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Wealthy L.A. philanthropists loosen grip on donations, shifting money toward social justice

Fernando Torres got his first gang tattoo when he was 15, a rite of passage among some members of his family. “I thought it was an honor to die for your gang,” he says.

Acknowledging that he was quick to throw a punch, he says that he was soon expelled from high school. But two years later, Torres, then 17, was enrolled at FREE L.A. High, a charter school affiliated with decarceration activists at the Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition.

It wasn’t a smooth transition. It took an arrest for carrying a loaded handgun and the threat of prison time, he says, before he finally started to listen to FREE L.A. teachers and staff — several of whom had been incarcerated — and extracted himself from gang life.

“They see themselves in us,” says Torres, who is now 22 and works in construction, “and want us to have a better outcome.”

For 20 years, young people like Torres have had their lives turned around by the Youth Justice Coalition — an organization that relies on support from California philanthropies. The key to that success has been no-strings-attached grants, says Emilio Zapién, the coalition’s director of communications.

How some foundations get philanthropic dollars inside L.A. County bureaucracy

“It has been a heavy lift,” Zapién says.

Over the last decade, more and more of L.A.’s institutional foundations have gotten behind that idea: trusting nonprofits with increasing amounts of money, with fewer restrictions. The trend accelerated during the pandemic.

The Youth Justice Coalition is one of dozens of community organizations to benefit from what the leaders of these foundations say is a collective effort to support those closest to the problems the foundations hope to solve.

According to the foundations involved in this effort, L.A. County nonprofits received at least $476.2 million in grants in 2021, compared with at least $282.1 million in 2017.

This more generous approach has allowed the Youth Justice Coalition to “strengthen” staff and support services at FREE L.A., where 66 students are now enrolled, Zapién says.

A man handing a woman a bag of groceries, one of dozens lined up below a colorful mural behind him in a parking lot
Louis Neal, a volunteer with the New World Academy Foundation, hands out groceries during a food giveaway at Chuco’s Justice Center, run by the Youth Justice Coalition in South Los Angeles.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The coalition reported $2.5 million in contributions for fiscal year 2021, up from $1.9 million a year earlier, and $1.2 million in fiscal year 2019. Contributions came from the Roy + Patricia Disney Family Foundation and Liberty Hill Foundation, among other organizations.

Zapién and other nonprofit activists are quick to say that local philanthropists need to give more with even fewer restrictions. But they agree that the era of L.A.’s leading philanthropists dictating what is best for all Angelenos is fading.

Conrad N. Hilton Foundation
California Endowment
James Irvine Foundation
Annenberg Foundation
Broad Foundation
California Wellness Foundation
Weingart Foundation
California Community Foundation
Ralph M. Parsons Foundation
United Way of Greater L.A. ($4.5 million)
Liberty Hill Foundation ($4.1 million)

The need to move money quickly to disadvantaged communities during the pandemic accelerated this movement, according to the nonprofit community groups, philanthropic foundations and government agencies interviewed for this story.

“Our landscape is ever-changing,” Zapién says. “Our funding has to be general operating support. Our funders have to trust us.”


For decades, Southern California’s wealthy business leaders burnished their reputations by creating charitable foundations, which built glitzy theaters, high-ceilinged concert halls, and museums showcasing their donors’ art collections. Local hospital wings and university buildings bear their names.

In 1937 James Irvine stashed a chunk of the wealth from his 110,000-acre real estate empire in the James Irvine Foundation. Hotelier Conrad N. Hilton launched his foundation in 1944. Insurance and banking mogul Howard F. Ahmanson and real estate tycoon Ben Weingart each created one in the 1950s. Engineering pioneer Ralph M. Parsons started his in 1961, and Walter H. Annenberg established his in 1989.

Those campaigns funding brick-and-mortar civic institutions still dominated local philanthropy in 1999 when Fred Ali, who had recently run Hollywood’s Covenant House, which serves homeless youth, was named president of the Weingart Foundation.

It was passionless, Ali says.

It’s easier for a leader of an endowed foundation with money in the bank to shift funding priorities if they have the support of their board of directors. With an “aging, all-white” board, Ali says, he started early in his tenure to replace retiring members with people aligned with his progressive vision.

Can homelessness in L.A. ever be ‘rare, brief and nonrecurring’?

A man half-sitting, hands clasped and one foot on the floor, at the head of a large meeting table surrounded by empty chairs
Dr. Robert Ross said the California Endowment has moved from trying to “alleviate misery with charity” to funding community-led advocacy groups that are increasing access to healthcare and mental health services.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A year later, Robert Ross, a doctor trained in public health, arrived in L.A. as president and chief executive of the California Endowment, then a young multibillion-dollar statewide health foundation. During his first decade at the foundation, Ross says, he worked hard to “alleviate misery with charity.” One project he championed was the Children’s Health Initiative, a program delivering healthcare to a limited, underserved population.

Then he changed course.

“Poor Black and brown folks are at the short end of health disparities,” says Ross, “which tells you what we’re dealing with is structural. It’s systemic. It’s not bad luck.”

In 2010 he shifted millions of dollars from the health initiative and started funding advocacy efforts by several nonprofits that, by 2021, permanently expanded Medi-Cal eligibility to a broad underserved population across the state.

Where Ross had initially directed California Endowment funding to individual mental health programs within a cohort of local-level probation departments, he shifted those funds to community-led advocacy groups that secured public funding for similar mental health services.

The pivot started, Ross says, when he began to collaborate with Liberty Hill Foundation, which introduced him to community activists in L.A. who were working to empower poor people of color.

“People who are most impacted by problems know best how to fix them,” says Shane Goldsmith, president and CEO of Liberty Hill.

A woman seen from the waist up, looking into the camera and resting her left hand on a large white object in the foreground
“People who are most impacted by problems know best how to fix them,” says Shane Goldsmith, head of the Liberty Hill Foundation, which funded community groups in their decade-long battle to stop oil and gas drilling in L.A. County neighborhoods.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In 2013, Liberty Hill began funding STAND-L.A., a coalition of seven community groups — led by Communities for a Better Environment and Physicians for Social Responsibility — demanding an end to neighborhood oil and gas drilling. It took 10 years and $4.5 million in philanthropic funding, but in 2022, Goldsmith says, city and county governments agreed to ban new drilling and phase out the operation of existing wells across the county.

The community groups identified the wells, tracked the health effects and worked with regulators on the solutions, Goldsmith says. She calls these grassroots coalitions “our next generation of community leaders.”

When Antonia Hernández was named president and CEO of the California Community Foundation in 2004, it was a conservative “don’t rock the boat” organization, she says. And it was struggling to survive.

But she figured the organization wanted to become a more progressive funder; after all, they’d hired her — an activist attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund — to run the show.

A woman sitting at an angle, her hands on her lap, looking into the camera
“I wanted donors interested in serving the vulnerable, giving voice to the poor,” says Antonia Hernández, pictured in 1998. Under her leadership, the California Community Foundation changed from a struggling conservative philanthropy into a progressive powerhouse.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Hernández transformed the foundation into a progressive powerhouse by cultivating new donors among the wealthy social activists she’d met through the Mexican American fund. “I wanted donors interested in serving the vulnerable, giving voice to the poor,” she says.

In less than 20 years, the California Community Foundation went from $540 million to $2.3 billion in assets. It gives money directly to dozens of groups supporting marginalized communities, including the South Asian NetworkFilipino Migrant Center and African Communities Public Health Coalition. And through countywide collective philanthropic initiatives supporting education, Black empowerment and the arts, the foundation funds hundreds more groups.

Ali, Ross, Goldsmith, Hernández and Judy Belk, then president and CEO at the California Wellness Foundation, formed a new progressive core within L.A.’s philanthropic ecosystem. In 2014, Don Howard became president and CEO of the James Irvine Foundation and joined their ranks.

The Annenberg Foundation is well-known for the institutions that bear its name, and President and CEO Wallis Annenberg has supported progressive initiatives, particularly in food equity, and has expanded her giving to include efforts by these foundation leaders.

These philanthropists are following national trends. But observers say they stand out for having turned their organizations around quickly, thoroughly and collectively.

L.A.’s leading philanthropic foundations have “transformed” themselves, says Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. These formerly tradition-bound charitable institutions have become “national leaders in their commitment to equity and justice,” he says.

Institutional foundations in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area are far wealthier, according to Dorfman. They can, and do, dedicate more resources to fighting injustice. But L.A.’s leading foundations dedicate a greater share of their resources to that fight, he says, adding that “it has become a consistent theme in L.A., a steady beat,” in recent years.

Whether this transformation continues depends on the foundation boards — Ross, Belk and Hernández recently announced their retirements. The foundation boards are picking their successors.

Ali retired in 2021 and was succeeded as president and CEO by Miguel Santana, a longtime L.A. civic servant who continued Ali’s efforts to use all of the foundation’s assets, including its endowment, to redress the racist redlining practices that were once endemic within L.A.’s real estate industry.

“We think about all of our assets as vehicles to advance racial and social justice,” says Santana, who estimates Weingart is a third of the way toward moving its entire endowment into mission-aligned investments.

Weingart recently invested $5 million in Primestor, a Latino-owned real estate developer based in Culver City that invests in historically ignored communities of color; $5 million in the Female Founders Fund, which invests in women‘s entrepreneurial ventures; and $500,000 in iimpact capital, a Latina-owned real estate investment firm based in El Segundo that invests in affordable-housing developers owned by women.

To help guide this “truth and reconciliation” effort, Santana hired Edgar Villanueva, author of “Decolonizing Wealth,” an indictment of old-school American philanthropy. “Coming to terms with that history,” says Villanueva, “grieving that, apologizing for it,” sets the stage for “reparations to repair the harm caused by that history.”

Apparently this impressed the California Community Foundation’s board. In October, they poached Santana to replace Hernández.


Eli Broad, who died in 2021, was one of L.A.’s leading philanthropists for decades — a holdover from a generation of business leaders who believed they knew what was best for the city. In addition to building the Broad, a museum to house his art collection, he helped bring the Museum of Contemporary Art and Walt Disney Concert Hall into existence.

He was also a driving force in private efforts to enhance public education, leading a coalition of billionaires — Bill Gates, Reed Hastings and others — whose ultra-wealthy foundations pushed charter schools as a singular solution to bring about some much-needed changes to public schools in Los Angeles.

A woman standing in a white room, next to a large window with a city view of tall buildings below
Under President Gerun Riley, the Broad Foundation’s new approach focuses on out-of-school enrichment programs, support for science, technology, engineering and math education, and workforce training to “advance social and economic mobility for students from historically marginalized and underrepresented communities.”
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Broad’s “impatient” style foreclosed any easy avenues to collaboration with the community he believed he was serving, says Gerun Riley, president of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Parents and teachers loyal to their existing schools often felt voiceless and powerless in the ensuing political maelstrom.

At the start of Riley’s tenure as president, three years before Broad’s death, she urged him to change his approach. Her suggestion: Ask local families what they want from their public schools. Broad had never, nor would he ever, do such a thing, Riley says. So she did it for him.

“I set up a listening tour. I met with over 300 people, drove 600 miles,” she says. Parents expressed “frustration, exasperation.” They told her the battle over charter schools was “an ugly, unnecessary debate.” And they were clear about what they wanted for their children, she says: preparation for jobs in a technology-driven economy.

With Broad’s blessing, Riley says, the foundation is expanding beyond directly funding traditional K-12 education. It stopped using high school graduation rates as a measure of the success of its programs, she says.

The Broad Foundation’s new approach focuses on out-of-school enrichment programs, support for science, technology, engineering and math education, and workforce training to “advance social and economic mobility for students from historically marginalized and underrepresented communities,” Riley says.

She points to the foundation’s Expanded Learning Alliance, or ExpandLA, which aspires to bring public schools, after-school program providers and government and philanthropic funders together to create a countywide network of opportunities for students. The foundation established ExpandLA, still in its formative phase, as an independent nonprofit with an initial $5-million grant in 2020.

Separately, the Broad Foundation is supporting groups that provide services under the ExpandLA umbrella, including DIY Girls, a Latina-focused science, technology, engineering, art and math program in northeast San Fernando Valley ($584,650 over five years), and the Hidden Genius Project, an Inglewood-based computer science and entrepreneurship program for Black male high school students ($310,000 over five years).

Today, “L.A.’s core progressive foundations consider Broad in league with their efforts to strengthen community-based organizations,” says Christine Essel, president and CEO of Southern California Grantmakers, an association of philanthropists whose progressive leadership tripled membership during this transformative decade.

The Broad Foundation’s endowment is $1.8 billion — but, Riley says, it’s “not set up to exist in perpetuity.” The plan is to give it all away over the coming decades.

As it plans to clear out its coffers, it is worth noting that the Broad Foundation sets itself apart from L.A.’s core progressive foundations in one important way: It funds advocacy, but it does not fund activists, according to staff.

It’s a distinction some other L.A. philanthropists also make. Both activists and advocates seek to influence public policies. But Los Angeles foundations define advocacy as something that typically happens behind the scenes. Activists take it to the streets, foundations say, with overt political agendas.

(The $1.2-billion Ahmanson Foundation is one leading L.A.-centric foundation that does not participate in philanthropic efforts to influence public policy. President and CEO Bill Ahmanson has distanced his foundation from this progressive movement.)

Like Broad, the Hilton and Parsons foundations support advocacy to change public systems, but they do not fund activism.

L.A.’s newest philanthropic force — former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie — are also in this camp, according to Nina Revoyr, Ballmer Group’s L.A. executive director.

Steve Ballmer speaking into a microphone at a basketball game as a Clippers player and a crowd of fans look on.
Steve Ballmer, at a preseason Clippers game last year, and wife Connie have become a philanthropic force in Los Angeles.
(John Froschauer / Associated Press)

With a personal fortune that Forbes estimates is in excess of $100 billion, the Ballmers, who reside in the Seattle area, started their Los Angeles County philanthropic work in 2016, two years after buying the L.A. Clippers.

So far this year, Ballmer Group has committed $115 million to nonprofits in L.A. County, compared with $55 million in grants last year. Much of this year’s increase is associated with a $39.2-million commitment to early childhood education workforce support, including scholarships and training.

Among their many early childhood education grantees is Crystal Stairs, a nonprofit receiving $1.3 million over three years to provide child-care services, research and advocacy tailored to Black educators.

Ballmer recently announced a $24-million multiyear commitment to 170 Boys & Girls Club sites in Los Angeles County, an increase from their previous $2 million in multiyear grants to the clubs. South L.A.’s Brotherhood Crusade received a $2.3-million commitment.


A young man with a black bandanna on his head, seen from the shoulders up in front of a mural of several large portraits
The Youth Justice Coalition helped Fernando Torres get through high school and avoid prison. He now works in construction and is having his gang tattoos removed.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Before it was home to FREE L.A. High School, the Youth Justice Coalition’s 35,000 square-foot building on South Central Avenue was a juvenile court. The courtrooms now are classrooms and the dank holding cells are open to the community as places to pay respect to friends and family who have been or remain incarcerated.

Coalition staff worked with Torres’ court-appointed attorney to create a diversion program: If Torres could graduate from high school and complete 40 hours of community service, he would do no prison time.

In his spare time now he draws portraits, Torres says, flipping through phone photos of a dozen pencil and crayon drawings of young women of color. His gang tattoos are in the process of being removed.

“Seeing the cells motivates me,” Torres says. “I don’t want to be in a box. I want to be free.”

Among the Youth Justice Coalition’s supporters is the California Black Freedom Fund, a collective statewide philanthropic response to the 2020 police murder of George Floyd initiated by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The fund’s goal is to get $100 million in unrestricted funds into Black-led community groups.

The fund’s L.A.-focused contributors include the Irvine, Weingart, Annenberg, Liberty Hill and Hilton foundations, the California Community and California Wellness foundations and the California Endowment.

The Black Freedom Fund’s ambitious goal recently expanded, says Marc Philpart, its executive director. His backers are pushing the state to match their $100-million commitment and turn the fund into an endowed foundation that survives long into the future.

A man pictured from the waist up, standing, with Los Angeles City Hall and trees in the background
“We want to establish a long-term, sustained approach to racial equity, racial justice,” says Marc Philpart, executive director of the California Black Freedom Fund, which began as a statewide philanthropic response to the 2020 police murder of George Floyd.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“We want to establish a long-term, sustained approach to racial equity, racial justice,” says Philpart.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has agreed to an initial investment of $3.5 million, nudging the project forward, according to Philpart.

In addition to the Youth Justice Coalition, which has received $200,000, other nonprofit beneficiaries of the Black Freedom Fund include the Afrikan Black Coalition ($100,000), the Los Angeles Black Worker Center ($500,000) and the Los Angeles Community Action Network ($350,000).

Howard, of the Irvine Foundation, says California has a long history of erecting legal and structural barriers that block Black people and members of other marginalized groups from jobs, healthcare and housing, and each community faces different barriers.

“We need to understand how to dismantle those barriers,” he says. “If we’re going to transform society, everyone has to have a seat at the table.”

“There’s a sea shift in who has power in California,” says John Kim, president and CEO of Catalyst California, which advocates for racial justice and whose revenue has doubled in recent years. “Money is power, and the foundations are giving it directly to people of color.”

Community groups have used that power to make “real gains” in L.A. County and city budget allocations, Kim says.

But “after 170 years of exclusion and extraction, it’s just one decade of progress,” he adds. “L.A. has a long way to go.”

California lawmakers vote to ban mandatory evictions for arrested tenants

State lawmakers approved legislation late Wednesday that would bar mandatory evictions or exclusion for California tenants and their families based on criminal histories or brushes with law enforcement.

Assembly Bill 1418 combats local policies known as “crime-free housing” that can require landlords to evict tenants for arrests or prohibit landlords from renting to those with prior convictions. The bill would make many of these laws unenforceable, ending the practice in scores of communities.

The bill’s author, Assemblymember Tina McKinnor (D-Hawthorne), said that its passage advances the state’s racial justice efforts by stopping communities from using crime-free housing laws to exclude or push out Black and Latino renters.

“We want to make sure we keep Black and brown people in their homes and that [crime-free housing rules] are not used as an excuse for gentrification,” McKinnor said.

The bill does not affect landlords’ ability to initiate nuisance-related evictions or screen tenants based on criminal histories of their own accord.

AB 1418 was inspired by a 2020 Times investigation that highlighted the proliferation of crime-free housing policies across California, especially in communities with growing Black and Latino populations. Times reporting found that local governments have approved the policies even when crime rates were stable or falling, while the number of Black or Latino residents was increasing. The Times determined that in some areas crime-free housing rules were enforced against Black, Latino and other tenants of color in far greater numbers than their share of the population.

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California Steps up to Stop Big Tobacco From Maliciously Targeting Black Communities

Every year, over 45,000 Black lives are lost in the United States to tobacco-induced illnesses like lung cancer, heart disease, and strokes. Tobacco corporations for decades have been intentional about their predatory targeting of Black communities. Black, Indigenous, and communities of color are already denied equitable access to social, political, and economic systems which produce inequitable and preventable negative health outcomes. 

This is an industry rooted in racism, white supremacy, and nefarious capitalism. The colonialist and extractive production models used by tobacco producers had detrimental effects on Black, Brown, and Indigenous people at its origins. Today, Big Tobacco actively continues to disrupt community health initiatives meant to improve health outcomes for profit.  

In 1964, after a report by the U.S. Surgeon General about the hazardous health impacts of smoking and subsequent federal laws limiting smoking and tobacco advertising, tobacco companies shifted their marketing to target Black communities across the country. Big Tobacco had lost their biggest youth demographic, as they were banned from advertising in colleges or from handing out loose cigarettes on campus to students under 21.  

The industry thrives due to strategic co-optation of community leadership whenever it can. Tobacco industries deployed a multi-pronged effort to prey on Black communities by working with Black influencers, handing out free cigarettes through bellhops or barber shops, and funding political campaigns or supporting Black causes. Tobacco businesses have for years tried to create fake cultural affinities like the advertising campaigns for Kool Jazz Festivals with icons such as Dizzy Gillespie.  

Tobacco companies went as far as appropriating #BlackLivesMatter, Juneteenth, and used Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes in their product advertising a couple of years back. Their marketing has been a shallow and peformative public relations strategy to buy good will and actively undermine or discredit the systematic harm tobacco perpetuates. 

In 2009 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned flavored cigarettes, yet menthol cigarettes slipped by due to a split in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). A recent survey found that 85% of Black smokers preferred menthol cigarettes. Many in congressional leadership at the time received support and donations from tobacco companies.  

States like California have been taking strong steps to disrupt Big Tobacco’s assault on Black communities. This past November, Californians voted to support Proposition 31 and uphold Senate Bill 793, authored by former Senator Jerry Hill. Once SB 793, a bill to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products and tobacco product flavor enhancers, was signed into law, Big Tobacco immediately jumped into action to delay the implementation of the law by referendum. California voters saw through this self serving and dangerous ploy and voted in favor of keeping the law, with 63.42% voting to do so. In California, flavored tobacco including menthol flavors remain banned. The industry immediately shifted to introduce new cooling non-menthol tastes.  

In response, the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC) and California Attorney General, Rob Bonta sent warning letters to RJ Reynolds and Imperial Tobacco Group Brands to stop these new products from harming Black communities.  

AATCLC Co-Chair Dr. Phillip Gardiner proclaimed that this violated the state’s law prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco, “we will not sit by as tobacco companies work to continue their assault on the health of Black people.” 

Big Tobacco is just one example of an issue at the intersection of public health and racial justice. Thankfully, lawmakers, advocates, community groups, and voters came together to call out their predatory and harmful practices. When we come together, we can stop special interests and protect the health and well-being of Californians.  

Race-based hair discrimination ban heads to Michigan governor

After passing the Michigan House Thursday, June 8, the Michigan CROWN Act is headed to the desk of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

In a 100-7 vote, the House approved the legislation adding language into the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on hair texture and race-based hairstyles, like braids, dreadlocks, twists and afros. The bill passed the state Senate 35-5 last month.

Bill sponsor Sen. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, has long championed the issue, having previously introduced the CROWN Act as a member of the House in 2019 and 2020.

Learning to Fundraise From a Place of Empowerment and Unapologetic Awareness

When community-centric fundraising (CCF) first popped on my radar in 2020, it felt like a family reunion. Suddenly, I had kinfolk nationwide asking the same questions that repeatedly bounced around in my head. Questions such as is fundraising supposed to be this complicated? How can one ultra-wealthy donor be the hero of everyone else’s story? And when do I get to take this mask off?

As with any budding movement, the critiques around CCF’s principles were plentiful, and the feigned interest equally so. Many were quick to dismiss community-centric fundraising as something that simply would not work. But for those of us who resonated deeply with CCF’s commitment to reducing harm and advancing social justice, we welcomed the opportunity to approach our work in new and bold ways.

Among the CCF family I have found is the development team at the Western Center on Law & Poverty (WCLP). As a consultant for WCLP’s development team, I am grateful that the organization’s fundraisers are as bold as they come. Not because the team has everything figured out but because they do not shy away from hard conversations about wealth, power, reparations, and the like. The team’s commitment to community-centric fundraising does not manifest as a checklist but rather as permission to question the model of fundraising we inherited. Centering community is the foundation of how we treat each other and hold space to challenge a system we often want to dismantle (a system that we also recognize pays our bills).

This January, WCLP’s development team convened for an in-person retreat to lean into the CCF principles and chart our path for the year. We left the retreat with a new development team mission statement, clarity on our shared values, and the resolve to continually wrestle with what is uncomfortable. Our team, composed of four women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, is fertile ground to try things differently and to fundraise from a place of empowered and unapologetic awareness.

Because we know our work is far from done, we want to share our journey with others. We hope our transparency inspires and catalyzes, and we look forward to learning from our extended CCF family along the way.



Authenticity is crucial for wellbeing, says WoCC’s 2023 Womxn of Distinction Crystal Crawford ’91 | NYU School of Law

On February 28, the Women of Color Collective (WoCC) recognized Crystal Crawford ’91, executive director of the Western Center on Law & Poverty, as WoCC’s 2023 Womxn of Distinction at the student organization’s annual alumnae reception.

The award is given each year to a woman, non-binary, or gender non-conforming graduate of color who has significantly contributed to the legal profession and whose work embodies the reception’s theme—this year, “Building Bridges: Fostering Wellbeing.” Crawford is the 16th alumna to receive the award.

Crystal Crawford '91
Crystal Crawford ’91

“My time at NYU was so special,” said Crawford, who was a Hays fellow and co-chair of Black Allied Law Students Association at NYU Law. She emphasized the importance of community and authenticity for wellbeing, noting that several members of her community—her friends from Law School—were in the audience that night. Crawford said that her classmates as well as NYU Law professors Paulette Caldwell, Derrick Bell, Bryan Stevenson, and Leon Higginbotham have provided encouragement and inspiration throughout her career. “Such a wealth of race and social justice leaders and activists on whose shoulders I stand in the work that I do every day,” she said.

Crawford worked as a litigation associate at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips before moving into public service and nonprofit work. Before joining the Western Center on Law & Poverty in 2020, Crawford served in a number of leadership positions at organizations seeking to improve the wellbeing of people of color, including as a program director at the California Wellness Foundation, as CEO of the California Black Women’s Health Project, and as legal director for the Alliance for Children’s Rights.

“Crystal’s tireless work exemplifies the grit and dedication required to pursue justice,” said WoCC co-chair Sruthi Rao ’24 in her remarks.

While fighting battles to improve the health and economic outcomes of people of color, Crawford said, being authentic has helped her maintain her own wellbeing. “You have got to have a definition of who you are—and that’s an evolving definition, right?—and stand by it,” she said.

At the California Black Women’s Health Project, Crawford helped create the Black Women’s Mental Health Initiative in 2000 to advocate for policy change to better support Black women. The first step, Crawford said, was hosting townhalls and panels to ascertain where women were struggling. Grantmakers doubted that women would be willing to speak openly about their mental health, she recalled, but she stayed firm in her belief in the significance of this work for her community. The town halls were packed, she recalled: “Hundreds and hundreds of people were coming to these town halls and other forums.”

In her closing remarks, Crawford noted that a guiding mantra for her has been the Kwanzaa principle of kujichagulia, or self-determination. “This notion of defining who we are and not letting other people define us, that’s how you foster your own wellbeing,” she said. “Making sure that you define for yourself what you’re going to do. Don’t let anybody discourage you from doing something that’s kind of out of the box.”

Local government is key to establishing equity in California

As the State of California considers reparations to correct fundamental economic harms caused by slavery, it is local governments that have the authority to either aid or thwart such equity initiatives. A dispute in Fresno, where proposed industrial expansion threatens a community-led plan to address generational equity concerns, is one example. In the coming months, the Fresno City Council and mayor will decide the fate of the southwest Fresno community, providing a potential case study for the ways racial, economic and environmental injustice can play out in California.

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Media owners own too much of our culture. We need change.

In 2019, alongside our partners at Dove, the National Urban League, and Color of Change, Western Center became a founding member of the CROWN coalition to stop discrimination based on hair – specifically, to protect Black people’s right to wear their hair naturally. Since the CROWN Act passed in California, similar measures have passed across the country, and conversations about discrimination and representation have spread like wildfire. Every day people share examples of overcoming discrimination and taking pride in representation – embracing their true, whole selves. Putting an end to race-based discrimination is one step in the fight for equity in workplaces, schools, and on our screens, and representation is another. There is also a deeper well to look to as we cleanse the groundwater of this country’s white supremacy – looking at who owns what.

Diversity in media is about more than representation on screen – it’s also about who has the power to decide what content is put in front of audiences and who gets to influence culture.  Media is culture, and culture shows our values. While we’ve seen a push for more diversity and representation on screen, not enough has been done to diversify media ownership.

Like other highly monopolized industries, mergers and acquisitions between media companies are frequent. As it stands, there are six major media companies and five major tech companies dominating the media landscape, meaning a relatively small number of people control film production, television, news, and other media. Through consolidations, large companies continue to set the tone for media discourse, ethics, and actions over smaller entities that try to compete or are eventually absorbed. That is why in 2022 so many people still are not adequately seen, heard, or represented in our content.

Everyone has a story, but when the same kind of stories with the same kind of characters continue to be uplifted over others, it’s a signal to the culture about who is important and relatable. But it is a faulty signal – the small, homogenous group of media owners who make decisions about “what audiences want to see” have too limited a perspective to really know. Even when project (Black Panther) after project (anything created by Shonda Rhimes) after project (Insecure) proves old business models wrong, the same people continue to hold the power to greenlight or cancel projects, and storytelling is stifled.

Ten years ago, writer and producer Issa Rae was told she needed a white character for her projects to be successful and for audiences to care. That sentiment, which still exists, is a product of the explicitly racist history of American media, founded by the same white supremacy as the rest of the country. But ever the trailblazer, Issa expanded the network of creators in Hollywood through her show, and continues to do so – an example of Toni Morrison’s wisdom: “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

Issa stands on the shoulders of trailblazing creator/ owners like Oprah Winfrey, Ava Duvernay, Reese Witherspoon, and Tyler Perry, all of whom create countless opportunities for talented people from diverse backgrounds. But for every new model for content production and distribution, there is a legacy media brand holding back bourgeoning creators. And while companies like Netflix offer a welcome disruption for media production and distribution, when we look at ownership, it is clear there’s a long way to go.

It’s not just the media industry that needs a shift in ownership, in fact, the idea of ownership anywhere in the U.S. is complicated by its history of slavery. The racial dynamics of ownership are particularly stark in sports, where discussions about the need for change happen, but ownership largely stays the same. Of course, sports connect right back to media, and a small group of people unwilling to give up profitable reins to change racist systems.

There is a silver lining – the beautiful thing about culture is that it can be shaped into anything we want, and in that way, creators have the freedom to construct whatever narratives they want. However, as things stand, most don’t have the backing to reach a mass audience, so they’re stuck hoping someone with power will “take a chance” and see the value in their stories.

The media industry is notoriously hard to break into and extremely susceptible to “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” But media consumers should be able to find relatable content providing a true reflection of what modern society looks like. With that goal in mind, the evolution of the media landscape must include more open doors for diversity in media ownership so more diverse voices are supported, greenlit, and shared.

It’s not about hair

“The “it’s just hair” mantra also perplexes Courtney McKinney, communications director for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “For so long in this country black people have been told that how we exist naturally and care for ourselves in order to work or to get an education or to just be is unacceptable. And the psychological damage from that is so profound and so beyond just hair,” she says.”

It’s not about hair

Asian Americans Should Vote Yes on Prop 16. Here’s Why.

I’m Asian American, and I’m voting Yes on Proposition 16. I know that may seem contrary to stories out there about Asian American opposition to affirmative action, but the reality goes far beyond stereotypical narratives. In fact, there are many Asian Americans who support Prop 16 for very good reasons.

The Prop 16 ballot measure would restore affirmative action in public education, employment, and contracting. By repealing Prop 209, Prop 16 would allow state and local entities here in California to implement race-conscious affirmative action programs once again.

Prop 16 extends far beyond undergraduate admissions in higher education, which has occupied much of the public discourse on affirmative action. In this context, Asian Americans have become the mascot of anti-affirmative action campaigns, arguing that Asian Americans would be harmed in college admissions, and corralling Chinese Americans to sue universities for their affirmative action programs. Yet, in reality, Asian American attitudes about affirmative action vary, and surveys show a majority of Asian Americans do support affirmative action, myself included.

I also support affirmative action as a health advocate. Asian Americans lean progressive as a voting base, which means they are largely interested in improving and expanding access to health care. The majority of Asian Americans believe health care is a very or extremely important issue this election season and that the government should expand health coverage to all people regardless of immigration status.

Affirmative action has its place in the progressive health care agenda.

The health care system involves public education, employment, and contracting—three areas where Prop 16 would restore affirmative action. Take for example, the six University of California medical schools. These are training grounds for California’s future health care workforce, and hubs of medical innovation. We need a racially diverse medical student body to have a physician workforce that provides culturally competent care to our communities. We also need a racially diverse medical student body to train researchers who will conduct studies that take into account non-White subjects and replace outdated racist models.

Despite the current existence of diversity programs in each UC medical school, UC San Diego had only 13 Latinx students out of an entering class of 134 students, and UC Irvine had five Black students and seven Latinx students out of a class of 104 students. Together, Black, Latinx, and Native American faculty make up only about 8% of U.S. academic medical centers, a rate that has stayed just about the same since Prop 209 was passed nearly 25 years ago in California. These statistics are widely disproportionate with the state’s demographics, where Latinx people comprise 39% of the state population, Black people are 7%, and Native Americans are 2%.

Prop 16 would allow UC medical schools to target outreach and recruitment directly to Black, Latinx, and Native American groups, as well as underrepresented Asian American ethnicities, and allow the schools to consider race explicitly in their student admissions and faculty hiring. This does not mean admissions and hiring criteria will be lowered for certain racial and ethnic groups, and it does not mean quotas will be set aside for certain groups.

The Medi-Cal program is another health care example. Government contracting is a large source of income and jobs in communities; the California Department of Health Care Services contracts with third-party vendors to operate significant parts of Medi-Cal. Minority-owned businesses face several structural barriers in winning procurement bids, like having less working capital and the ability to meet high insurance bonding requirements, and existing in different social networks.

Prop 209 made it unlawful in California to run race-conscious government procurement programs that would remove some of these structural barriers. Without repealing Prop 209, the state remains unable to directly target outreach and set contracting targets for minority-owned businesses. The Equal Justice Society estimates a $1 billion to $1.1 billion loss per year for women and minority business enterprises due to Prop 209.

Medi-Cal contracting also involves services for building and maintaining IT systems, evaluating medical billing claims, and creating consumer outreach material, among other functions. Under Prop 209, contracts continue to be awarded to primarily white-owned and operated corporations. In April 2020, the state selected Deloitte in a $12.1 million bid as the vendor to develop the new CalSAWS system, a statewide IT system that would centralize case management for all welfare programs including Medi-Cal. Deloitte beat out minority-operated businesses such as Alluma, which offered costs at half the rate of Deloitte. Similarly, DHCS has consistently selected the behemoth government contracting service, MAXIMUS Federal Services, Inc. to administer many Medi-Cal functions.

By examining how affirmative action could create a more equitable health care system, it becomes clear that there is so much more to the affirmative action debate than Asian American undergraduate admissions. Affirmative action impacts economic opportunities for all underrepresented minorities. Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American businesses stand to benefit, as do racial and ethnic minorities working in government. Affirmative action also impacts who designs our health care systems and who works in the health care system. This, in turn, determines the medical treatment available for different communities.

So many of us are outraged by the racial disparities unveiled by the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Asian American families, alongside other families of color, have lost grandparents to the virus in nursing homes, and we worry for family members who continue to report to low-wage jobs without PPE and regular testing. Low-income Black and Latinx Californians are dying at higher rates than high-income white Californians. These health disparities, as much as they are tied to disparities in underlying conditions, are tied to poverty, a direct function of income and wealth. Better health care and better job opportunities are the solutions we need to create a more equitable California. Prop 16 offers one solution in that direction.

Many of us, including myself, were not of voting age in 1996 when Prop 209 was passed. Or, we might have voted for it without realizing its ramifications in the ensuing decades and during a global pandemic. We’ve arrived at a moment now and we should take it head on: vote Yes on Prop 16.

Go to for more information and read the text of the proposed law. Learn more about the longstanding work of the Equal Justice Society to repeal Prop 209 and restore affirmative action in California. View more resources and actions to take with Chinese for Affirmative Action.