Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Multi-cultural food feast

We’re eating potato latkes, brisket, turkey and gumbo with a side of mac ‘n cheese Xmas day at my daughter-in-law’s parents’ house. It’s our multi-racial family celebration –Jewish, black, Asian relatives gather ‘round the table for blessings and songs, spinning dreidels. With full bellies we stagger into the living room for board games and dancing to rappers, 60s rockers and a bit of jazz.

We’re not a Norman Rockwell portrait of post-war Los Angeles. We’re at the intersection of the new American family blended with my family from Eastern Europe, the Creole, Louisiana-born great grandmother to my grandsons, the auntie from Korea and whatever else fits in the “melting pot” of a large extended family.

Food is a friendly way of sharing cultures. I’ve hosted Passover meals and my grandson’s baptism luncheon. Religious beliefs are just as important as race and ethnicity when it comes to establishing one’s identity. My black daughter-in-law and I go all over the map when we chat about our different holidays and raising children in a country where there’s still a racial divide. When she and my son were expecting their first child I wanted to bond with her so she’d know I’d be a perfect grandmother. I invited her to brunch on a Sunday afternoon. I took her to Leimert Park, an old black neighborhood in South Los Angeles with African shops, men playing drums on the sidewalk and soul food in the local restaurant. We strolled for about 20 minutes then she turned to me and said, “I never come to this neighborhood. Can we go to Canter’s, that Jewish restaurant on Fairfax and eat bagels?”

Like I said, my understanding about race and ethnicity are best served at the dinner table.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Re-connecting with old friends

I get nostalgic this time of year for the teens I grew close to when they wrote for L.A. Youth. In L.A. Youth’s 22 years of publishing I’ve known hundreds (make that thousands) of teens – writers, illustrators, photographers – who joined the staff to share their personal story, or fueled by tenets of social justice, or just looking for a friendly place to hang out. These days I hear from many more young people than I used to (we’re on Facebook), “Are you still there?”

“Yes, we’re here.” I assure them. “We’re thriving and surviving. How old are you?”

“I’m 30 and wrote for the paper in the mid 90s.”

“Eekk! That means I’m getting older, too.”

When I hear the time frame it jogs my memory. I flashback to the face though not always the stories he or she wrote. “So what have you been doing since we last spoke?”

The answers range from, “I’m in grad school,” to “working at a boring job to pay off student loans.” A few are roaming the world with a backpack and a Europass.

“How many are working as journalists?” I’m often asked.

“One or two is my standard answer.” Few teens look to a future career in a newsroom. More often they lean toward education or social service. Legal careers mean representing immigrant rights, not partnerships at prestigious law firms.

There’s a sadness that comes over me when I hear from a few who are struggling with hardships – moving from shelter to shelter with an infant in tow; a Starbuck’s barrista earning low wages and sleeping on a friend’s couch; an emancipated foster youth kicked out of transitional living quarters for a series of transgressions. They share other tales of dysfunctional adulthood and all I can do is listen.

Our annual holiday party is Dec. 19. I hug the alums that drop in and spend a few minutes admiring their mature faces and laughing about the good times when they were teenagers spending hours in my office. My memory rush is full in the holiday season.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Don't Feed the Homeless!

“Meet me at Third and Fairfax,” is the landmark sign in front of the Farmer’s Market. It’s a must-see on tourist maps, a great place for sampling ethnic food with a comfortable ambience to spend an afternoon. My office is three blocks east so I frequently meet colleagues for leisurely lunch and good conversation.

Charlotte Gusay and I sat under the elm tree between The Gumbo Pot and the Pizzeria food stalls. My seafood gumbo was spicy and welcome on the cool fall day. The garden salad was sprinkled with roasted pecans, accompanied with a corn muffin. Quite a hardy lunch. Charlotte nibbled on her toasted chicken salad.

We pushed aside our lunch trays and continued the conversation. A young man, mid-30s, clean shaven, casually dressed with a backpack slung over his shoulder approached us and inquired if he could have the remains of our lunch. “Absolutely, I responded.”

He picked up our trays and walked to a nearby table. “You can’t eat that food,” the security guard sternly told the man.

“I gave it to him,” retorted Charlotte, “we’re finished and he’s hungry.”

“It’s against the Farmer’s Market rules, this is private property. He’s “panhandling” and we don’t allow that.

“People are hungry,” I shouted at the guard as I jumped up from my seat. “He can eat at our table.”

“No,” as he called for another guard.

“Give me back my food and I’ll wrap it up for him,” I challenged.

Again, “No, it’s against the rules.”

By this time we were attracting attention from other customers. “Please give him my bottle of water,” said the elderly lady at the next table.

The young man was insulted, clearly he was not used to a public display of his situation. He attempted to defend his rights and ward off the humiliation. To no avail. The guards escorted him out of the Farmer’s Market. A gentleman at the next table followed them to the street hoping to provide assistance to the homeless fellow. He, too, was not allowed to buy lunch at the Farmer’s Market for the young stranger. He gave him five dollars to buy lunch somewhere else.

We were helpless as we watched the waitress remove food trays from the tables, all laden with enough leftovers to feed more than a dozen hungry people. I thought this is the season of giving.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Why students drop out of high school

Why do students drop out of school? We asked that question to four of our teen writers at our annual November roundtable for community leaders, policy wonks, business folks and others. The conversation was moderated by L.A. Times reporter Mitchell Landsberg and Compton School District Principal Dr. Sophia Theoharopoulus.

The unanimous answer to the question was overcrowded classrooms and disengaged teachers. Ernesto spoke with enthusiasm about his charter school with 20-25 students in a class. Locke, his neighborhood high school, has a history of campus violence, alarming drop-out rate and constant turnover of teachers and administrators. Charmaine described moving from Gahr to Cerritos High School, both within blocks of each other. She said there’s less “drama” at Cerritos. I interpreted that to mean fewer fights, smaller classes, students eager to learn and college bound. Patricia dropped out of Compton High school when she struggled with algebra and no one offered her assistance. Her parents weren’t contacted by the district for 40 days. Now, Patricia is successfully completing high school at the small, well run Cesar Chavez Continuation High School and a teacher is providing guidance in her algebra class.

The education crisis will get worse in the next few years. State budget cuts mean larger classes, teacher lay-offs and a dismal future for students on the edge of dropping out. Where will teens without a diploma find a job? How will they pay rent, buy food? Will crime increase in our communities?

For teens to succeed it requires a partnership between parents, teachers and students. Everyone needs to take responsibility.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Homeless for the Holidays

A former Microsoft executive is building hundreds of libraries in Africa. A group of dentists are volunteering services in Mexico. An outdoor recreation company is shipping dozens of tents to hurricane-ravaged areas in Southeast Asia. It all sounds benevolent.

What about the families who lost their homes in foreclosure? Or the children who don’t qualify for Healthy Families or Medical because the single parent makes a few dollars over the financial limit? And what happens to the emancipating 18-year-old growing up in foster care who had a minor infraction and can’t move into transitional housing?

We all make choices re donating time and money but the images from abroad tug at Americans with rapid fire response faster than portraits of friends and neighbors in dire circumstances.

The holidays are upon us with food and clothing drives for the needy. Outside every Starbuck’s and restaurant someone is rattling coins in a paper cup. Do we turn away from disheveled, sour-smelling folks sitting on the sidewalk because it’s easier to send a gift to a faceless man, woman or child? I don’t have the answer. Do you?

Monday, November 9, 2009

No "Safety Net" for Teens

We’re closing pages for the November issue. Presses roll on the 14th. A remarkable young woman wrote the cover story, “My American Dream,” the struggles of an undocumented immigrant and her extraordinary achievement, a scholarship to Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles.

The health care debate in Congress and across the country (more accurately, called, the ugly fight!) told from a teen’s perspective will blow you away. If you ask a teenager, “What’s your health insurance”? the response is, “ask my mom.” Well, 16-year-old Serli Portalogu takes the reader through her journey of health insurance, on and off for the past 13 years. She clearly describes being part of Healthy Families, a healthcare plan subsidized by the state of California for minors, the family’s years with Kaiser Permanente, the paperwork and financial challenges to have access to care and the lack of a “safety net” when her family doesn’t have health coverage.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Courageous Women Journalists

Last night the International Women’s Media Foundation held its annual dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It’s quite a gala, celebrity journalists from TV, Internet and print. Major L.A. philanthropists, j-school students, community leaders and other guests schmoozed re the demise of American media institutions.

The organization honored four women journalists who have courageously reported on oppressive political leaders, political upheaval, abuse of women and other human rights issues in their countries. The reporters from Belarus and Cameroon were arrested for writing unflattering stories about the government. Armed soldiers destroyed their equipment and production studios and dragged them from their homes. The plea from the honorees was unanimous – American media must keep its eye on the globe not just when there’s a coup or assassination of a political leader. The Iranian journalist could not attend the event as she was recently released from jail and waiting for her husband to be released. The Israeli reporter travels in dangerous territory, from Jerusalem to Gaza and the West Bank, decades of reporting both sides -- the Palestinians and the Israelis.

We hear little news about Belarus and Cameroon. The networks, cable stations, newspapers and radio send their correspondents to “hot spots,” where there’s gunfire, suicide bombers and kidnappings. Senior executives at media companies claim budget constraints prevent them from posting reporters in less volatile places. The “bean counters” control the flow of information to Americans and will continue to reduce the coverage of global events. No wonder we’re all turning to the Internet for timely information.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cops and Teens: Can We Talk?

Los Angeles will have a new police chief this week. Chief Bratton is leaving Los Angeles to pursue other opportunities. Tensions between teenagers and cops are a familiar story. Teens are highly critical of police practices, from curfew enforcement to traffic stops and racial profiling. We’ve hosted sit-downs between teens and LAPD and teens and the Sheriff’s Dept. Transcripts from the sessions were published in L.A. Youth and posted on our website.

The conversations don’t magically bridge the gap between our teen writers and readers but we like to think they at least humanize the participants on both sides. Several years ago L.A. Youth writer Richard Kwon interviewed then-Police Chief Bernard Parks. The conversation turned from teens’ driving habits to a personal tragedy that the chief had experienced. His 20-year-old granddaughter, Lori, had been the victim of a homicide. Richard reflected on their discourse:

I thought police officers pretended to be tough guys, but he was really honest with his answers. He’s still in pain about her death and haunted by it. His face showed signs of weariness but he was still smiling in the end. And so was I.

We tried contacting Chief Bratton but he never responded to our request for an interview. Perhaps the next chief will reach out to teens and dialogue with us.

Friday, October 23, 2009


Life is a constant challenge.

Deal or No Deal is a challenge for TV contestants to guess how much money is in a box. Last year’s Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire was a million dollar challenge to a young man to guess the right answer on a popular TV show in order to leave his impoverished life in the slums of India.

L.A. Youth is invited to apply for a challenge grant funded by three major foundations. We have to raise money from new contributors, then the foundations will match it between 100 and 200 percent. Board members and I chatted about the invitation this morning after a discussion re the obstacles and opportunities in a downturn economy. They accepted the challenge. We’re applying for the grant.

Every day there’s a different challenge managing the administrative and programmatic tasks of a non-profit organization. Yesterday I learned that one of our long-time donors has ended their support for youth media groups. The challenge is to find another foundation to take their place.

Our teen writers in the foster care system face dire challenges when they emancipate at 18. High school seniors face the challenge of securing college loans and scholarships. Parents on the verge of home foreclosure are challenged with finding shelter for the family and fear of becoming homeless.

I take the challenges one at a time.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Captive Voices

Jack Nelson was known as a hard driving, dedicated reporter and bureau chief in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times. To me, he led the seminal work that brought the problems of the high school press to the fore when few were paying attention. Captive Voices was published in 1974 by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation established to continue the pursuit of societal change that marked Kennedy’s life.

In 1973 Senator Edward Kennedy announced the plans of the foundation and created a commission to study the potential of high school journalism in America. The commission focused on censorship of the high school press, lack of participation of minority students on high school press staffs and other issues. Hearings were held across the country and Jack studied 1,725 pages of hearing testimony to write the final report that became Captive Voices.

That report led to the creation of the Student Press Law Center and New Expression, an independent teen-written newspaper in Chicago. Jack was pleased when I launched L.A. Youth in 1988 and over the years he continued to be supportive of our newspaper and the potential of high school journalism in America.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


LAUSD school administrators and Superintendent Ramon Cortines ran around the city yesterday knocking on doors looking for students. A great publicity stunt acting like they’re interested in finding drop-outs and truants. Of course, it’s that time of year – they count heads and send the numbers to Sacramento and every body they lure back to school gives the district more money. Now, if only they were concerned the rest of the year.

My friend Roshawn published her story in January-February 2006 with a narrative so horrifying of her childhood growing up in shelters and cheap hotels Skid Row I still cry every time I read it. One of the saddest chapters in her life occurred in 2003. She made the long trip from Skid Row to Reseda High School in the San Fernando Valley for two years, until the fall 2003 bus strike. There was no public transportation across the city. She was out of school for six weeks and fell so far behind with her schoolwork that she was forced to drop out.

No one called from the Los Angeles Unified School District or tried to locate her. LAUSD officials owe Roshawn an apology.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Presses Rolled Today

The Oct. issue was printed this morning at the L.A. Times plant. We always have to wait a few days before we get our hands on a copy. We’re urging mainstream and alternative media to take a close look at high school drop-out statistics and challenge administrators to respond to this crisis in public education. Editor Mike Fricano will post articles on Tuesday.

We held a staff development meeting today which gave everyone an opportunity to discuss his/her job description. I asked staff to highlight every new task or challenge in the past year so that I can assess their responsibilities. In a perfect world with no money worries, I could hire two more staff. In the meantime, we have excellent consultants to help with art direction, strategic communications and financial management.

Last week we sent an appeal letter to long-time donors and to parents of teens who benefit from our training programs. The funds are “trickling” in, not as many contributors as I hoped for.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Dow and Donors

The Dow hit 10,000 today. I wonder if that will have a positive impact on donors. Holiday season is looming close and people will make decisions re year-end giving. It’ll be interesting to see if Dec. 2009 donations will be an improvement over Dec. 2008.

In the meantime we move forward – last day to proof pages, change a headline and add or delete board members, volunteers, donors to the Oct. masthead.

We have visitors this week, two foundation trustees and staff dropping by to chat about our programs. I bought ginger snaps for this afternoon and fresh croissants and coffee for the trustees tomorrow morning. They can peek at the pages before we transmit them to the L.A. Times. I’m still filled with awe and pride when I look at the stories and artwork of every issue right before the presses roll.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Poor Public Education

Presses roll Saturday with our extraordinary cover story -- eighteen-year-old Patricia Chavarria shares her compelling journey, “My second chance at school.” She ditched, had a serious illness and lost hope of graduating until she enrolled at Cesar Chavez Continuation High School in Compton. L.A. Youth editor Mike Fricano met with Patricia and a group of students at the school to hear their personal experiences and what inspired them to graduate.

Overcrowded classes, thousands of displaced teachers, shortage of textbooks and supplies plus a staggering list of all the other ailments in California public schools doesn’t bode well for the future. Parents have every right to enroll their child in a Charter school or jump into the magnet school lottery. For those with funds to spare there are many private school choices or a neighborhood parochial school.

A study by Northeastern University in Boston recently reported that male high school dropouts were 47 times more likely than college graduates to be jailed.

Los Angeles County has one of the highest dropout rates in the country – more than 20 percent of students leave school before graduating.

I was a staunch believer in the public school tradition but I have my doubts they can prepare children for higher education and the job market.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Improve Quality of Life in South LA

Last Saturday was Newcomer’s Day, a morning orientation we host every six weeks for teens interested in joining the staff. Twenty-five youth showed up and the best news is more than half were boys! With a writing project we’re always 60-40 with females leading the number of bylines.

We’re making a major effort this school year to recruit young men of color. Their voices are not well represented in L.A. Youth. Tomorrow I’m attending a planning meeting at the South LA Building Healthy Communities coalition of agencies invited by The California Endowment to strategically plan goals for the next 10 years to improve employment, education, violence, health and other issues in their community. Several of the groups work with young people so I’ll have the opportunity to hand out copies of the paper and encourage them to partner with us.

This is my favorite part of the job – meet ‘n greet community organizers and listen to the buzz of ideas in other neighborhoods.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Bringing our Programs to Youth Agencies

Good news today. The generosity of the Leonard Green Foundation and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors will enable us to expand the Oct. press run to 70,000. As I mentioned before, we were forced to make drastic cuts -- reducing the press run from 120,000 to 60,000 last month -- since we have to pay the L.A. Times for printing and delivery services. Parents of our teen staffers are sending donations so we hope to punch up the numbers to 100,000 by November.

I dropped by Homeboy Industries yesterday on my way to a meeting downtown. Young people hanging out in front, others doing homework or snacking in the café. I tried their crème brulee, absolutely delicious. I gave them a stack of newspapers and encouraged the program director to share it with staff and teens. He asked if we’d offer a weekly writing class in their new facility. That’s a possibility. They have financial woes like everyone else these days -- no new hires, program cuts.

Several youth organizations around town want us to bring our programs to them but we’re already stretched too thin. A kindly philanthropist could fill the request if we have the funds to hire a fourth editor.

Never hurts to dream big.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wealthy Donors Fund New Journalism Projects

I’m envious of the new non-profit journalism start-ups with their million dollar endowments. I guess 22 years of great journalism doesn’t count if the writers are teenagers. Too bad these rich, generous donors haven’t read our excellent stories, they would see how young, well-trained journalists have an impact.

As a community leader, L.A. Youth has relationships with mainstream media, both print and broadcast. As a result, policy makers have had to respond to the spotlight placed on difficult issues that affect teens. L.A. Youth shows teens that they can improve their own lives and play an important role in improving their schools and communities. Examples of L.A. Youth articles that served this purpose include:

• An investigative article on teens incarcerated in California mental hospitals without due process that prompted state legislation to address the problem.
• An examination of conditions impeding education at Marshall High School in Los Angeles that prompted a school district investigation and resulted in the author being chosen to serve on the selection committee for a new school district superintendent.
• An article investigating police brutality in the Los Angeles Police Department that was picked up by CBS News.
• A first-person account of life on the streets by a homeless teen that drew attention from the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and social service agencies concerned about homeless youth.

We, too, would benefit from the generosity of strangers.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Teen Grows Up To Do Great Things

Sept. 22

My first L.A. Youth writer called a few weeks ago to share exciting news. After five long years away from home she received her Master’s and Ph.D in education at the University of Wisconsin.

When we met she was a bright, curious teen in middle school, looking for a way out of her struggling Latino neighborhood. She excelled in everything she did. Mini, as she’s known to family and friends, won a scholarship to Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

We kept in touch as she expanded her educational horizons. After graduating college she returned to Los Angeles to teach at Compton High School, one of the toughest, most troubled campuses in L.A. Most of her pupils were Spanish speakers with limited ability in English, adding to the challenge.

I’ve never forgotten the passionate speech Mini gave at one of our fundraising dinners. Here’s an excerpt:

Many of my students look to me as an older sister and sometimes even a parent figure. I’m the first to find out when they become pregnant or when their father has run out on them – again. I’m the first person they tell when they feel hurt because their mother was left behind in Mexico. They let me know when they are living out of a garage without food or money. But that is not all, they let me know when they are proud of their schoolwork accomplishments…

If you will, close your eyes for a moment, come with me and stand outside my classroom door at Compton High after all the student have left. You see there, up above my door where the window is located? Well, don’t concentrate on the fact that the window is full of bullet holes, I want you to notice how beautifully the sun shines through those bullet holes and fills the room with so much light. Those rays are my students. In the end, there in only hope.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Out of Touch for a Few Days

I’ve not been able to post for a few days due to a health issue. Now I’m back ready to advocate on behalf of teens. Recuperating at home kept me glued to TV where I was horrified to see how many lunatics shout hate-filled rhetoric (and not just on Fox).

Our Sept. issue was delivered to schools and a few libraries this week. The real challenge this school year is maintaining the readership we lost with a reduced press run and bring them to our website.

Excellent suggestions from the board of directors last night to engage corporate partners such as Verizon, Sprint, Boost, AT&T and other mobile providers. We’re a perfect fit for these companies to reach teen consumers.

Sometimes the outside world comes to us. A weary social worker in Moab, Utah begged me to send her a how-to guide to launch a teen-written newspaper. “We had five pregnant teens last year in a high school with fewer than 200 students,” she lamented. “I want to help these kids talk about responsible sexuality and let then write their personal stories. The local newspaper would never report the problems we’re having in this community, and the outside media only report on polygamists.”

Thursday, September 10, 2009

L.A. Youth Sept. 2009 issue

“Thanks for keeping me on your distribution list. Our classroom budgets have been cut next to nothing,” remarked a teacher at Azusa High School.

We, too, are making huge cuts. As I mentioned before, the press run this weekend will be reduced from 120,000 to 60,000. None of the libraries will receive the Sept. issue, perhaps by Oct. we can raise enough money to expand the press run. This is the worst year to reduce the number of copies with all the state education budget cuts and the increase in classroom size.

This network of teachers is one of our most valuable assets. The three L.A. Youth editors visit two or three classrooms a week, encouraging students to enter one of our essay or art contest or write a letter to the editor. We publish a four-page teacher’s guide (now available only on our website) that is tailored to each issue of L.A. Youth and filled with tips on how to use the paper in the classroom. It’s a ready-made lesson plan for teachers and is aligned with the English and Social Studies requirements in high schools. Every few years we ply half-dozen teachers with coffee and cookies and pick their brains about ways to improve the guide.

The Sept. cover has a marvelous illustration by Lily Clark, Immaculate Heart High School. Several articles about teens and money management, very timely.

Teens, teachers, parents and community folks look for our stories at since you won’t find them in libraries or community agencies.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

School Opens and Presses Roll

Presses roll this Saturday after a summer of writing workshops, field trips, newcomer’s day and other activities. The days before printing the Sept. issue creates excitement in the office with last-minute headline changes, teasing among the staff as to which cover is most compelling and the detailed inputting of information in the database.

We sent postcards to more than 1,300 teachers who subscribed to the paper last school year. Only 20 percent responded so we had no choice but to call the other 80 percent to find out if they want the paper, have transferred to another school, were laid off or worse, passed away over the summer!

Here’s the sad part of my tale – we lost our printing support from the L.A. Times. For 20 years they donated printing and in recent years donated delivery. The Times is in bankruptcy (translation: The Times will give us $15,000 credit for the year but we still have to pay them $45,000!). The hardest decision I had to make was to cut the press run from 120,000 copies to 60,000 copies and drop the libraries. We can only provide newspapers to schools and a few dozen public agencies.

Teens and teachers want hard copies even though every article is available on our website, After reading this please send a donation via PayPal or “snail mail” so we can restore copies to the libraries and community centers.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Please Governor, Help California's Children & Youth

Children are being punished for the misdeeds of their elders. Governor Schwarzenegger’s $80 million line-item veto of Child Welfare Services is unprecedented.
I was appointed to The California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care in March 2006 by Supreme Court Chief Justice M. Ronald George. Its charge is to provide recommendations to the California Judicial Council on the ways in which the courts and their partners can improve safety, permanency, well-being, and fairness outcomes for children and families. The commission issued final recommendations to the Judicial Council on August 15, 2008. The recommendations focus on four areas: 1) efforts to prevent removal and achieve permanency; 2) court reforms; 3) collaboration between the courts and their child welfare partners; and 4) resources and funding.
The likelihood of achieving these improvements is seriously compromised by the reduction in Child Welfare Services. California’s child welfare system is already seriously under-resourced.
The folks in Sacramento have a legal and moral commitment to care for children and youth in foster care. Would they put their own families in jeopardy? I doubt it.

The cuts must be restored.

False Accusations

I was on a conference call this morning, taking notes, moving papers on my desk (multi-tasking, of course) when I looked up to see a familiar face, one of our former writers. I jumped up, gave him a hug, signaled to him to take a seat while I finished the call.

Jeff was in jail for the past three months on charges that he abused his girlfriend and stole her purse. He denied the charges and refused to “plea bargain” insisting he was innocent. His bail was set extremely high which made it impossible for him to be released while awaiting sentencing. Jeff had the good fortune to be assigned a caring public defender that investigated the charges and ultimately found the girl’s story inconsistent and unreliable.

The judge dismissed the charges. Jeff was released.

Does the justice system work? Sometimes yes, most of the time no, if you’re poor and non-white. Jeff grew up in foster care another example of a dysfunctional bureaucratic system.

End of story? Jeff has a long way to go – finding a job, buying a car, eventually renting his own apartment but he has lots of caring friends at L.A. Youth.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Malibu, Marley and Me

Celebrities, politicians and Malibu Colony. The perfect combination for a casual afternoon in a gorgeous setting and a chance to meet one of California’s rising political stars – San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris and candidate for State Attorney General. Kamala parents are children of the ‘60s, Berkeley alums and bay area advocates. She’s an excellent candidate with strong credentials and knowledge of California’s criminal justice system.

I was whipped and sunburned standing in the glaring sunlight for three hours but not so much that I couldn’t sway to Ziggy Marley’s electrifying performance. He sounds like his father, looks like him, too, with the same warm songs to mellow out the afternoon.

My 13-year-old grandson Jordan Myrow accompanied me to the event. His father is a fanatic Bob Marley fan, he named his youngest son Jackson Marley.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Kennedy Legacy

My parents loved Adlai Stevenson. They rarely talked politics but Adlai was special, a man they looked up to and trusted. They sat in front of our small black and white television watching the 1952 election returns when Stevenson lost the presidency to Dwight Eisenhower. They had less enthusiasm when John Kennedy succeeded Ike in 1960, though my mother adored Jackie’s fabulous sense of style. I wore a pink pillbox hat to a cousin’s wedding when I was 17, pretending to be as chic as Mrs. Kennedy.

The Kennedys symbolized a young, energetic America ready to take on social issues, and I began to pay attention. JFK implored us to do something for our country. Peace Corps volunteers were sent abroad. Black ministers urged followers to fight segregation and poverty. Nightly news reports of the Black Panthers, student protests at Berkeley and marches in Washington increasingly drew me in.

I was drawn to Bobby Kennedy because of his compassion for the poor and underrepresented. He listened carefully to the impoverished children of Appalachia, marched with Martin Luther King in Alabama and walked in the Central Valley fields alongside Cesar Chavez and migrant workers.

Edward Kennedy was larger than life for me. His commanding physical presence – the booming voice in anger at the Senate hearings to confirm Robert Bork for the U.S. Supreme Court. The joy he shouted from the podium to endorse Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic Convention. And the kind, soft words he bestowed on family members at funerals for military personnel who died in combat.

The end of the Kennedy era as I remembered it arrived this week with Ted Kennedy’s passing......

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Funny Fundraising

But there are also happy endings. When I worked out of my house in the beginning, an early morning call might catch me in the shower. A foundation officer called and I gave him my pitch while wrapped in a towel and dripping water on the carpet. He rejected us the first time around, after I violated fundraising etiquette by asking an L.A. Youth board member to try personal persuasion. We managed to repair the relationship and the San Francisco-based foundation later awarded us a two-year grant.

Wallis Annenberg, head of one of the country’s largest philanthropies, surprised me one afternoon with news that our $100,000 grant application had been approved. “Wallis!” I shouted, as if she was my best friend. “How fantastic. Thank you, thank you,” I blurted out, utterly flustered. We both laughed.

I especially enjoy opening the mail and finding a small donation from a name I recognize year after year. We have a few donors who always send a check, whether it’s $10 or $1,000.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hard Economic Times

Hollywood aside, we are selective about whom we solicit. We don’t chase after government money. After all, we write about hot button issues like teen sexuality and school reform. Accepting grants from, say, a federal agency that promotes “abstinence only” would be a conflict for us and our articles no doubt would be challenged by the agency. We’re often critical of school districts, state government and local politicians; taking their money in one hand and criticizing them with the other would be hypocritical.

There are foundations that will never lend their name or support to L.A. Youth. Mostly it’s because of our teen sexuality articles and gay/lesbian stories. One foundation thinks we’re pro-abortion, though we’ve never take a position in favor or against. A few object to our stories on birth control and the discussion of condoms. I used to submit grant requests on the gamble that nobody at these foundations would bother to read our newspaper. But they did. Foundations provide roughly 80% of our financial support, and the competition is fierce. The number of non-profits in America increases each year.

Economic downturns like the one we’re in since fall 2008 can ravage the stock portfolios of foundations, leaving less money to spread around. Disasters like the 2005 hurricanes in Louisiana and Mississippi and the events of 9/11 quickly draw millions in charitable dollars. We usually feel the competition for grants intensifying about six months after such events.

We lost a major supporter this year, the Los Angeles Times. For 20 years they donated the printing. The Times is in bankruptcy and financial re-structuring so we must pay them for printing and delivery starting with our Sept. 2009 issue. This is a body blow. The press run will be reduced from 120,000 per issue to 60,000, forcing us to eliminate the libraries. We must raise $60,000 to cover the costs for the 2009-2010 school year and the Times offered $15,000 credit for printing and distribution. Teachers and teens want hard copies even though all our stories are available online.

This will be the most challenging school year in our history.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Raising Money Is Tougher Than a Game Show

I’m always worried we’ll run out of money. In fact, we’ve come close to shutting down the newspaper on one or two occasions.

We need about $650,000 a year in grants and donations to keep the doors open. Raising that amount of money is a draining job, and it never gets easier.

In the early days of L.A. Youth I thought the entertainment industry might be one of our strongest supporters. After all, Hollywood is in our own backyard and its movie, television and recording studios depend on young people like our readers for much of their revenue.

I was wrong. In my experience, a studio or production is most likely to support an actor’s favorite cause, often to win favor at the urging of the actor’s agent. With some notable exceptions, Hollywood is a very insular community when it comes to giving. Outsiders are best advised not to come calling.

Celebrities in general are frustrating to deal with. On occasion, we have asked several to donate their time and talent to our fundraising events. One local TV anchor agreed to be mistress of ceremonies, but on two conditions: that we buy her a designer gown for the dinner and hire a limousine to get her there. I demurred, noting that business attire was appropriate and, besides, our programs really needed the money. She grudgingly gave in but came with her entourage. Just like the TV show.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Not Exactly "Architecture Digest" Quality

Early on, I learned how to scrounge. It was the only way we could afford to furnish our offices. The trick was to have no shame and be alert for news of businesses merging or downsizing. They were happy to get rid of surplus furniture as long as I removed it without making a fuss.

I hauled designer chairs and tables across town in the back of my Subaru, and on days when there was no elevator we manhandled them up the stairs to our office.

Sometimes I had to accept defeat. When Jones Day, a major law firm, closed one of its offices in Orange County, the wife o a senior partner invited me to come “shop” the discards. We were browsing an entire floor of desks, chairs and credenzas when I spotted a black marble conference table that could seat 25 people. It was fabulous, and I looked at it longingly. But there was no way it would fit in our office, let alone get up the stairs.

Another friend directed me to a business on a scruffy street in downtown Los Angeles. “The guy in charge is closing it down tonight, and he needs cash,” she said. “He has these long folding tables, perfect for your kids to work on.”

But then came the caveat: “He’s the son of a prominent politician, but he's waiting trial for drug possession. So, be careful.”

I took $100 cash with me and pulled up in front of an office building. Sure enough, people were dragging furniture onto the sidewalk. “How much are two tables?” I asked the politician’s son.

“One hundred dollars each.”

“I run a nonprofit for teens and we really need work tables. These are perfect. I’ll give you $100 for both.”


The street was dark and isolated and I paused to look over my shoulder. The few homeless folks shuffling by didn’t pay any attention.

After more of my cajoling he finally gave in. Then came the hard part, getting the tables in the back of the Subaru. No one offered to help. I pushed and pulled and finally shoved them over the front seat, then drove home with the hatchback wide open.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Wired for Cyberspace

The art deco building was our headquarters for ten years, during which we managed to escape The Penthouse and take a larger office on a lower floor. Then we quit the building altogether for new quarters a few blocks away. Now we have conference room, a newsroom and a couple of private offices. Best of all, we were wired for new technology that would carry our stories into cyberspace.

But the elevator doesn’t always work, the air conditioning repeatedly blows fuses and for a while there was mold and mildew from the rain. Browbeating landlords should not be part of a publisher’s job.

One of our board members got us onto the Web. He was a consultant for a company selling adult entertainment – phone sex, porno films. We paid the company $185 to register the L.A. Youth domain and host our first website. Our board member wanted his business connection kept quiet, and we were happy to oblige. Who cared as long as we had a cheap Internet connection? The arrangement lasted for more than a year until we found a company with a mission closer to ours.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An Old Friend

Budd Schulberg, the famed novelist and screenwriter and founder of the Watts Writers Workshop died August 5, 2009. He was 95. I met Budd in 1966 a few months after he launched the workshop in burned-out Watts, the South Central neighborhood smoldering after six days of rioting by angry, marginalized citizens. The impoverished black ghetto had had one too many feuds with police and all hell broke loose. Pawnshops were looted, stores were burned to the ground, fires roared and gunshots rang through the night.

Budd watched the flames and angry mobs on television from his hilltop home in Beverly Hills. He wanted to do more than write about the injustice and poverty in Watts. He posted a notice on the door of a neglected house left standing among the charred ruins on 103rd Street, “Writing Workshop, Wed., 6pm.” Poets and short story writers trickled in and the Watts Writers Workshop was born. Over the next seven years they published anthologies and dramatic scripts for television. The Workshop was replicated in urban communities across the country.

Thus began my six-year association with Budd and the local poets and writers whose work he nurtured. Needless to say, the experience made a powerful impression on me. Budd became godfather to my first child, and on the 40th anniversary of the riots he wrote:

“Last night I read your excellent L.A. Youth from cover to cover and I felt proud of your work and at the same time it broke my heart. All those poor kids wanting to study and get on with their lives, and meanwhile obsessed with the mindless drive-by’s and ethnic school fights. It’s really so much more violent than when we were in Watts in the ‘60’s. And there seems to be no relief, no real effort to solve those social problems so ridden with terror.”

Monday, August 10, 2009

Moving to the Penthouse

Using my dining room as command central became increasingly impossible. L.A. Youth needed a home of its own.

Our “angel” was the James Irvine Foundation in San Francisco, which wrote a check in late 1989 for $100,000, our first truly big grant. I rented space on the top floor of an art deco building, in the mid-Wilshire area. It was a small office which we grandly called The Penthouse, despite the elevator that malfunctioned for months at a time and the ceiling that leaked whenever it rained. There was even a built-in shower, which we put into service as a storage closet.

The building’s advantage was its proximity to those sections of Los Angeles where our writers tended to live, though some had long bus rides to reach us. The disadvantage was having to co-exist with the panhandlers, drug addicts and petty thieves who wer4e fixtures in our neighborhood.

One morning, we found a business card under the door with a note from a police officer: “We have your computer, please call.” It turned out that our office had been burglarized the night before.

I was horrified, but I had to admit our burglar was gutsy. He had climbed the outside fire escape, broken through a door and carried the computer down a rickety flight of stairs to the street. There, he hid it in the bushes while he got stoned, which proved to be his undoing.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Distribution Challenge

Some of my other distribution schemes were less successful. I got the bright idea to drop bundles of papers where teens congregate – coffee houses, music stores and so on. Tower Records agreed to put a stack next to the weekly alternative papers. After a few days I checked to see how many copies were left and to my surprise they were all gone. Wow! This was the answer, the best way to get the paper into the hands of teenagers.

I thanked the guy behind the counter and he looked at me as if I spoke a foreign language.

“I throw all the papers away after a few days, they make a mess,” he said. “Anyway, you drop a new bundle every Thursday.”

“No, no,” I protested, “we only publish six times a year and the manager said you’d keep them here for a few weeks. We’re not L.A. Weekly. What happened?”

“Which manager, the day or night guy,” he said with a blank expression.

I had the same bad luck with the coffee houses, tossed out at night along with the dirty paper cups and stirrers.

Then there was the time an outside distributor dumped 3,000 copies of our paper at a school that had ordered 300. The 2,700 copies that nobody wanted ended up in the trash. Sob.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Just Say Yes

I knew the only way we’d reach teens was in the schools. The key was finding teachers who would allow our newspaper in their classrooms. Friends and family helped me compile a list of about 25 willing teachers. I hand-delivered L.A. Youth to them.

I thought about asking school district administrators for their blessings, and quickly rejected the idea. They would almost certainly say no. This meant I would have to employ a certain amount of stealth to avoid attracting the attention of security guards or hostile principals.

I changed from my usual jeans and sweatshirt into a business suit, to look like someone on official business. I loaded stacks of newspapers into my red Subaru hatchback, stacked so high I couldn’t see out the back window. At each school, I waited in my car until classes were dismissed for the day. When the bell rang and students streamed out the main gate, I walked in as if I belonged there and delivered by bundle of newspapers.

Distributing a single issue took a few weeks, because I could only do one school a day this way. The teens on the staff helped out by stuffing copies in their backpacks and passing them along to favorite teachers. Make sure you pick someone cool and sympathetic to the rights of young people, I advised them.

Over time, as L.A. Youth won acceptance, we were able to distribute it openly on campuses across the city. Only rarely would a school official object.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Kitchen Table Publishing

We ran everything from my house for nearly two years. Twice a week my young staff gathered to share ideas, go over assignments and show me drafts of their stories.

At first, we worked at the kitchen table. But it was so small not everyone could sit down, and we moved to the antique oak table in my dining room. The teens shared two ancient Smith-Corona typewriters, both of them borrowed from the L.A. Times. Some stories had to be written in longhand, and then typed out. The dining room table, which I had lovingly restores not long ago, was unprepared for all this activity and groaned audibly whenever anyone leaned on it. I tried not to worry. At dinner time, papers and supplies were stowed on the floor so I would have room to feed my family.

We put the pages together ourselves, a painstaking process. The trickiest part was “pasting” proofs of each headline, photo and story onto page-sized forms, like putting pieces of a puzzle together. The finished pages were then ferried to the printer, ready for photo-engraving and the trip to the press. I constantly worried that a story or a headline might fall off one of the pages while hauling them in the back seat of my car, since the glue didn’t always stick well. But it only happened once, and it was only a paragraph that I hoped nobody would miss.

The Shocking Truth! Teens Can Write

Is there a future for newspapers? We here at L.A. Youth respond with a thunderous yes!

We’ve spoken through the voice of teenagers for 22 years and we’re still at it. We’re not only committed to print journalism, we have a lively website as well.

The death of the newspaper is greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain.

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school administrators had the right to censor articles intended for publication in school newspapers. I was stunned. The ruling was a body blow to the independence of the student press. Two decades earlier, the court had seemed to go in the other direction. In an Iowa case involving an anti-war protest, Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority, stated, “Neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The Supreme Court decision that day pushed me over the edge, so to speak. I decided to start a teen newspaper in Los Angeles.

I gathered a dozen high school youngsters at my house, some of them my children’s friends and told them we’re going to put out a newspaper you can call your own. I appointed myself publisher, editor, head fundraiser and chief delivery person.

Six weeks later, March 1988, our inaugural issue went to press.

Paying for Journalism

The letter was written in response to New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt's commentary published Sunday, July 19, 2009, One Newspaper, Many Checkbooks.

Re: "One Newspaper, Many Checkbooks" (July 19), New York Times:

Nonprofit newspapers are not a new idea. L.A. Youth was launched more than 20 years ago with support by foundations and corporations. There has never been a conflict of interest or pressure from any funding source regarding our investigative reporting.

In Los Angeles, we have reported fraud and abuse in group homes, we have reported illegal searches of backpacks by school security guards, and we have brought attention to the Legislature regarding the plight of youth incarcerated in private mental hospitals without the right of due process. These stories were ignored by mainstream media even in the well-financed days of journalism.

Our paper is distributed free to more than 1,400 teachers and is used in classrooms for civics lessons in lieu of boring, dated textbooks. Philanthropy and journalism are an excellent partnership.

Los Angeles, July 20, 2009
The writer is the publisher of L.A. Youth.