit organizations working together in something called the SELA Collaborative that we’re a member of.” So you’d be amazed. People actually take to it. Plus, in addition, in these cities that have had a lot of governance problems, there’s a lot of new young council members getting elected.
John Bwarie: They look like the future, or they look like the past?
Raphe Sonenshein: They look like the future. You see, when you come in new, this is the new idea, and people grab onto it and feel comfortable with it. If you’ve been around a long, long time, you might say, “Well, I’m not going to be comfortable.” But then you start to see other people grabbing onto it. Every year, we hold a summit and get two to 300 people including community leaders, regular folks from the community. It’s getting a big buzz. And the foundation world’s pretty excited about it because it’s a way to see their dollars getting used in a community. Not just dumping money in, but very, very carefully nurturing relationships.
John Bwarie: So let’s say the trajectory continues five, 10 years from now. What’s different in that community because of this work?
Raphe Sonenshein: You know how at City Hall, people say, “What’s up with the San Fernando Valley?” They don’t say, “What’s up with [inaudible 00:16:09]” When the day comes, which is starting to happen, where Metro, other organizations, the county supervisors, say we haven’t heard from Southeast L.A. What has been happening is Southeast L.A. has been sort of part of the Gateway Cities. Well, that doesn’t work. This has its own piece. People will say, “What about the San Gabriel Valley,” right? That’s what we want people to say about the Southeast.
Now there’s a school board race underway in District 5 which is going to generate tremendous interest in the Southeast. It’s a very funny district. Half of it is in Northeast, half is in the Southeast, and it has a strip. This is Ref Rodriguez’s district.
John Bwarie: And this is LAUSD.
Raphe Sonenshein: LAUSD.
John Bwarie: And it actually goes outside the city limits of Los Angeles.
Raphe Sonenshein: Yeah, and remember LAUSD has 20% beyond the city of L.A. So you’ve got a lot of Southeast students who were in LAUSD, and this seat happens to be the balance wheel of the contending factions on the school board. Well, that’s going to shine a light on the Southeast, and we’re going to help shine a light on the Southeast through… We don’t have a horse in the race, but we’re going to do our best to get people thinking.
But even just getting the word Southeast out there is having an impact, and people are starting to say, “Well, yeah, I’m… ” It’s the reverse in L.A. People used to say, “I live in Van Nuys,” right? We want people to start saying, “I’m from the Southeast.” And then if you’re from Huntington Park and Maywood, you’re both from the Southeast and the connection. You don’t have to not have incorporated cities. You just have to have it not be the be all and end all of everything.
John Bwarie: It’s part of this building of identity, community identity, and community belonging, and that’s what essentially you’re talking about.
Raphe Sonenshein: Which you’re also going to need some of the institutional constraints that LA city has, even though people don’t appreciate it very much. You have a major newspaper, a world-class newspaper, that at least pays some attention to City Hall, not the way the old Herald Examiner used to, but at least it tries. You have an ethics commission that can monitor campaigns and ethics. You have civic institutions, civic organizations that gravitate to city hall. We want them to gravitate to the Southeast a bit and say what would be a useful way to bring some of these things so that you have some of the benefits, more media coverage, better media coverage.
And in this world of such diverse media, there’s no reason. Some of it, it’s got to start with bloggers who come in and say, “Oh, a really interesting place.” Look at the young people here. I mean, there’s so many young people coming up there. We want to bring in scholars who… It took 30 years to get scholars to study L.A. It’s not going to take that much longer to get them to study in Southeast L.A. once they’re here.
John Bwarie: I define civic engagement much broader than maybe some would. I talk about civic engagement as being actively involved in your community and understanding the way your community or society that you live in works. And it’s very local to me. It’s not about Capitol Hill in Washington DC. That’s part of it, but it’s not all of it. It’s not just about getting out the vote. It’s part of it. That’s an indicator. But it’s about belonging to a community. Civic engagement to me is volunteering. It’s about being on a board. I’m defining my definition. What’s your definition of civic engagement?
Raphe Sonenshein: Well, we have a phrase at the Pat Brown Institute, inform, engage, inspire. And you can’t do the third and the second without the first. In fact, you really don’t want to inspire people who are not informed.
John Bwarie: Who aren’t informed.
Raphe Sonenshein: And that doesn’t mean level of education. It means understanding their world, and understanding your world gives you the courage to participate.
John Bwarie: Courage, that’s a really good point because people are afraid.
Raphe Sonenshein: People are afraid of what they don’t know and don’t understand. And most of politics, this is a very complicated system in our country. Most democracies are a lot simpler than ours. And I taught intro American government for my 29 years at Cal State Fullerton. Usually in addition, my upper division classes, I taught a big freshman class of 220 students who are never going to take another political science class. It was the state requirement that they had to take it, and I took that as a mission from God.
John Bwarie: I was going to say, you were their last stop.
Raphe Sonenshein: Oh, loved it. And all my colleagues felt the same way about that class. So when I got to Cal State LA, I wasn’t teaching anymore and was approached by Mayor Garcetti’s office not long after his election saying he wanted to do civic education for the city based on a program he had done in his council office to educate people about local governments. So we cooked up the Civic University, or Civic U, which we’ve been running ever since.
As you know, we teach neighborhood councils. We teach nonprofit organizations. We’ve taught all city employees. We did an all city employees presentation on it. Actually, the first group the mayor asked us to do was the mayor staff, which was kind of funny except there’s a lot of turnover at City Hall. And fortunately, I did have a lot of charter experience because of the charter commission, and then the city government book was written with the legal women voters of Los Angeles, and that is used by employees for promotional exams.
And so we had a great base of information, but we really wanted to make it accessible. Now, we teach it to high school students in L.A.
John Bwarie: And who’s we? Is it literally you?
Raphe Sonenshein: The Pat Brown Institute. Well, I teach it but with some help from my colleagues, including Raquel Beltran, our associate director. We’ll probably have more instructors as the program grows, but I’m really the main instructor.
But we also have discussion groups going along with it. We’ve had the Center for Nonprofit Management help us with and the mayor’s office and others. The point of the matter is, if you give people useful information about government, they want to put it to use. When they’re confused, it’s hard. And most people are confused about government. Most people don’t know what the CAO does in the city of L.A., who turns out to be, other than the police chief, probably the most important appointed official in the city and is happy to talk to people about budgets and programs and things like that. They don’t know what the mayor can and can’t do. They don’t know the mayor can’t fix the schools because the mayor doesn’t have any control over the schools.
John Bwarie: I find sometimes people don’t even know who the mayor is. They may live in Burbank and not know that Eric Garcetti isn’t their mayor. Because we have in Los Angeles County, there’s 88 cities. The biggest being the city of Los Angeles that only represents 40% of the people in the county. There’s 87 other cities.
Raphe Sonenshein: And conveniently for our lack of information, the city and county have the same name.
John Bwarie: Correct. So what does it mean for someone to be… So I use the word civically literate. How do we get people to be more literate in civics? Because I mean, you’re one man on a mission with an organization and colleagues with you.
Raphe Sonenshein: More people have to be doing this. We have to get civics back into the schools. But I’ll tell you, if civics comes back into the schools, it better be more interesting than when I took it when I was a kid.
John Bwarie: Well, I never took it because I’m a different generation. So what was civics for you?
Raphe Sonenshein: Well, in my generation, we learned how a bill becomes a law. But fortunately, I had a teacher named Mr. Huntoon, Harold Huntoon, who encouraged us to debate and argue. And we would debate with him, and it was back and forth, and that’s what I remember from the class. But we learned about the separation of power isn’t… Well, we don’t teach people how an ordinance becomes an ordinance, that it gets a hearing and goes back to committee. We say, “Why does an ordinance become an ordinance? Who has power?” You really have to train people about power authority roles because what you want to say…
With our Roosevelt high school students that we done a lot of work with, we ask them to pick a problem, and they said there’s a streetlight out there, and people are getting hit by cars because it’s a sudden, right hand turn. There’s no visibility. So we spent quite a bit of time saying, “So who makes a decision about those lights?” And at first, you start with no, we have no idea. And after a while, you’re starting to talk about the Department of Transportation, the traffic officers. You’re talking about the LAPD. You’re talking about the city council. Who can you call the build of fire under whoever has to make that decision? Well, this one reports to the GM. The GM reports to the mayor.
Now, the city council can raise holy hell, a member can. So before you know it, they’re starting to think there’s a lot of illegal dumping in our area. Who in the sanitation department controls that? So that’s why you don’t need to know how a bill becomes a law. Nobody cares. I don’t care.
John Bwarie: Don’t tell Schoolhouse Rock! That’s their signature, right? It’s true. That’s a really great observation that it’s about the power and authority and roles versus the process. Because I always talk about there’s the process that’s the official process. You submit a request online, and it gets through this. Or then there’s the unofficial process. You call the staffer or even better, you call the donor who knows the elected official. Those are the things that we talk about when we talk about true understanding of civic literacy.
And what do you think it’ll take? I mean, more people have to teach it, but we’ve got 10 million people here. Not all 10 million need to know it, but I’d bet a good 10 to 20% do.
Raphe Sonenshein: You don’t have to do it all at once. You have to do it. Talk about it. I do a lot of media interviews, and I push back when a reporter says, “Isn’t it all just politics?” Well, that doesn’t help people. And I push back and say, “Well, you’re in a democracy. It’s politics. You can’t have democracy without politics.” And that means you may fight over roles. You may have two people with opposed roles who have a different point of view. It’s not the end of the world.
And I heard people say on the news this morning it’s terrible that they can’t reach an agreement on the border wall. Well, they disagree. They’re fighting it out. And they said, “Well, what’s the voter to make of this?” Well, I want to teach people to say, “Well, let’s outline the positions.” You don’t have to split the baby. King Solomon pointed out you don’t have to split the baby. Maybe you’ll pick a side. That’s okay. I don’t care which side you pick but pick a side.
So some of it is helping the media see that certain messages that people put out without even thinking they’re doing it. It’s all nonsense. Oh, God, they’re yelling. They’re yelling. I want to know what they’re yelling about. I don’t want to know that they’re yelling. And I don’t mind people being impolite in politics.
John Bwarie: Are they polite in politics? Can polite people get things done in politics?
Raphe Sonenshein: It’s hard to say. I mean, there’s a time and place for everything.
John Bwarie: Decorum.
Raphe Sonenshein: There is, but that’s greatly overrated, I think. And it all depends how high the stakes are. If you’re fixing a traffic light, you probably don’t need to yell at each other. But if someone’s been ignoring your request for a year, you might want to raise up the decibel level just a little bit.
So anyway, we’re trying to start with the high school students, the neighborhood councils, these are all people who are eager. And then one tells another, and then they tell another, and somebody tells another. You can’t do this stuff all at once.
John Bwarie: How do we get more people to take on the leadership of dealing with it? You’re the Pat Brown institute at Cal State LA. You’re one entity. I know your staff. It’s a great team, but you’re not enough to even cover probably not even enough to really do what needs to be done in Southeast L.A. because of the size. But how do we get others? How do we get other institutions? You’re not the only institution in town. Both academic or civic, how do we get them to take this up?
Raphe Sonenshein: Who knows?
John Bwarie: You’re supposed to have the answer.
Raphe Sonenshein: Now that we are working with the mayor, the mayor talks about it all the time.
John Bwarie: And he’s termed out though in a couple-
Raphe Sonenshein: In 2022 for God’s sake.
John Bwarie: Yeah, true though, but he won’t always be there is what I’m saying.
Raphe Sonenshein: I know. I’m so much less worried than you are, John.
John Bwarie: Tell me why.
Raphe Sonenshein: Because these things take time, and we’ll pass the baton to somebody else. They’ll pick it up. Somebody won’t pick it up. Somebody will. My guess is the high schools’ll start picking it up. High school teachers would really enjoy this kind of teaching if they didn’t get into too much trouble. You know what? I need to get some more of this wonderful coffee.
John Bwarie: Yeah, I see your cup is empty.
Raphe Sonenshein: My cup is empty. But see, this is not the kind of stuff I worry about, John. I mean, there’s so much to worry about.
John Bwarie: What do you worry about in the world within your control in this community?
Raphe Sonenshein: I worry that we won’t grapple with really big problems because we can’t get past some of the problems we’re dealing… We can’t get to climate change because we’ve got so many other things going on.
John Bwarie: And so I would argue that the issue of civic literacy and civic engagement addresses those fundamentals, so we can get to the bigger issues.
Raphe Sonenshein: Let’s put it this way, if we wait to deal with climate change until everybody has civic literacy, we’re never going to get it. In general, you can do more than one thing at a time. I think the best you can do in this world, in the little piece of earth that you occupy, is do what you think should be done. Tell everybody about it and see where it goes. We might be wrong. We might be doing it the wrong way, so people don’t have to do what we’re doing, but you’ve got to make a commitment that even people who are not in the social sciences need to have civic literacy.
And there’s a big battle about this. I mean, you’ll load up all these science courses for people because they’re great to have. Then it turns out science is in the political arena. Well this year, scientists are running for office in great numbers. That’s a wonderful thing. But they should all be getting civic literacy as part of their college education. Even though there may not appear to be time. It may appear to be a luxury. But the truth is, the old Greek philosophers basically said that people are political animals, that there’s something inherent in us that wants to be engaged in this, that it’s not unnatural. It is not like trying to get me to play the tuba. But all you have to do is come halfway and say, “Here’s how this matters.” Don’t lecture. Don’t go around complaining about how young people don’t know anything compared to how much older people know. Give me a break.
And I mean, young people are on their phone checking out 10 different news items during your lecture about how illiterate they are civically. So find out where people are and grab them in what they’re naturally interested in but then make the connection to the civic arena. But don’t tell people they’re civically illiterate.
John Bwarie: Very good.
Raphe Sonenshein: Guess what? People don’t actually like that. I know this may come as a surprise to everybody.
John Bwarie: So I’m ready to go to our lightning round. Just quick whatever comes to mind, okay? Who’s the leader that’s influenced you in your work?
Raphe Sonenshein: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
John Bwarie: Wow, go big. What’s a charter idea that didn’t make it into the city’s charter that you think should be there?
Raphe Sonenshein: Boroughs.
John Bwarie: Boroughs. What do students need to know about engaging in a metropolis like Los Angeles?
Raphe Sonenshein: It’s not as hard as you think.
John Bwarie: What’s your method to learn about a community or an issue?
Raphe Sonenshein: Read, visit, talk to people, and listen.
John Bwarie: What has been the most civically literate elected official you’ve known in your work, someone who really knows the system?
Raphe Sonenshein: Ron Deaton. You know who Ron Deaton is?
John Bwarie: I do. He’s the former CLA, head of DWP.
Raphe Sonenshein: Yes.
John Bwarie: What’s the best quality in a collaborative partnership to achieve good collaboration? Because you’re doing a lot of that in Southeast L.A., what’s that good quality?
Raphe Sonenshein: Friendly listening.
John Bwarie: What advice do you give 25-year-old Raphe?
Raphe Sonenshein: Just try all kinds of stuff that doesn’t make any sense. Just don’t sit there and say, “I can’t do this because it’s going to set my career back.” Nobody cares about what your career at 25 is going to look so different when you’re 45. Try some things. Learn to type.
John Bwarie: So last question. What so far has been your proudest professional moment?
Raphe Sonenshein: The passage of the L.A. city charter in 1999.
John Bwarie: Raphe, thanks so much for joining us here on Community Intelligence. Looking forward to talking with you again soon about all the great work.
Raphe Sonenshein: This was great fun, John. Thanks for having me. Let’s get you some of that coffee.
John Bwarie: Yeah.
Raphe Sonenshein: Thanks for listening to Community Intelligence. And for more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at stratiscope.com. At Stratiscope, we provide community intelligence services to businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. Let us know how we can help you.