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.