It only takes a small spark to light a fire. The LA2050 Grants Challenge aims to be that spark for organizations with fierce ideas to improve this city's future. We recently caught up with two of our grantees who are doing just that - CASA of Los Angeles and Changeist. Since they first became part of the LA2050 community, they've grown to touch the lives of many more and to foster further connections within, and outside of, Los Angeles.
Building Momentum with LA2050
“The first LA2050 grant [in 2014] was absolutely catalytic for us in terms of really helping us launch ourselves and our 2.0 version," says Kristen McGuiness, CASA of LA's Director of Institutional Giving.
The Los Angeles chapter of CASA, a national association that promotes court-appointed volunteer advocacy for abused and neglected children, is comparatively new to being an independent non-profit organization. Though it started in 1978 as one of the first CASA programs, it only transitioned into relying on private funding back in 2010.
“In 2010, we lost all court funding virtually overnight because of the 2008 economic crisis," Kristen says. “For most of the last 9 years, we had very little government funding and had to start doing all private fundraising. So between 2010 and 2014, we were really building that up."
Changeist, the organization previously known as Big Citizen HUB, was similarly in its fledgling phase when it won a grant from LA2050 in 2016 during its second year of operation. Since then, the Changeist team has expanded its programming to include more middle school and high school youth, and also have been incorporated into Governor Newsom's 9-point plan to increase civic engagement of Californians.
“It was a wild opportunity that we wouldn't have been able to get without LA2050 first," says Changist CEO Mario Fedelin. “That level of investment gave us a real boost and runway that small nonprofit organizations don't always get."
Full Steam Ahead
While both organizations are grappling with large-scale problems, Kristen and Mario are also excited to address them with large-scale solutions.
“When you look at all of [the] pieces that help a human to either be successful or to be challenged in life," Kristen conveys, “the foster care system is probably the greatest hurdle any child or youth can overcome."
It is particularly difficult in LA County, which has the largest population of foster care youth of any county in the nation. Though CASA of LA has grown into one of the largest CASA programs in the country today - serving over 1,000 children with one-on-one advocacy and mobilizing close to 1,000 volunteers - Kristen acknowledges that they still have much more work cut out for them.
“We have identified roughly 12,000 youth profiles who could use an immediate CASA volunteer," she says. “We're hoping that in the next decade we're able to scale to serve all 12,000 of those youth by then."
As one of this year's LA2050 CONNECT winners, CASA of LA will recruit and train community volunteers to stand by youth facing juvenile delinquency and oversee them through LA County's newly founded Diversion program.
“Back in the day, this might've come up but nobody at the table would've necessarily asked CASA to do it because they would've never presumed we'd have the bandwidth to do that," Kristen says. “Now they know we do."
Meanwhile, Changeist will be taking on its second city, Stockton, in the fall, and has plans to expand into another Central Valley city in the near future.
In addition to growing laterally, Changeist has also begun developing into what Mario considers “a fully end-to-end ecosystem." Earlier this year, the organization transitioned into an AmeriCorps program, which will create a full-time opportunity for community members to recruit and lead its youth teams. In time, it'll become a way for the Changeist community to continue the work they may have started when they were 11, as well as a valuable pipeline for these youths to learn how to take on bigger roles.
Having been recently awarded an Obama Foundation Fellowship, Mario is confident that he can use this experience to further his long-term goal of changing the narrative around community-based work.
“If we as a society put our children in sports because we know something good happens there, why aren't we doing the same thing for community service or leadership or activism?" Mario asks.
Ultimately, Changeist's greater goal is to be able to influence the way people look at postsecondary experiences, such that doing a year of Changeist or AmeriCorps is considered a valid path.
“Our young people have the answers that we need and that we're looking for," Mario says. “They're going to be leading community agencies. They're already doing the work." Changeist is one pathway, one starting point, to help get them where they want to go, but the most important thing to remember is that Los Angeles needs to invest in this city's next generation to pave the way forward.
At the same time, CASA of LA is hopeful that more Angelenos will continue to step up and volunteer. “This really is about our city and it's really about connection," Kristen stresses. “The more CASA volunteers we recruit, the more youth we can serve. Not only is it about the more children's lives we can change, but ultimately it's about changing the LA community."