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This week John Bwarie sat down with Gracie Liu, General Manager of Empower LA, a department of the city of Los Angeles that gives a voice to communities on local issues by organizing, supporting, and empowering a network of a hundred neighborhood councils. They met at Hungry Fox, a Thai-American fusion breakfast spot, the kind of thing you can only find in LA. Grayce discusses her work with neighborhood councils and the challenges of bridging the gap between government operations and real community needs.

Episode Transcript

What is a Neighborhood Council?

John Bwarie:                As General Manager of Empower LA, your job… maybe one of few in the country, is about building, respecting, and empowering communities. That’s your job.

Grayce Liu:                   Yeah.

John Bwarie:                As much as people claim it, that really is your job. You have a day to day experience of seeing people at their best, and sometimes not at their best, as they try to advocate for themselves and their community, whether geographic based, or interest group based. So, with all that perspective, I want to ask you a couple questions about neighborhood councils in Los Angeles, and how that might apply to other cities that have this system or are looking at ways to empower communities that they’re working with. So first, what really is a neighborhood council? Who’s on it, what do they do, and why are they important?

Grayce Liu:                   Sure. So, just really quickly, Empower LA is our tagline name for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which is actually the city chartered department name. So, I want to make sure that that’s very clear… because it’s one of the most awesome names I think of any city department in the country.

John Bwarie:                Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.

Grayce Liu:                   Yes. Like how amazing is that, right? So, neighborhood councils are advisory bodies to the city, they’re comprised of elected volunteer Angelinos, and their mission is to increase civic engagement and make government more responsive to local needs. And they are comprised of everyone in the community, and that’s what’s amazing about neighborhood councils… live, work, own property, or you have a substantial ongoing interest, like your kids go to school here, or you worship in the area, or you board horses in the area. And it’s open to people who are undocumented, it’s open to people who were formerly incarcerated, it’s open to youth in most parts of the cities, and … I think it’s an incredibly way of bringing community together to have an ongoing dialogue with the city to teach the city hall folks about what’s important to that community. Each community, as you know, city of Los Angeles … four million plus people, and that’s just residents. And then to have all these different stakeholders who typically don’t talk to each other, but to give them this platform is amazing.

Why are Neighborhood Councils Important?

John Bwarie:                So that’s what they are. Why are they important? Because this is only a 20 year old experiment. Actually, this year is probably the 20th anniversary of neighborhood councils in 2019. They were established in the 1999 charter.

Grayce Liu:                   Yes. Yes. And the first neighborhood councils came into being in 2001.

John Bwarie:                2001.

Grayce Liu:                   Yeah.

John Bwarie:                Is it working? This effort is the first system of this scale in the country, is it working? Is it really serving its purpose?

Grayce Liu:                   Right. So, if we’re looking at the mission of increasing civic engagement, yes. We are increasing civic engagement. Making government more responsive to local needs? Yes. Because we are getting that local voice. And in the end, though, it … really depends on how invested the city is in terms of providing resources, trainings, how much they open the door, give you a seat at the table, how much influence will they give you, right? Because they’re advisory bodies. So, there’s frustration there sometimes when they say, “This is what we want,” and they still don’t get it. They are one of many voices, where there’s an HOA, or a chamber, or any other political or special interest group out there. What I think the thing that’s special about neighborhood councils and that which shows that they are working, is that we’re seeing them expand in power. I don’t think if you wanted to get rid of neighborhood councils now, I don’t think that’s possible.

John Bwarie:                Give us an example of this expansion of power. Maybe something that’s small and now it’s grown?

Grayce Liu:                   Sure, the ability to weigh in on the city budget, right? Before they used to just do it with a survey, now the neighborhood council budget advocates actually interview all of the general managers of city departments, they really do a deep dive into the city budget, and they make recommendations to city council and to the mayor’s office. So, the mayor actually now meets with the neighborhood council budget advocates twice each year to listen, to talk about what his priorities are, and then to hear about the white paper later on about what neighborhood councils are wanting. You see the expansion of power there. You see the fact that they helped create payer advocates, the rate payer advocate, that was something that came out of the neighborhood council system for DWP. And then, you see it becoming a training ground for new commissioners, new electeds, Controller Ron Galperin, he came out of the neighborhood council system, Councilmember David Ryu of CD4, he came out of the neighborhood council system. And then, we see more and more neighborhood council people actually being hired into the city, so that grassroots spirit is starting to infiltrate in areas that I don’t think people expected.

John Bwarie:                So, that’s a flexing of muscle that we see expansion over 20 years, but do they still have the ability to effectively represent their community? I think the challenge that some people may view is how can that many interests actually be able to represent a community-

Server:                         I put two plate right here, okay? I’ll just leave this.

John Bwarie:                Excellent. Thank you.

Grayce Liu:                   Thank you. Thanks.

John Bwarie:                So … the food has arrived. We have fried chicken and waffles with Thai sweet sauce.

Grayce Liu:                   And whipped cream.

John Bwarie:                And whipped cream. This is so LA. So, let me get to that question … neighborhood councils are representing a diverse cross section of one neighborhood, with so many interests within that neighborhood, how can a neighborhood council effectively represent the varied interest all at once when they’re trying to sort of collect input from so many diverse sectors and stakeholders, how can they effectively represent them?

Grayce Liu:                   Right. I think that’s a very fair question. And just like any type of representative body, it depends on who’s on the board, and how effective they are. So, if you’re asking me … part of the question was from before like how successful are they? Well, some neighborhood councils are more successful than others, depending on who they have on their board, right? And some people run for neighborhood councils with an agenda, and some agendas will prevail. For instance, there was one election cycle where Teach For America did a push for their folks to join neighborhood councils and really advocate for education issues. And we saw that in the west side, and some of the neighborhood councils there that more education issues got heard, so I think … when it works, in terms of gathering all those voices, is when the neighborhood council boards understand their community, and know to reach out to all the varying voices. We know right now the things that we need to work on is diversity, we did a demographic study and we’ve seen that neighborhood councils tend to be skewed older, white, male, and homeowners, right? Because they tend to have more time. So, now we’re looking at how do we expand that. How do we get more millennials in there? How do we get more underrepresented folks in there, and that’s part of our election cycle outreach that we’re really targeting those folks to make sure that that leadership is there.

What Makes a Neighborhood Council Successful?

John Bwarie:                So, what makes some neighborhood councils successful and others not? What’s that secret sauce you think that really you could point to saying, “This is some of the indicators that make it successful?”

Grayce Liu:                   So, when we see a diversity of the board members, we know that there’s folks on the board that really will get into the community issues and bring up relevant community issues. So, if the board all looks kind of the same, then we know that they’re probably not going to be as effective in terms of bringing all the community issues forward. They might be effective in terms of having meetings and talking to the same types of folks, and maybe … making recommendations. But in terms of what the spirit of neighborhood councils are, they’re not going to be meeting that goal. And we know that. And I think some cities … city departments, we kind of know who’s effective and who really has captured the voice of the community, and I think the city electeds know that, too. And you’ll see them work more with some neighborhood councils and not so much with other neighborhood councils.

John Bwarie:                So, it’s not so much of their organizational efficacy, but rather their ability to achieve the mission that makes them successful?

Grayce Liu:                   Right. Right.

John Bwarie:                And how about the challenge of aligning those issues? So, if you have neighborhood councils that are taking input. How do they align those with larger communities … When a neighborhood council is successful, and it’s representing a large swath of Los Angeles, some of these neighborhood councils represent 50, 60, 70,000 people within their neighborhood council boundaries. And again, that’s residents, businesses, other community interest stakeholders, how can they align … with the city’s priorities, when they’re trying to represent just a subset, even though they’re huge. So they both have the challenge of being huge in their own right, 60, 70,000 people, but also just so small relative to the four million or more in Los Angeles as a whole. How do they balance that?

Grayce Liu:                   Yeah. I think it’s … first of all, it’s difficult because the other councils, they get some funding. They get 42,000 a year. But that’s not enough for their entire stakeholdership to know that neighborhood councils even exist in that area, so we still are just scratching the surface of their ability to connect fully with their communities. But what we’ve seen, like where we have some successes, is … in south LA, for instance. You know when the space shuttle came through?

John Bwarie:                Mm-hmm.

Grayce Liu:                   In the Science Center. They were going to cut down a bunch of trees in south LA and replace them with one dinky little tree and these old growth trees, and I don’t think they would’ve done that to any other community, but they chose this community, through south LA, and just said, “We’re just going to go down Martin Luther King Boulevard and cut down all your trees and take out the street lights for more than 24 hours.”

Grayce Liu:                   And the neighborhood councils in that area actually banded together and they … there’s actually a South Los Angeles Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, but they got together and they said, “Oh, no. You’re not going to do this to us. If you’re going to cut down trees, we want … instead of one or two trees they’re putting in, we want four trees be put back in. We want money set aside for community … for job community development. You can’t do that with the street lights, it’s not safe. So, as soon as they come down, they’ve got to go straight back up.” So, they did long term negotiations with not only the city, but with California Science Center in order to make sure that their community needs were being heard. And I think that that’s when you see, when they understand their community and what their community needs, and they have an action plan, then they can really … be effective.

John Bwarie:                So, how do you deal then with competing interests? So in one neighborhood council you may not even have consensus.

Grayce Liu:                   Right.

John Bwarie:                What’s the rule of the department in trying to mitigate that, and how do you help people understand the human relationships that you’re … I mean, fundamentally this is all about people and talking and working with people. How do you help neighborhood councils see that when it’s so vested, so much passion for their issue?

Grayce Liu:                   Yeah. That’s very difficult. And I think sometimes what our role is is we are there to support them in their meeting operations and to educate them, right? So, we can say, “Hey, is that working for you? Screaming at each other constantly and not allowing people to talk?” So, we can go in there and we try to do some mediation between groups, or we try to bring in a group to help mediate if for some reason they see us as too one sided on an issue. It’s … the one thing that we see when neighborhood councils fail, is when they are so locked into the us against them within their boards that we just have to wait for an election to come by and hope that one of the factions wins or something shifts-

John Bwarie:                Can they fail?

Grayce Liu:                   They can fail. So neighborhood councils can be de-certified. Over the history of neighborhood councils there’s only been two de-certifications. One in North Ridge and one in south LA. And the one in south LA there was a … I think a … this was before my time, but my understanding was there was some type of monetary stealing type of thing going on. And then, the one in North Ridge, again before my time, was because they allowed dogs to vote, but not cats, something like that.

John Bwarie:                Right. Because they weren’t trustworthy.

Grayce Liu:                   Yes.

John Bwarie:                I remember that was a big headline.

Grayce Liu:                   Yes.

John Bwarie:                And so, you have them fail, but then you have to rebuilt them. Because … And I think both of those have been rebuilt.

Grayce Liu:                   Yes.

John Bwarie:                Who do you look for when you’re starting from scratch, now that you’ve had the experience of over a hundred other neighborhood councils that have been successful in varying degrees, how do you go back and say, “Okay, if you’re starting from scratch, what do you look for to build that foundation?”

Grayce Liu:                   So, we look for folks who … first of all, understand their community, who represent the various different interests in their community, and who we know that can have great communication skills, right? So, it’s great that if you’re … very passionate about something in your community, but you’re screaming at everybody constantly, and our goal is to say, “This is not the traditional route of a public comment,” which is typically like a public outrage, like give me two minutes to scream at you about something.

Grayce Liu:                   This is about ongoing dialogue with not only the city, but also with your neighbors and community members to improve your neighborhood. And so, if you can do … have those types of skills and want to serve and have the time to serve, that’s … those are the types of folks that we try to identify. And we look at … we talk to non-profits, we talk to council member offices and other electeds and say, “Do you know people who would be good for this?”

John Bwarie:                How much does it take for a member to serve effectively? What’s the time commitment for one of these councils?

Grayce Liu:                   It can easily be a full time job.

John Bwarie:                Wow.

Grayce Liu:                   I think it depends on what … And that’s why you see older retired people doing this, because they can … it’s a lot of other folks who like have full time jobs and kids and like it’s hard for them to do this. But if you’re choosing one issue, I would say it would be 10 to 20 hours just to do your committee meetings-

John Bwarie:                A month?

Grayce Liu:                   … prep … A week. A week.

John Bwarie:                No.

Grayce Liu:                   It can be.

John Bwarie:                10 to 20 hours a week.

Grayce Liu:                   Yeah. 10 to 20 hours a week. I mean, just thinking of planning issues, right?

John Bwarie:                Right.

Grayce Liu:                   Like if you’re looking at all the planning issues that are coming into your community, that’s … going to be a long time.

John Bwarie:                So how do you keep good people engaged? What’s the carrot?

Grayce Liu:                   I think when they can see the … their contribution making a positive outcome in the community, that really … like with the wins, right/ And we all do that. If you’re a volunteer, are you go to volunteer for something that’s constantly just endless frustration, right? If you don’t see that win, if you don’t see, “Hey, guess what? We got that sign put in that identified our little neighborhood and we did a community beautification project,” or “we worked with a school and we have after school programs,” if you don’t see those types of wins … no one wants to sit on a neighborhood council and just yell at each other constantly.

John Bwarie:                And so, there is attrition though. You have good people who rotate off. Is there a way you keep them involved?

Grayce Liu:                   Yes. So, they either … some people have rotated off and they stay involved in committees of the neighborhood council. Or they join the alliances. So, we have about 12 regional and subject matter based alliances. Or they serve on our commission, board of neighborhood commissioners, or they serve on other commissions like in terms of the city, they serve on other commissions, or we try to recruit them into the city for jobs.

John Bwarie:                And then, follow-up on that is, how many people are part of the system? How many volunteers do you have sort of active like in a snapshot at any given time?

Grayce Liu:                   Sure. So, there’s about 1800 board seats-

John Bwarie:                Wow.

Grayce Liu:                   … in the city of Los Angeles neighborhood council system. So, any one time we might have about 200 vacancies throughout the city.

John Bwarie:                Oh, wow.

Grayce Liu:                   But that’s not including all the committees every neighborhood council has.

John Bwarie:                About how many committees do they have?

Grayce Liu:                   It ranges between three to ten.

John Bwarie:                Wow.

Grayce Liu:                   So, there’s a lot of community members that are working at the committee level that we’re not necessarily tracking.

What’s the Next Step for LA’s Neighborhood Council’s?

John Bwarie:                Gotcha. And so, you look at this, you take a step back, you say, “Okay, this is four million residents alone in the city. We have 1800 stakeholders that have an opportunity for a voice,” that’s really still just a drop in the bucket, but it’s well more than 20 years ago when there was only 15 elected officials for the entire city of three-and-a-half million people. So, you’ve seen this … you’ve seen the tremendous growth, there’s activation of more than 2500 people that 20 years ago were not having any official or vocal role, what’s next? What does the next three, five, ten years look like for this system of neighborhood councils? What’s the next iteration that makes them even stronger, to really empower communities?

Grayce Liu:                   So for LA, it’s … we actually talked about this in the city. Like what is … does the future look like? Because we know now there’s a bunch of civic tech out there that’s really going to change the way millennials engage with the city and anyone engaging with the city. And my argument is, that’s great if you have all this tech and stuff like that, but what we have found, over and over, and in neighborhood council elections outreach, it’s the face to face stuff that really is effective.

Grayce Liu:                   And so, if we could have neighborhood councils become like the civic engagement hub in their neighborhoods, then we can push out, they can help us push out more engagement strategies like where there’s door to door stuff, or the civic tech stuff, but they’re there to amplify any of the city efforts in civic engagement. So, it’s like having 1800 civic engagement troopers on the ground like going out there and saying, “Hey, folks. Get involved and tell us what the city should be for your community.”

John Bwarie:                And if you could rewrite history and do it differently, what would you make to strengthen the system? If you go back 25 years when they did this, what would you do to strengthen the system?

Grayce Liu:                   Yeah. So, if I could go back or do a charter change, I would put in a source of funding into the city charter that is a guaranteed source of funding for resources that are needed for the city neighborhood councils. Because what we’ve seen in the last … 20 years, is that when there’s a deficit, like resources get cut, everything stumbles in terms of the neighborhood council system. And what we need is that continued source of funding, not only for our department, but city attorneys department. We now have like two-and-a-half city attorneys that advised 99 neighborhood councils.

John Bwarie:                Wow.

Grayce Liu:                   It doesn’t … it just doesn’t work. The funding program, that’s like 3.5 million dollar funding program just for neighborhood councils, and to have the money to have the resources to distribute that … would be great. And then, I would also make my position an appointed ten year position like the ethics department. I think that when anyone leading this type of civic engagement effort, you have to have someone who’s leading it who is not affected by the electeds in that they can be removed if they’re somehow pushing a civic engagement strategy that is not liked by the city electeds. And I think that political issue definitely comes into play, and I see that with other folks who are doing civic engagement in other cities who say the same thing. There’s a pressure sometimes in terms of well why don’t you get involved in this, but not in this, right? And I think that that’s the stuff that we have to be careful about.

Should Other Cities Adopt the Neighborhood Council Model?

John Bwarie:                And as other cities are looking to this model, or looking to a model to empower communities, what advice do you have for them besides the idea of, “Hey, funding matters and autonomy matters,” what do other large or small cities around this country, what can they learn from your experience? They’re not all going to be able to have a chance to sit down with you, so what … nugget can you give them?

Grayce Liu:                   Well, I would say that … our system is … every year there’s almost ten million dollars invested into this system. And so not every city is going to be able to do this. And what I would say is, if you can do civic engagement … if your city departments, if they can have like a standardized way of doing civic engagement that’s transparent and open and innovative, you don’t necessarily need a neighborhood council system. I actually had the city of Toronto call me because they just got rid of like half of their city council members, and they wanted to talk to me about neighborhood councils and say, “Hey, should we do that system here?” And I said, “Look, if your city departments know how to do civic engagement, and that’s a big … like a huge hurdle right there. But if they know how to do effective civic engagement, you don’t need a neighborhood council system. So, if every city department is going out there and knowing how to talk to communities in an equitable manner, then you don’t need to have like this 1800 people … volunteers helping you, because then you have to invest into a whole support structure. And if you can’t put that money aside for that, then you shouldn’t do it. Right? Put that money instead into teaching city departments how to be innovative.

John Bwarie:                There are community members that would say that this is a failure, even though we’ve seen successes and you’ve given us a couple examples of successes. How do you fight back the people who continue to push on you saying, “This is not a worthwhile expenditure?”

Grayce Liu:                   Right. And I think … everyone has a different experience of it. So, I know a lot of neighborhood council folks that they left be their neighborhood council was stuck in this phase of constant fighting, we never got anything done, maybe the department came in and actually had to take over their meetings. And I get it. I get that experience. And I wish I could take them into like a Venice neighborhood council, which actually used to be constantly fighting, and they’ve turned it around where they’re leading on planning issues in that area.

Grayce Liu:                   In fact, the planning department has like a special little group that any time the Venice neighborhood council does a planning recommendation, they actually look at it and they analyze it because they know Venice is on top of it. I think that when I talk to them about like south LA and the … Sherman Oaks, they did this really … you think it’s a small thing, but it’s … it had a city wide impact. So, they did this pothole lottery where they basically asked all their neighbors like, “Hey, who has the worst potholes? And if you tell us and you win, we’re going to fill that pothole for you. We’re going to work with street services and fill that pothole.” And some people like, “Oh my God, this pothole in front of my house hasn’t been filled for 50 years,” something like crazy stories like that. That program became a city wide program where basically street services gives each neighborhood council one of their pothole filler machines twice a year, and then they ask their neighborhood, “Hey, tell us the potholes.” Like it’s stuff like that that you think, “Oh, it’s not … like it doesn’t seem so big, doesn’t seem so meaningful,” but when we look at the basic services, like that … that’s meaningful, and that actually has an impact on people’s lives. So, I would say there are successes, there can be even more successes, if we can put the resources that are needed into the system into the neighborhood council system

Lightning Round

John Bwarie:                Interesting. All right. Ready for lightning round?

Grayce Liu:                   I’m ready for lightning round.

John Bwarie:                Okay. Who’s a leader who has influenced you in your work?

Grayce Liu:                   Garcetti, Mayor Eric Garcetti, amazing, smart.

John Bwarie:                Okay. Which local neighborhood councils are great examples for others to emulate?

Grayce Liu:                   Oh man, you cannot. Oh.

John Bwarie:                Give me top three.

Grayce Liu:                   That’s like asking like-

John Bwarie:                Or three of the top ten.

Grayce Liu:                   … like a kid, like who’s your favorite kid.

John Bwarie:                Yeah.

Grayce Liu:                   I don’t think I can do that. I’m think I have to pass on that one.

John Bwarie:                Okay. What American city would you say is most civically engaged?

Grayce Liu:                   Actually I do know the answer to this right now. You would think it’d be LA because of the neighborhood council system, and that’s true to a certain extent. But in terms of equity issues, Minneapolis is like kicking butt.

John Bwarie:                Minneapolis?

Grayce Liu:                   Yeah.

John Bwarie:                Okay.

Grayce Liu:                   They just … I just, really quickly because I thought it was so cool, they just did a community workshop date, and one of the workshops was white supremacy and how do we get past it.

John Bwarie:                Oh my gosh. They’re in it. So, what’s the ideal size for a neighborhood council board?

Grayce Liu:                   I would say no more than … 18. It gets too unwieldy after that. 15 is probably ideal, but.

John Bwarie:                What’s your LA commuting tip?

Grayce Liu:                   Oh. Adjust your hours.

John Bwarie:                Okay. What book have you read that’s changed the way you think about your work in community, in community empowerment?

Grayce Liu:                   Oh my gosh. Gavin Newsome wrote this great book years ago before he became Lieutenant Governor. And of course the name escapes me right now. But look it up, it’s about … I think it’s open government … but it’s about civic tech, how government can be innovative in terms of reaching their communities.

John Bwarie:                Okay. What advice would you give a 25 year old you?

Grayce Liu:                   Don’t be afraid to fail. You will learn a lot more if you go out there and risk, try new things, try to innovate and you’ll learn from all your failures. So, it’s welcome.

John Bwarie:                I know you’ve had a number of careers. So, what is the best career decision you’ve ever made?

Grayce Liu:                   I think actually taking on the General Manager position in the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. I didn’t want it. It was a bit put onto me. And in the end, I kind of stepped up. I stepped up and it’s been an amazing experience.

John Bwarie:                And then, what so far has been your proudest professional moment?

Grayce Liu:                   Throughout my lifetime?

John Bwarie:                Yeah.

Grayce Liu:                   Oh my goodness. I want to say … engaging girls and women. In the last year we started this program called Ignite LA, and being a part of that new generation of women leaders I think is pretty cool.

John Bwarie:                Cool. Well, thanks Grayce for joining us and talking about neighborhoods and neighborhood councils and civic engagement.

Grayce Liu:                   Yeah. Thank you. It was my pleasure.