This week John met with Shane Goldsmith, President and CEO of the Liberty Hill Foundation, which directly empowers grass-roots community organizing efforts. Shane discusses the foundation’s unique approach to solving problems of economic, environmental, and racial injustice by engaging the individuals most affected and tracing symptoms back to their source. There’s a lot of wisdom in Liberty Hill’s approach that can be applied to anyone seeking to affect change and build movements.
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John Bwarie: Hello, this is John Bwarie, and welcome to another episode of Community Intelligence, where we explore how leaders engage and build community.
For this episode, I met with Shane Goldsmith, President and CEO of the Liberty Hill Foundation, which directly empowers grassroots community organizing efforts. Shane discusses the foundation’s unique approach to solving problems of economic, environmental, and racial injustice by engaging the individuals most affected, and tracing the symptoms back to their source. There’s a lot of wisdom in Liberty Hill’s approach that can be applied to anyone seeking to affect change and build movements.
So, Shane. You’re leading the Liberty Hill Foundation. Tell us about Liberty Hill, what it does, how long it’s been around, maybe its origin story if there is one?
Shane Goldsmith: Yes! There’s a great origin story. Liberty Hill and I were actually both born the same year in the same small town of Santa Monica about 42, 43 years ago, coincidentally. We were founded by four young people who all had inherited significant wealth in the mid-70s at a time where there were social movements all around exposing inequality and injustice. They had inherited all this money that they had not earned, and they wanted to contribute to making a more just world, but they understood that they didn’t … They shouldn’t be the ones to decide how the resources are spent because they’re not the ones leading the social movements.
They made the revolutionary decision then, which, frankly, is revolutionary even now, to say, “We’re going to turn our resources over to the community to figure out what are the best investments to make?” At the time the motto that was created out of that was, “Change not charity.” How do we invest in grassroots organizing led by the people who are directly impacted to advance change, not charity? They pooled their resources and created Liberty Hill Foundation, and we really live by those same principles now of “Change, not charity.” It’s still our motto and we have a community funding board that’s made up of people who are doing the work, who are out there doing the organizing, and who are experts who are in the field, and we bring them together, and they help us make our grant decisions. That keeps us accountable, that keeps us responsive to real community needs and issues, and it keeps us on the cutting-edge.
John Bwarie: You’ve been around for more than four decades as an organization.
Shane Goldsmith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Bwarie: Times have changed, so how has the evolution of the organization transpired? You have these four individuals that started the organization with some sort of resource and said, “Community. What do you need? Here’s our resources to make change in your community.” Have you changed the way you approach the work?
Shane Goldsmith: I think people who we talk to who are organizing in low-income communities of color feel under attack. The attacks feel more bold and more publicly endorsed from the top of our government, and so I think it feels scarier. On the one hand, it seems like there are more attacks and they’re scarier but on the other hand as they’ve become more public, we can also address them publicly and take them on, and so we’re seeing movements. Of course, the Me-Too Movement, Black Lives Matter, the movement around gun violence, which we’re responding in-kind. I think the other thing that is big in Los Angeles and for us is that Los Angeles is really viewed as the headquarters of the resistance. In many ways, we are, and we should be.
We should be a beacon of progressivism for the nation, and say, “This is the right way to do things. This is a way to do things that lives up to our democratic ideals and values,” and yet in Los Angeles, we have big problems. We have more people living on the street than anywhere else. We arrest and incarcerate more kids than anywhere else, and we are … LA is the nation’s largest urban oil field, you know, among other problems.
John Bwarie: Look at just that equation of those three items. Those are monumental, almost insurmountable challenges. How do you … You’re here at Liberty Hill Foundation saying, “Hey, we’ve got community …” It’s like to interpret correctly, “Community, we’ve got your back.”
Shane Goldsmith: Yeah.
John Bwarie: How do you manifest that? What’s your approach to working with, on, let’s say, one or more of these issues you just raised?
Shane Goldsmith: Yeah. Well, I think what we have to figure out now is: How do we protect our communities? How do we protect the gains that we’ve made over the last many years in this era, and how do we continue to make progress and not just be in defensive mode? I think Los Angeles has the opportunity to do both. On those three issues, those are our big three issues; I think in Los Angeles, there really is a robust ecosystem of community organizers who use what we call “inside-outside” strategies. They organize people on the outside who are directly impacted, and then partner with champions on the inside of government to create initiatives and campaigns to change policy and systems in Los Angeles.
John Bwarie: Would you say that these issues … I should I jump in here, are these issues require government? These are all government issues?
Shane Goldsmith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Bwarie: And so the approach is working that public, private?
Shane Goldsmith: Yeah, right, exactly.
John Bwarie: Community engagement equation.
Shane Goldsmith: Right. Making sure that the people who are directly impacted are at the decision-making tables, their voices are being heard, their expertise is being valued. For example, the oil drilling issue, we started hearing about it from a number of partners probably six years ago, who … What had happened is these folks were starting to have these really inexplicable and dramatic symptoms like severe nosebleeds, piercing headaches, nausea, and particularly kids. Their parents were taking the kids to the doctor, and the doctor is like, “I have no idea why this is happening. I can’t explain it.”
They started talking to their neighbors, and it’s like, “Oh. Your kids are having these same weird symptoms too, and your kid too?” They started sort of piecing it together, and, “Oh, and it gets worse on Thursdays at 2:00 when there’s this really weird sound behind that wall. What’s behind that wall? We’ve never actually known what’s behind that wall across the street from our house.” They literally just started to piece it together and figured out there was oil drilling behind that wall, and that … A very extensive process of partnering with community organizations to figure out that there had been this new technique for extracting oil that these drill sites were using that was emitting chemicals that are associated with the very symptoms these kids and people were experiencing.
John Bwarie: And you’re talking, of course, drilling. We’re in a metropolitan area. You’re talking about the outskirts of town, right? You’re talking about the far reaches of this large county that we’re in?
Shane Goldsmith: I wish we were talking about that. We’re talking about right in neighborhoods, literally across the street from residents in the most densely populated parts of Los Angeles, primarily where low-income people of color are concentrated. These oil drilling sites have been there forever, we started out as an oil town, but the technique for extracting oil changed, and that’s what started to create these problems. So folks in the neighborhood start to … “Okay, if that’s what’s happening …” There’s this amazing story where this young woman, who was, at the time 11 years old; she’s now I think 18 and is applying for colleges. At the time, she was a sweet, shy young woman who went with her mom. They saw that wall across the street, walked across the street, opened the door, went inside. This guy wearing a mask with skull and crossbones everywhere in this facility takes them on a tour, and that’s how they figure out, “Oh. There’re toxic chemicals here across the street from our house. Toxic enough that the workers are wearing masks and there’re warnings all around to be careful.”
Anyway, they started to organize together, and started to try to bring attention to the issues. Of course, no one would believe them. No one would listen to them. They went to the AQMD, they went to every level of government-
John Bwarie: That’s the Air Quality Management District.
Shane Goldsmith: Yeah, so they went to the various regulatory bodies, and nobody believed them. Until one day, they finally had a press conference, and they had Senator Boxer come, and she got sick right then and there. They did the press conference while the oil drilling … They knew that the oil drilling was happening. Finally, they start to get attention, and so then now we have a policy pending in the city and the county to create a buffer zone between residents and schools and oil drilling sites, and it’s hard. It’s taking on big oil. These are immigrants, these are low-income people of color who are traditionally disenfranchised and who are fighting back and saying that our lives matter.
John Bwarie: How do you guys, as the Liberty Hill Foundation, how do you as the leader of this organization get into that community? How do they find you? How do you support them?
Shane Goldsmith: Liberty Hill has long standing relationships with leaders all over Los Angeles in low-income communities of color, and so we are often the first to fund this type of work. Community organizations come to us first or we find them. In the foundation, we’re all … There’s this idea of risk. A foundation would perceive it to be risky to fund a brand-new community organization, or a brand-new campaign that doesn’t have all the academic research to back it up, or an organization that has a budget of a few hundred thousand dollars and would be perceived not to have the infrastructure to prove that it can get the job done. That’s all Liberty Hill funds. Liberty Hill will fund a brand new start-up. We’ll fund … Most of our grantees have budgets of under a million dollars. Most of our grantees are led by people of color, and in larger foundation land, there’s very, very, very minuscule amount of investment that goes into organizations led by people of color, organizations with budgets of under a million dollars, organizations that do community organizing. But for us, we believe the people who are most impacted need to lead the way, and in order to do that, they need resources and support, and Liberty Hill provides that.
John Bwarie: They came to you, you found them, you heard about this. What’s the process? They say, “Hey, we need some resources for x, y, and z.” You say, “Sure.” How does it become your issue? How do you take on without taking over the issue of communities that you’re working to serve?
Shane Goldsmith: That’s a great question. That’s always a worry, that because Liberty Hill is a larger institution than most of our grantees, there’s always going to be that worry that we might inadvertently get in the way, steal credit, or just inadvertently get credit, just because we’re bigger.
John Bwarie: Right.
Shane Goldsmith: And more visible. We work very hard to build trust with our grantees. One of the basic ingredients of building trust between a foundation and a grantee is long-term funding. I mean literally. We will fund them year after year, win or lose. As long as they’re continuing to make progress, and as long as our values are aligned and that there are enough victories that we know they’re building power and they are changing systems and policies over time; we know things sometimes take longer than we expect. Opposition can be more powerful than we expect, and so things can take many, many years. But we will support these organizations year after year with funding, with training, with technical assistants; with any relationships that we have with elected officials or other foundations, we will always open those doors for folks.
That builds trust over time, and then it’s just a constant communication on the things that we are more involved in, like the oil drilling or youth incarceration, or rent control; we’re just trying to be in constant contact. If we are inadvertently getting in the way, they’ll tell us, and we’ll renegotiate. But our goals is really just to help and we’re pretty much willing to do anything to help.
John Bwarie: I want to ask you about the way that a movement like that gets funded. The idea that you have one individual or one family, one neighborhood that grows something, but then it’s an issue that’s more than one neighborhood. How do you … Are you funding multiple organizations? How do you deal with the people, the idea that if it’s over time, people leave jobs, people move neighborhoods, people’s lives change. How do you maintain … There’s two questions buried there. How do you deal with multiple organizations working on the same issue? What’s your approach to that? And then, what’s your approach to the human factor? That these are people both on your staff and working at your organization, as well as the people you’re working with. It’s not: This institution working with this institution. It’s two people or three people working together, right? How do you balance that? Two questions.
Shane Goldsmith: Very true. In terms of: How do we fund the work? I mean, Los Angeles is so big and so diverse that you have … Everything significant is done in coalition. No significant policy victory is won without a large coalition of diverse organizations and people. We do a landscape analysis, so we work with our community funding board and our staff, and our grantees to understand the landscape, so to understand: Who are the organizations working on the different campaigns and issues? What are their relative strengths and weaknesses? What are their different roles? Some may be anchoring or leading campaigns, others may be in a more supportive role.
Once we assess that, we try to do our best. We, of course, are a very small foundation. Another thing, by the way, that distinguishes Liberty Hill from other foundations is that we raise all of our money. We raise it, and then we give it away. Other foundations have large endowments, and they’re spending a percentage of the interest-
John Bwarie: You don’t have that?
Shane Goldsmith: No. We have a very tiny endowment, which we appreciate, but it’s a-
John Bwarie: How much annually are you … Just for context here.
Shane Goldsmith: I mean, this year our budget … So over the last five years, our budget has doubled. We’re now at about 9.5 million dollars, and of that, maybe a third of that goes out in terms of grant-making.
John Bwarie: Though, I mean, millions of dollars are going out of here every year.
Shane Goldsmith: Yeah. But yeah, we’re raising that. Anyway, it’s not enough to support the social movements that need us, but we try to be strategic in what we support and how we support it. We do try to support all the organizations that are making a giving campaign possible, if we can, at least the ones that are doing community organizing. Often, campaigns will engage service providers or advocacy organizations, but community organizing would be distinguished by engaging the people who are directly impacted to lead the work, so those are the organizations we’re going to fund.
John Bwarie: You’re not … Your organization isn’t doing that directly.
Shane Goldsmith: No.
John Bwarie: You’re dealing with the leaders of those communities.
Shane Goldsmith: Yes.
John Bwarie: The spokespeople, the representatives, the influencers, if you will, of a community issue.
Shane Goldsmith: Right.
John Bwarie: You’ve done landscape analysis, and so are you funding then … Do you find that oil drilling is happening in this neighborhood, but it’s also happening ten miles away because that’s the way it works in LA, right?
Shane Goldsmith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Bwarie: With a completely disconnected organization, you may fund them as well? Or are you going to say, “Why don’t you work with this group?”
Shane Goldsmith: It can be both. On oil drilling, the organizations are in a coalition, and they’re all working together. We’re funding the coalition and its members. Our youth incarceration, that’s kind of multiple coalitions that are coming together around that, and so we’re funding lots of different parts of that. Rent control, I mean, that is a movement that’s super grassroots, so just tenants who have not been organized are popping up in Pasadena, in Glendale, in Inglewood, and sort of just self-organizing and launching these amazing campaigns to win rent control in their jurisdictions. There, we’re supporting … We are bringing them together. We convene them for trainings, we convene them just to get to know each other-
John Bwarie: Is that standard for a foundation, to convene people and do training? It sounds like capacity building for your-
Shane Goldsmith: Yeah, I mean, it’s a thing foundations do. I think we do it much more hands-on and can do it in a much more grassroots level. Some of these organizations aren’t even 501(c)(3)’s. I mean, they’re barely organized.
John Bwarie: Right.
Shane Goldsmith: But one of … My executive vice president, who leads the rent control work for example, was on Friday night phone calls every other week with these grassroots leaders, just trying to figure this out. She was like, whatever she could do to lend her expertise, to cheer them on, to figure out what their needs are; we will get very hands-on if we’re invited and if we’re helpful. If that’s not needed, then we don’t do it, and we don’t have the capacity to do it. We’ll only do it when we’re needed in really unique situations.
John Bwarie: Going back to the people issue, now you’ve got grassroots people who are not 501(c)(3) that are passionate, committed, and moving. They might not be moving in the right direction, they’re moving somewhere, hopefully towards a good end. You’ve got more organized organizations that you’ve been with for a long time. How do you balance the people component, that you have humans that are doing this? This is human beings’ relationships. How do you balance that and work through that?
Shane Goldsmith: Oh, humans. That’s the hardest part. Yeah, it’s a great question. I think one of the hard things about the way a foundation works with other non-foundations is that there’s a power dynamic. The amount of funding Liberty Hill grants out is small enough that the power dynamic is smaller than the California endowment that’s giving out gazillions of dollars, so there’s a much bigger power dynamic there, or power differential there. But it’s still there, and with money comes some amount of power. We have to be very careful that we really do believe that the people who are directly impacted need to lead the work, and we need to figure out how to support them in that.
It’s just constant communication, and it’s working really hard to be open to feedback, to solicit feedback, to acknowledge that it might be difficult for our partners to give us feedback. I mean, it’s difficult for any two people to give feedback to each other, even married couples. You know? I mean, it’s hard. When there’s a power dynamic, and it’s a professional relationship, it can be hard. When there’s so much at stake, when people’s lives are at stake, it can be really hard to give and receive that feedback.
The whole team here works really hard at that. I know our partners do too, just being in constant communication about: How can we help? There’re all sorts of things like: Whose logo goes on a piece of collateral, or who gets to speak at a press conference. What is the messaging on a certain issue? How radical can the messaging be if Liberty Hill has different partners than our partners have, and different audiences? It’s just a constant negotiation, I think, trying to be as transparent as possible about that, like trying to be clear about what is our self-interest in a given negotiation. What is their self-interest, and where is the common ground where we can create a win-win situation? But it’s hard, and we make mistakes every day.
John Bwarie: Can you give an example of one of those? We all make mistakes.
Shane Goldsmith: Sure, yeah.
John Bwarie: Within that space, how do you … Generically speaking, if you don’t want to give names; how do you … Is there a time that there was a mistake made that you’ve learned from as a group?
Shane Goldsmith: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I should have a ready-made list of stories that I can safely tell.
John Bwarie: I get it, it’s the safe story. You’re dealing with sensitive topics, and long-term relationships.
Shane Goldsmith: Yes, yes. Let me think on that for a second. Well, for Liberty Hill, we … For 40 years, going back to your question of what’s changed for Liberty Hill; for most of our 40 years, we really were a super behind-the-scenes, like, “We’re going to raise the money and we’re going to give it away, and that’s it.” Right about the time that Trump got elected, we realized the stakes had been dramatically raised on all of our work, and we need to figure out: What more can we bring to the table? How can we bring our full institution to support this work? It was then that we realized we actually have a lot more than just money to give. We have relationships that we’ve built over 40 years. We have expertise, and we need to really put that in service of the community organizations, which then causes all these issues to raise.
It’s really easy to build trust when all we’re doing is giving the money and cheering them on, and providing training and uplifting their memes on social media. But when it’s like, “Okay, we’re actually going to become more partners, and we’re going to bring more of our institutional power to the table,” that potentially can create opportunities for tension. One of the things we’ve done is, for the first time ever, we are now partnering with government. We have a couple of different partnerships with county government, and so all of a sudden, it’s like we send out an email to celebrate an achievement, and we are so used to and so good at celebrating our community partners and their role in the achievement, and we leave out our government partners, because we’re just not accustomed to that. So then the government partners are like, “We’re partners. We’re putting ourselves on the line to support this, and we want people to know that,” and that’s true. We couldn’t do this without them, of course they deserve credit. Of course, we want to celebrate them.
I think that happens a lot where because Liberty Hill has … You know, is perceived to have somewhat of a platform, people apparently open our emails, and some people pay attention to what we put out there, it matters who we thank and how we thank them. It probably matters more who we thank and how we thank them than the brilliant content of the email, which is where I spend all my time to make it really smart and interesting. Let’s make sure we give appropriate credit to all of our partners, and so we’ve run into a number of mistakes there, and I always feel terrible about that, and we just will have meetings. “Okay, let’s make sure everybody who deserves to be credited needs to be credited, and that’s more important than anything else in this email, or in this public statement.”
John Bwarie: You know, I’m listening to you, and I’m thinking about other smaller funders, people who are not the mega-millions institutional funders that are giving out tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year. They may be philanthropic … They may be foundational, but they also may be corporate. You see a lot of corporate money being given away at about the half-a-million to a couple of million from some mid-sized to larger companies locally and across the country. What advice would you give those for-profit donors that are trying to make change? I think there’s been a realization. I’ve heard a lot that people don’t want to just write a check anymore. They want to be involved in things that are important to communities.
They may not be as progressive as some issues that you’re tackling, or the issues they’re tackling may not be as complicated or as historically mired as what you already talked about, but they still have the interest to do what’s right and do it the right way to serve the people that they’re serving. What advice do you give folks that are in your space, looking to give money away and really support a community initiative or a community at large?
Shane Goldsmith: I mean, there’s a couple of things that I would say. I mean, I think first of all, whether you’re an institution or an individual, your giving should be guided by your values and your goals. Really, what are you trying to accomplish? What matters most to you? Liberty Hill’s motto is, “Change, not charity.” We really believe that you want to go as far upstream as you can on a problem to get to the root cause. If you can get to a problem’s root cause, then you can solve all the subsequent symptoms and consequences.
A lot of times, those solutions require structural change or policy change, and so … Whereas direct services have a critical role to play, Liberty Hill would, rather than funding direct services, we would fund an advocacy campaign to fight for more public dollars to fund direct services.
John Bwarie: Got it.
Shane Goldsmith: That way, like last year on Liberty Hill’s youth incarceration work, we and our many partners across Los Angeles were successful in winning over 80 million dollars of new public investments into prevention, intervention, and diversion. That was through organizing and advocacy. If we had just decided, “Okay, we’re going to fund prevention and intervention ourselves,” it would have been a few million dollars. It would have been great and heartfelt, but it wouldn’t have been 80 million dollars.
I try to encourage people when they have resources to really think about: Can you go upstream? Can you really get to the root of a problem and solve it at the structural or policy level? Then the ROI … We invested probably a couple of million dollars collectively between other foundations, maybe several million dollars, but the ROI on that was huge at 80 million dollars. That’s unlike funding a direct service, where the ROI is kind of one to one. I think that, and then I think the second thing would be going to the people directly impacted, and really hearing them and they know their problems, they can figure out the solutions and really providing them with the resources to fight for those solutions.
That’s where I think checking in on your values and your goals, I think … You know, personally, I really like to be able to touch and feel the work and the successes and the challenges. But I have to ask myself, “Why do I need that?” Because the more involved I personally get, the more potential I have to get in the way. Low-income people of color need to lead their fights, and they need a lot from Liberty Hill. Whatever we can provide, resources, training, relationships, expertise, but they need to lead the fight. I feel it. I grew up very poor. You know, I feel the passion. I want to be right by their side. I want to lead it with them, but that is not my role. I think the hard thing about community organizing and movement work is that it’s not like you can go to a food kitchen or a homeless shelter, and you can volunteer.
I used to build affordable housing, and oh my god, I built a building. That tangible impact is so gratifying, and I think if you’re trying to really solve the big intractable problems; as a donor, we have to be willing to say, “You know what? People directly impacted need to lead the work. As a donor, it is my job to support them financially and in any way that I can, but I don’t know more than them about being a low-income person of color trying to lead a social movement. So, I need to support them so they can do that.” It does require taking a step back, and it does require maybe having a little less of the immediate impact or the immediate gratification of handing that plate of food over to someone who needs it, or hammering that nail to build a house for somebody who needs a roof over their head.
But I think you can find ways to collect stories and to see the benefit of it, and then after a few years, you’ll see a new policy pass that could benefit hundreds of thousands of people. So it will … Again, the ROI is significant, and the impact is dramatic, but you kind of have to wait for it, and you kind of have to be willing to step back and just be super self-conscious about … As a person with privilege, if you are the source of funding, you have privilege, whatever your personal background can be. For me personally, growing up poor; it was very hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I have privilege and I represent privilege, and that I am the donor in this case as head of Liberty Hill Foundation, but I have to remind myself of that, and I have to be willing to take a step back and really ask myself, “What am I trying to accomplish here?” If what I’m trying to accomplish is long-term, structural change, then it has to be led by the people who are directly impacted.
John Bwarie: I’m going to go back a minute to something we talked about earlier that I want to, maybe, get some little more context. I know that your work at Liberty Hill Foundation revolves around key issues and using key campaigns, if you will, that you’re working towards. One of them is the idea of young people of color incarceration, and the connection … You had mentioned that you were working with … Or that LA county has the most youth incarcerated in the country. Can you talk about what that problem is? Frame that for us, so we can understand what that problem is, and what’s being done, or what the path you see your community leading you towards.
Shane Goldsmith: Yes, I’m so glad you asked. This is my favorite subject. Yeah, just on a personal level, my brother got arrested and incarcerated when he was a kid. He’s been in and out of jail and homelessness for the 20 years since then. It’s an issue that is very close to my heart, and when I found out that we were putting kids in jail here in Los Angeles, more kids than anywhere else, arresting more kids than anywhere else in the country, I just knew that that’s what I had to devote my life to doing something about. I couldn’t save my brother from that life, but I think I can be part of the solution, and I think we will see a time when no kid is in jail in Los Angeles, and we can get there.
I think right now, we are in a moment … A historic moment where we have elected officials who share our vision that no kid should be in jail. We have the head of the probation department, which is responsible for incarcerating kids in Los Angeles that doesn’t want to incarcerate kids. I sit on the police commission, I can tell you that the police chief or LAPD doesn’t want to be arresting kids for minor offenses. There’s a tremendous amount of political will that believes that there are better alternatives for kids, that for most kids who are arrested and incarcerated, there are better alternatives. Investment and prevention and investment in youth development services, and investment in restorative justice and diversion; that those alternatives are, first of all, much less expensive, and secondly, much more effective at helping kids turn their lives around, at reducing the recidivism, so a kid is much less likely to commit a future crime if they are sent to a diversion or intervention program than if they’re sent to jail.
If the goal is for us all to be safer, and for our kids to have an opportunity to fulfill their potential and to be productive members of our community, then we need to invest, again, upstream on the front-end in prevention and intervention.
John Bwarie: When you say “kids”, give me a picture. Are we talking 17-and-a-half-year-olds?
Shane Goldsmith: No. Well, yes, and … Just last year, we had a state bill that was passed led by Holly Mitchell, and the state legislature that made 12 years old the minimum age for incarceration in California. Until then, kids under 12 were being incarcerated, and in fact, because it takes government a long time to figure out how to implement legislation, we still have kids under 12 who are being incarcerated in California. Once that law is implemented, which will probably take until the end of this year, then no kids under 12 will be incarcerated.
But that means right now, there are 11 and 10-year-olds being incarcerated. Once the law gets implemented, then we’ll only have 12-year-olds and above incarcerated, but they’re being incarcerated, many of them, for very minor offenses. First of all, they’re being arrested for very minor offenses, and even an arrest without incarceration can lead a kid down a path, can stigmatize them, can cause them to commit future crimes, and just send them … Once a kid is arrested, every outcome looks bleaker for them. They’re less likely to graduate from high school. They’re more likely to end up homeless or poor. They’re more likely to go to jail in the future, so arrest itself is a really dangerous intervention for our kid, especially for a minor offense. Kids are being arrested and incarcerated for school yard fights, for stealing small items, for things that are much better addressed through community-based support services.
John Bwarie: Because you’re an expert, I’m just going to ask you. I don’t expect anyone really to know this unless you’re really into it. What are the demographics of these kids, besides the age? Are they 50/50 boys and girls? Are there certain communities by geography, ethnic background, race, et cetera? What does the picture look like of this population?
Shane Goldsmith: Great question. In Los Angeles, 95% of the kids who are incarcerated are black and Latino. So, 5% of them are not black or Latino. Youth incarceration, mass incarceration is absolutely an issue of racial justice. There are studies that show a black boy is five times more likely to get arrested for a crime than a white boy who committed the same crime. It’s absolutely an issue of racial justice, and we know that policies that are race-blind tend to benefit white people. We need policies that really take race into account, that acknowledge that most of the kids who are being arrested and incarcerated are kids of color, and that have solutions and outcomes that are … That have racial equity and racial justice as a goal.
For example, we’ve actually seen over the last 20 years the number of kids who are arrested and incarcerated in Los Angeles decline as a result of organizing and policy changes, but we’ve seen the percentage of kids of color increase. The disproportionality has increased over time. That’s what happens when policies are race-blind, or don’t account for the racial injustice embedded in the system. That is something that we are absolutely going to undo. Also-
John Bwarie: How? What’s the … I mean, this seems like a tightly-wound ball. How do you undo that ball that is … I mean, generations of history that inform it.
Shane Goldsmith: Yeah. Well, it’s hard. I can’t say that I have all the answers by any stretch of the imagination, although I did just go last weekend to Montgomery, Alabama, to a lynching memorial at the National Museum of Peace and Justice, which is all about tracing our history from slavery to lynchings to Jim Crow, to current day mass incarceration and policing. Everybody should go see that in Montgomery. It’s very hard to get to Montgomery from Los Angeles, but it’s worth it.
John Bwarie: It’s worth it?
Shane Goldsmith: Anyway, yeah. It is deep. It is hard. I will say some things we’ve figured out in talking to grassroots organizers who have been doing this work forever, and systems leaders who are also in it is that, first of all, it’s acknowledging it. It’s acknowledging that this is an issue of racial justice, that it’s not a coincidence that 95% of the kids who are in jail in Los Angeles are black and brown. Acknowledging that, and then making sure that the goal is that fewer kids of color are incarcerated and arrested, and acknowledging that disproportionality is a problem.
I think one of the key solutions is making sure that the services we’re providing, and again, Liberty Hill’s primary role is to support advocacy and organizing to make more public dollars available to youth development as an alternative to incarceration and arrest, but that those services be community-based, culturally competent services. These services are provided in the communities where these kids come from by people in those communities who are credible messengers, who are people that these kids can relate to and respect, who have relationships in the communities, and that’s really the critical capacity. Now, we know that for example, I’m totally obsessed with this thing called “pre-arrest diversion”, which is basically … I’m both obsessed with it as a Liberty Hill CEO and as a police commissioner, because everybody loves it.
Basically, if the cop is about to slap the handcuffs on a kid, instead, for a minor offense, they take the kid over to a community-based organization, and they do restorative justice, which means the perpetrator and the victim come together … There’s not always a perpetrator and a victim, but when there is, you’ll bring them together. The kid comes to understand the impact of their decisions, and of whatever they did, if in fact, they did something that hurt somebody, which is not always the case. The person who was harmed also has to share that, but also gets to know the human being on the other side of that, and there’s accountability.
We know that kids, when they really understand that they’ve hurt somebody, then they want to fix it. They want an opportunity to fix it. Jail doesn’t give them a chance to fix it, but bringing those two together and saying, “Okay, how can I fix it? Can I pay you back over time? Can I do some community service?”
John Bwarie: Is this actually happening in LA right now?
Shane Goldsmith: Yeah! Yes, it’s amazing! Both of these people are transformed by this. The person, the victim of the crime is transformed because they feel like they’re getting some real justice. They’re getting to see that this kid is never going to do it again. They get to invest in the life, the future of this kid. The kid gets a chance to make it up, to make it better, and to redeem themselves in their own mind. It’s transformed them, plus the kid is then connected to whatever support services they need.
Their chances of ever committing a future crime plummet. Their chances of graduating from high school increase. Their chances of pulling themselves out of poverty, if they’re in poverty, increase. All their life chances improve.
John Bwarie: All from that one moment.
Shane Goldsmith: Yeah. Well, the restorative justice program.
John Bwarie: No, but that moment of-
Shane Goldsmith: But right, yeah.
John Bwarie: Not putting handcuffs on, but instead doing something just in that moment. The police officer has the power to change a kid’s life.
Shane Goldsmith: Yes, right. Exactly. That’s five thousand dollars, whereas if that kid ends up going to jail in Los Angeles, you’re talking about 250,000 dollars a year to put that kid in jail, and they will leave jail worse off than they got there; whereas the restorative justice program, they will leave better off. Everybody involved will leave better off.
John Bwarie: The issue of youth incarceration, for Liberty Hill to get involved, you’ve got staff working on it. You’ve got a personal … As a leader, you’ve got personal investment in making sure it happens. You’ve got your community funding board, who has to be involved if you’re going to give money towards it. They’re aware of it, and they’ve done the research and have done the landscape view. All these pieces are you working to understand the community, understand the issues and the impact of the issues on that community; how does it play out? Are you saying in your mind, for this issue particularly, “Okay. This is a ten year battle. This is going to take us … We know that we’re in here for the long haul for 20 years.” Do you see the reality of the path you’re headed down and how long that might take, and what is going to be needed to get there?
Shane Goldsmith: Absolutely. The most important thing that Liberty Hill does is we fund the ecosystem of community organizing throughout Los Angeles year after year. Mainly, our goal is to give as much money to them as we can, and they tell us what the issues are, they tell us what the campaigns are, they tell us what they need, and we do our very best to fund them to do that. We do pick a few issues, like the three that I laid out where we will get much more involved. When we’re just funding the ecosystem over many years, the goal of that is really to build power in low-income communities of color, to fight back and fight for the things that they need for their communities.
That’s just ongoing year after year, and then when we pick these few issues to get more directly involved with, then we’re … We are working with our grantees and our partners to try to identify what are some short-term benchmarks. In any case, we always want to know: What are the short-term benchmarks? We all need to know. Our community partners and Liberty Hill are all holding ourselves to very high standards about making significant change as quickly as possible, so we need to know what progress is being made; what are the obstacles and challenges along the way. What additional support they may need; we always want to be seeing progress. We need to see progress. We need to see victories to know that we’re making a difference.
In work that we get more involved in, then we’re collectively setting those benchmarks together and we know it could take many, many years. For example, the campaign to end youth incarceration as we know it, we’ve had this five year campaign. We have goals that are really three to five years, so we want to reduce the number of kids being arrested by 50%, we want to close youth jails by 50%, and then we want to win the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars into a youth development system that we’re building from scratch. Those are very ambitious goals that we really want to see accomplished in the next three to five years. Now, the larger movement to end mass incarceration and to invest in prevention, not punishment, I mean, that could take decades more. But I think that we could really end youth incarceration as we know it right here in Los Angeles in the next five years, and I think if we don’t try to do it in the next five years, we could lose the chance to do it entirely.
Right now, we have this tremendous amount of political will that we can mobilize to win. If we miss the chance? Then these elected officials are going to go onto their next job. The folks leading the probation department are on their second retirement, they can leave at any moment. The police chief is post-retirement, so if we lose the opportunity to make a difference now, we could delay progress for many years.
John Bwarie: Wow. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, I have so much to say.
Shane Goldsmith: Good, I want to hear it. I really want to-
John Bwarie: No, well, it’s already been 45 minutes.
Shane Goldsmith: Oh, wow. Look at that.
John Bwarie: Yeah, it’s been 45 minutes. Let me get a lightning round, and then-
Shane Goldsmith: I’m really bad at these lightning round things.
John Bwarie: It’s okay.
Shane Goldsmith: Okay.
John Bwarie: You can skip it, we’ll … In the beginning, I was, “Number one,” and then I stopped because then if you skip-
Shane Goldsmith: [crosstalk 00:42:18].
John Bwarie: Lightning round! Two questions.
Shane Goldsmith: Three, and seven! All right.
John Bwarie: Just like the first word or phrase, we’re not looking for long answers here.
Shane Goldsmith: Okay.
John Bwarie: Okay. Who is a leader who has influenced you in your work?
Shane Goldsmith: Let’s see. The leader who has influenced my work most recently has been a young man named [Laquon 00:42:37] who was in jail. He’s now in his late teens, and he not only has turned his life around personally so that he’s not getting into trouble anymore, but he’s actually leading community work and organizing other youth to end youth incarceration as we know it. We made a video with him recently, and he said what he really needs is love. That’s what he wants to give to the rest of the world.
To hear this young man who has been through such difficult things that so many of us can’t even imagine, and none of us would ever want our kids to go through even one of the hard things he’s been through, much less all of them, to see him be so resilient and to come back and say, “I’m going to change my life and I’m going to help other kids change their lives, and all we need is love.” He’s beautiful, and I think about him almost every day.
John Bwarie: What is the best quality in a partner in a coalition to achieve good collaboration. You’re working with people. What’s the best quality?
Shane Goldsmith: Open communication.
John Bwarie: What’s the most important thing someone seeking to lead should do or know?
Shane Goldsmith: How to listen.
John Bwarie: What’s the first place you turn to for information when working to understand an issue?
Shane Goldsmith: The people most directly impacted.
John Bwarie: What advice would you give 25-year-old you?
Shane Goldsmith: Oh my gosh. That’s a great question. 25 year old me was still visiting my little brother in prison and feeling like he was hopeless. 25 year old me felt … I was an organizer by then, but I felt very powerless in the face of these big systems that were coming down on my family and people I cared about. I think I would just say that you’re on the right track, and change takes time. It’s hard, but you are going to make more progress than you can imagine right now, so just stay strong and don’t give up and believe in yourself.
John Bwarie: What so far has been your proudest professional moment?
Shane Goldsmith: Last April, we had our annual gala, and we got to honor Congress member John Lewis, and I got to meet him. I got to stand on stage and I had my kids, my five year old and my eight year old had come. That was the first time they’d really come to an event, and they saw me speak, and I got to acknowledge them from the stage in a room full of 800 people, sharing a stage with John Lewis. That was pretty cool.
John Bwarie: Cool. Thanks so much for spending the time with us to talk about your work in the community, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from you and from Liberty Hill. Thanks so much.
Shane Goldsmith: Thank you. Thanks so much for doing it.
John Bwarie: Absolutely.
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