Karen Mack M.B.A. ’90, founder and CEO of LA Commons, is part of the glue that binds together the disparate communities of Los Angeles. A graduate of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, she founded her community-based art program, LA Commons, on the conviction that art can help foster a larger civic conversation of common purpose. As a child growing up in Compton, Mack — whose parents had met when both were working at Douglas Aircraft — dreamed of becoming a pilot, an artist or an accountant. Instead, she gravitated to the intersection of art and community. Fittingly, she also serves on the City of L.A. Planning Commission.
Here, she discusses the stresses on Los Angeles, the depressing nature of its battle against homelessness and the “little bit of evil” that runs in its blood.
Does L.A. have a center? And is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does it say something about the diversity and multiculturalism of the place, or our inability to come together?
I think it’s a little bit of both … Like everything, the foundation is really what sets the course, and knowing the story about how L.A. was formed, you know, there’s a little bit of evil there.
There was certainly some lying, that’s for sure. [The city’s seminal historical moment was the 1913 capture of the water from the Owens Valley, an act of municipal deception that gave L.A. the room to grow into a major metropolis, though at the expense of the Owens Valley’s future as an agricultural area.] The sense of connectedness that really binds a place — I don’t think it’s there, because it’s based on a transaction, as opposed to people really wanting to be together. And that genesis really also created the geography, and that is unmanageable: It’s just too big to have a center. It has made some inroads, but that geography, coupled with the diversity and so many different communities … what is the incentive to centralize?
So much of L.A.’s problem is just scale. This is what I say all the time. The city is too big for any one entity to govern. It’s just impossible.
Maybe we just need to accept L.A. as diverse and far-flung.
What people talk about in L.A. is the freedom to be who you are and sort of disappear into your community. This “network of networks” is a more realistic idea about the city, so that you have smaller communities that do have a sense of place but don’t necessarily connect to this larger idea. So much of L.A.’s problem is just scale. This is what I say all the time. The city is too big for any one entity to govern. It’s just impossible.
In some of your work, there’s this notion of Los Angeles as a “post-crisis city.” What does that mean?
Obviously, we’re not post-crisis at this moment. We’re still dancing with the pandemic, but the post-crisis would be a city that takes this moment and really does look toward equity, toward opportunity, to deal with our ridiculous homeless situation, which is just such an indication of bad leadership.
It’s just infuriating that when it comes to the most vulnerable, that’s where our policymaking should be going. If we did that, things would get better for everybody.
You mention homelessness. What should we be doing? What’s obvious that we’re not doing?
The market is not going to solve our problem — to think that we can give developers this policy that’s going to let them create trickle-down affordable housing, that is not the solution. We [need to] think about those basic supports for people in a society, so we don’t have to live in a dystopia like we’re in Blade Runner. That’s what I feel like right now.
It’s estimated that there are more than 65,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County. It’s shocking to think that there’s an entire city of people inside L.A. without a place to live.
It’s unconscionable. It’s immoral. It needs to be thought of as a call for all hands on deck. This is my dream: Everybody takes this problem on like it’s not someone else’s problem over there. It’s our problem, and we all need to work together to solve it: “This is the city we want to see. Now, let’s roll up our sleeves and make it happen.”
Another phrase that I often see in connection with you and your work is “cultural equity.”
Well, I’m the co-chair of the Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative of L.A. County, and at the base of that is the belief that culture is really an important part of people’s experience across the board. But one area where we can really talk about it is arts education. There’s data that supports the success of students who have access to the arts in their growing-up years.
How do we make sure that everybody has access to the benefits the arts provide?
Our work is really about bringing people into civic space using arts as an on-ramp, because you know a lot of people aren’t going to go to any kind of boring debate or anything, but they will get involved in the arts. And that can be a way, particularly for young people, to be part of the conversation: to see themselves through a mural that we do, or a festival in the public realm, and then be inspired to get more involved in the conversation. That’s our fondest wish.
So it goes well beyond schooling and children. It’s really more of a whole-community focus.
So imagine it’s a year from now, and that the pandemic really has started to feel as though it’s behind us. What are you looking for in terms of signs of recovery in a “post-crisis” city?
Signs that we’re moving ahead — like my daughter is back on the bus … and that goes for everybody. I’m so excited about the car-free future. I mean, one of the things that I’m doing in my own life is trying to move away from having this atomized transportation. Atomization, in general, is one of our problems. So being in community together, I think that’s the key, right?
Editorial assistant Louise Kim contributed to this story.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Fall 2022 issue.