Community organizing led to a wave of progressives taking over LA neighborhood councils, normally dominated by NIMBYs.
Progressive candidates swept to victory in local neighborhood council elections across the City of Los Angeles in 2021, with a total of 240 candidates backed by left-leaning groups winning seats. These victories brought people of color, renters, and young people to rooms that have long been under the reins of older, white homeowners.
Every neighborhood council in the City of LA held officer elections in the first half of 2021, and an impressive 74% of candidates backed by progressive slates won their races. The wins signal a continuation of the local grassroots energy that upended the political status quo in November 2020, when progressive candidates and local ballot measures prevailed in every major contested race.
Abril Dozal, a 4th grade teacher in East Los Angeles, says she ran for office because she has witnessed the biggest obstacle to her students’ success isn’t education, it’s the policies that start at the neighborhood level. Even just parking, Dozal says, can disrupt learning. “I had a student who would show up so upset because, the night before, his mom got a $90 [parking] ticket and that would impact their budget and how much food they could put on the table.”
Motivated to make a change, Dozal joined her neighborhood council in Koreatown to advocate for her students hyper-locally on the issues that affect Angelenos’ lives day to day. She doesn’t fit the typical profile of a neighborhood council member. Dozal is a progressive, a renter, a Latina, and just over 30 years old. Historically — with a few notable exceptions, including in South LA — the membership in the city’s 99 neighborhood councils has skewed towards those who were more likely to be a homeowner, more conservative, older, whiter, and wealthier than the average Angeleno.
A Strategic Sea Change
This shift isn’t random. It’s the result of dedicated effort by a variety of community groups. The Los Angeles chapter of Democratic Socialists of America recruited nearly 200 of its own members to run, led by Dozal and several other organizers. Streets For All worked to get transportation and mobility activists to run. And LA Forward Action reached out to progressive-minded Angelenos encouraging them to stand in office.
Neighborhood councils were created as part of LA’s Charter Revision process as an alternative to expanding the size of the 15-person LA City Council, more than 20 years ago.
Intended to give voice to regular community members — residents, workers, business and property owners, and other kinds of stakeholders — neighborhood councils are advisory bodies to the LA City Council. Each controls an annual budget of nearly $40,000, and have also often become platforms for conservative and “Not In My Backyard” — more commonly referred to among housing advocates as NIMBY — tendencies.
According to David Levitus, LA Forward Action’s founder and executive director, voices in favor of housing and transportation justice were few and far between when he was elected to the West LA–Sawtelle Neighborhood Council in 2014. “A big reason for why we have Skid Row is no one wanted affordable housing or even regular rental housing in their neighborhood. So they just pushed everyone downtown. I want to make the neighborhood councils solutions-focused.”
Neighborhood councils are often the first gatekeepers to change. The former chair of the Mid City West Neighborhood Council championed and won a multimillion-dollar grant to fund new signals, neighborhood traffic circles, and other traffic calming elements for the area. The East Hollywood Neighborhood Council created a produce box program to help food-insecure residents in the neighborhood.
In South LA, the the Black and Brown POWER slate ran candidates for three neighborhood councils. The slate was a joint effort of Unión del Barrio, the Comites de Resistencia, the Harriet Tubman Center for Social Justice, the American Indian Movement So Cal, and other organizations. All but one of their candidates won, with four elected to the South Central NC, four to the Zapata King NC, and one to the Empowerment Congress Southeast Area NDC. As a result, the Zapata King NC elected members of the slate as president and vice president. The timing proved vital, enabling organizers to represent the voice of their community to demand justice from the City of Los Angeles when the LA Police Department exploded fireworks in South Central in June. Their efforts, which included organizing press conferences with victims, town halls, and claims workshops, resulted in the City providing temporary housing in hotels until the victims’ homes are repaired.
The 2020 effect
The Progressive Neighborhood Council Alliance (PNCA) formed in the summer of 2020. It started when people from a handful of NCs decided to coordinate on passing resolutions that urged the LA City Council to prioritize racial and economic justice on key issues like the police budget and affordable housing. Leaders from LA Forward, Streets for All, DSA-LA, and PNCA began talking about coordinating their efforts to claim the hundreds and hundreds of seats up for grabs. The group launched a truly unprecedented progressive coalition effort to elect a wave of progressives to NCs across the city.
The groups collectively identified NCs with upcoming candidate filing deadlines where few progressives had filed and made special efforts to recruit candidates. They also did matchmaking to introduce candidates from different organizations to run together on progressive slates in their neighborhood. After candidates were recruited, the groups organized campaign training sessions and hosted virtual phone banks. Members of many different progressive organizations called and texted Angelenos urging them to vote, while offering links to the city’s official ballot request and a guide of progressive candidates and slates in nearly every district.
This strategy attracted Angelenos of diverse backgrounds. One of them is Jeff Maloney. Furloughed from his job as a lead park decorator at Disneyland and angered by the death of George Floyd, Maloney watched an LA Forward teach-in called “LA 101” about how government works in Los Angeles.
“I’m a very rational person, so I liked LA Forward’s approach to fixing things systematically.” One of the teach-in’s calls to action was to join a neighborhood council, and so Maloney did — later becoming the homeless and displacement representative and chair of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council.
Treating Neighbors with Respect and Dignity
Maloney says he’s proud of the role he played in working to stop policies to criminalize homelessness: “They were trying to make it a crime to sleep under a freeway underpass. Criminalizing someone for not having a home, it just isn’t right — it’s predatory.”
Nadia Thomas is mother of two and an LA Forward Action member-leader who just won her election to serve on the Valley Glen Neighborhood Council. Thomas is motivated to bring a holistic perspective to community that takes into consideration all of its neighbors, including traditionally marginalized groups. Before she became a candidate, she challenged the council when they planned to call the Health Department on street vendors who were blocking a sidewalk.
“I said, ‘Or we could just go out there and ask them to move their tables. Why would we want to close a small business? Why would we want to harm our own neighbors?’”
Rethinking Neighborhood Safety and Livability
Like Dozal, the elementary school teacher, Thomas says traffic is another big concern and worries about her kids. The closest intersection to her daughter’s school isn’t a protected left, causing frequent accidents. “I trust my daughter to get to school on her scooter, but I don’t trust the drivers who are flying off the freeway, texting, and driving.”
Michael Schneider, a parent of three young kids and the vice-chair of the Mid City West Neighborhood Council, says he would prefer to see more kids on bikes on their way to school.
He points to kids in the Netherlands, where children as young as six bike themselves to school, and research shows that they are happier due to the amount of freedom they have.
While serving, Schneider has backed safety improvements and protected bike lanes on 6th Street, as well as the Uplift Melrose Initiative — a massive redo of 1.6 miles of Melrose Avenue. Despite overwhelming neighborhood council support, Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz caved to NIMBY advocates and blocked the project.
Schneider is the executive director of Streets For All, an organization that works on transportation policies in Los Angeles, and an avid bike rider. He says, “I want to live in a city that values the lives of people over cars.” Schneider points to places like Paris, where the new Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is aiming to enable city residents to meet most of their needs within a 15-minute walk, bike, or transit ride. One can’t hear about the 15-minute city and not consider whether a more equitable and efficiently connected city could have alleviated the need for the mother of Dozal’s student to have a car at all.
Considering the many new voices now at the table of LA neighborhood councils, Dozal says, “People with experiences like my students and neighbors deserve to be a part of the decision-making process. Often the people in office have an experience living in this city that is very different from everyone else.”
Irvina Kanarek is a volunteer with LA Forward.
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Correction: A previous version of this article stated that “.with a total of 326 candidates backed by left-leaning groups winning seats.” This has been corrected to “240 candidates winning seats.” The total backed candidates is 326. The number of winners is 240. Making total wins 74%.