New name, who's this?
At last Friday’s annual Planning and Land Use Strategies Summit (PLUS2), we made two big announcements in front of our colleagues and friends.
The first is that Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN) changed its name. We are now Inclusive Action for the City.
Last year, the organization began celebrating 10 years since its founding. This milestone anniversary catalyzed an important reflection with the Board of Directors and staff. For the last year, we’ve been asking ourselves: What have we accomplished during this period? Are we continuing to add value to the community development field? How have we changed since the first meeting of change agents back in 2008?
The answers to these questions resulted in a variety of long discussions about the future of the organization among our Board and staff. We accomplished a lot over the last 10 years. The first 4 years of the organization, what I like to call, “the book club years,” was volunteer-driven. The research that the organization produced (early work on the criminalization of street vending in Los Angeles) and the thematic events we hosted (on housing, street vending and more), were led by the founding board members and other volunteers. When we hired our first staff member in 2013, we were able to expand our impact. Some of the highlights from the last decade include:
The legalization of street vending in Los Angeles in partnership with the LA Street Vendor Campaign;
The passage of Senate Bill 946 which decriminalized street vending throughout California;
The development of the Semi’a Fund, a unique micro-loan fund that has deployed over $400,000 in micro-loans to street vendors and other entrepreneurs who cannot access capital from traditional sources;
The launch and expansion of COMPRA Foods, a produce distribution enterprise that organizes the purchasing power of convenience stores in low-income neighborhoods. Each week, stores in our network order and receive a delivery of produce through this initiative. In total, we’ve delivered over 175,000 pounds of produce;
With our partners, we established a unique “Adopt-A-Lot” program within the City of LA that seeks to activate city-owned vacant lots by engaging community members to imagine and create a community hub instead of leaving the lot vacant and unused; and,
We’ve convened thousands of people through annual summits, summer parties, and holiday gatherings. The guests at our convenings have enriched our work, but have also crafted their own ideas for the city, some which have become full-fledged projects that positively impact communities.
We reflected on all aspects of our organization, including our communication strategies and our brand identity. The name of our organization has been an occasional topic of discussion (even in the early days), and the 10-year milestone brought us back to a point of exploring whether the name was helping the advancement our work.
When we interviewed external stakeholders last year about our work, we were surprised to hear mixed feedback on the name “LURN.” Some liked the playfulness of the name and its vibrancy, while others worried it didn’t communicate the work we did. A handful showed concern around the use of the controversial term “urban renewal.” For those of us who are historians and urban planners, we know what urban renewal signified to communities across the country. In the middle of the 20th century, “urban renewal” initiatives took hold in many major cities to “renew” under-invested communities resulted in the systematic displacement and disinvestment of Black and Brown communities - and in some cases, the whole demolition of neighborhoods. Indeed, James Baldwin famously said, “urban renewal is negro removal.”
The founders of LURN recognized this terrible history, but there was also a recognition that we should work towards a different way to revitalize communities; we couldn’t wait for it to be done differently. Through action, we may be able to redefine what investment in a community means to its residents. To “renew” a community equitably, we couldn’t rely on existing systems to help (these systems weren’t built for us), and we had to take proactive approaches to revitalize our own neighborhoods. Most importantly, urban planners and community development practitioners had to recognize that their role was not simply to advance their own ideas for the city, but to urgently and thoughtfully engage the true experts of a neighborhood - the residents that live there. The founders of our organization sought to “reclaim” urban renewal in such a way that centered development around these experts.
As part of our 10 year reflection period, we revisited these values. We still feel passionately that the way in which we seek to invest in communities and revitalize them must be radically different. Our tactics must change, but, more importantly, the systems we use (finance, development, community engagement) must also be transformed. On the surface, the name Leadership for Urban Renewal Network didn’t emanate that spirit and we were worried that as we grow, it may confuse new allies in Los Angeles and beyond.
We chose the name “Inclusive Action for the City” because it evokes the nature of why our organization was founded and the future of our work. We were created as a “laboratory for the city,” an organization that sought to reimagine how community development was done and who was at the table when major decisions were made. Our new name uses two words that continued to surface for us during this important 10 year reflection period: inclusive AND action. We did not accomplish the work we’ve done to date by ourselves; we partnered and collaborated with powerful residents and dedicated community-based organizations, leading to our success. And, our work has been very action-oriented. We have never been afraid to experiment, prototype, and refine our work to best meet the needs of the communities we serve. Inclusivity and action are part of the future, so it should be part of our name.
The second announcement is that this year of reflection also resulted in the intentional movement to create space for new leadership. After 10 years of service, our Founder and Board Chairman Alfred decided it was time for him to step down from his role. Alfred has been an integral part of our success and impact over the years, and he has been an important thought partner for me. As I mentioned at a reception we hosted for him last week (see photos here), my early morning meetings and our vociferous debates on all issues from street vending to capitalism to gentrification improved my ability to serve as Executive Director, and frankly made me into a better servant of the community, period. Alfred’s willingness to change his role within our organization showcases another important value that we sometimes fail to prioritize in government or the public sector: how do we step aside and create spaces for others to lead? How do I put myself last and let others move forward? How do I build the capacity of the next generation? Alfred has modeled that in many aspects of his life, and he modeled it again at our organization. (Check out this short video of Alfred talking about his work with us)
Our newly elected Chairman is Chris Goett, the Executive Director of the We Care Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Wescom Credit Union. I’m excited about his leadership. Indeed, he’s been an important counsel to the team since he joined the Board a few years ago, and he’s excited to help lead the organization in this next chapter. (Perhaps I’ll write about all of this more later, since I’m feeling that nonprofit governance and transition should be its own series of blogs!)
If you've read this far, thank you so much. The team and I are excited for the next chapter of our organization, and we invite you to work with us as we venture out into the next 10 years.
Rudy Espinoza, Executive Director
Inclusive Action for the City