Education, Arts & Culture

Aretha Franklin: A Los Angeles Tribute to the “Queen of Soul”

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin, the Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir convened in Los Angeles and recorded “Amazing Grace,” a groundbreaking album that is still one of the nation’s best-selling gospel recordings.

On the evening of August 30, 2018, the person who managed the production of “Amazing Grace” – along with 20 of the choir members who performed on the recording – took part in a musical tribute to the late Aretha Franklin at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles (CAAM).

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas flanked by members of the L.A. chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America and the Southern California Community Choir Alumni. Photos by Aurelia Ventura / Board of Supervisors

The event – hosted by L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, CAAM and the L.A. County Arts Commission – featured a mass choir that included the L.A. chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America and the Southern California Community Choir Alumni. The mass choir performed selections from “Amazing Grace.”

Aretha Franklin was saluted for her social justice activism as well as her music. Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was an important supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the national organization headed by Dr. King. As a young woman, Aretha travelled with Dr. King in the South during some voting rights campaigns.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, former executive director of the Los Angeles SCLC chapter, led the effort to create the tribute.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas speaks to a standing room only audience at the tribute. Photo by Aurelia Ventura / Board of Supervisors

“We honored her for her service to human rights and we paid tribute to her talent by listening to some selections of Amazing Grace,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas.

The recording was co-directed and arranged by the Rev. Alexander Hamilton, retired pastor of the Los Angeles-based Community Baptist Church and former music director for the Voices of Inspiration choir. He was among those who prepared the mass choir for the tribute.

“As Aretha Franklin’s co-music director and arranger with Reverend James Cleveland on the ‘Amazing Grace’ album, this was the apex of my 60 plus years in the music business,” said Rev. Hamilton. “She was a singer’s singer and a musician’s musician. The hard work, effort and musical precedence of this landmark production transcends anything imaginable or envisioned. It will always garner Aretha Franklin R-E-S-P-E-C-T!”

(left to right) LA County Arts Commission Executive Director Kristin Sakoda, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, Avis Ridley-Thomas, Marian Wright Edelman, and Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. Photo by Aurelia Ventura / Board of Supervisors

Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer, senior pastor of the Inglewood-based Faithful Central Bible Church, was among those who attended the recording of the 1972 performance.

“To watch in spiritual amazement the anointed collaboration of the Lady Aretha Franklin, the ‘Queen of Soul’ and Reverend James Cleveland, the ‘King of Gospel Music,’ coupled with the musical creativity of the choral arrangement of Maestro Alexander Hamilton was to be in the presence of artistic royalty,” Bishop Ulmer said.

That recording was highlighted in “How Sweet the Sound: Gospel Music in Los Angeles,” a CAAM exhibition that closed August 26.

Board Approves Initiative to Help Children Invest in Their Future

Acting on a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to explore the feasibility of creating a Children’s Savings Account program – an investment that would pave the way to college for many students.

Children’s Savings Accounts (CSAs) are long-term asset-building financial tools that are established for children early in life. The accounts are seeded with an initial deposit and built through contributions from family, friends, and the children themselves. At age 18, CSA savings are typically used to fund higher education; but the savings can also be used for other asset-building purposes, such as purchasing equipment to start a small business.

“We must be creative in our approach to opening up viable avenues to postsecondary education and sustainable career pathways,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “One of the most critical investments we can make is in human infrastructure, most notably in enhancing the self-perception and well-being – financial and otherwise – of children.”

“Saving for college early can help build positive, lifelong financial habits,” said Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, who co-authored the motion. “By enabling youth to build college savings and raising their educational expectations, Children’s Savings Accounts can put a college or trade school education within reach. With families and students struggling to afford the rising costs of college, any action to alleviate this burden can help create a pathway to success.”

A college degree has become increasingly important. Three decades ago, full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree made 40 percent more than those with a high school diploma – last year that number reached 83 percent. Meanwhile, the number of jobs requiring a post-secondary degree has more than doubled. Today, according to the US Census Bureau, only 32 percent of Angelenos have a bachelor’s degree.

Under the proposed initiative, Los Angeles County (County) would form a partnership with the City of Los Angeles to help fund a CSA program for first grade students enrolled at schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).  Councilmember David Ryu, who has already laid the groundwork for the City’s CSA program said, “it’s well past time that we start thinking outside the box to develop policies that boost college readiness, attendance, completion rates, and ensure our students have a fighting chance in today’s and tomorrow’s economies.” He added, “this vote represents a critical next step toward making higher education a reality for children across Los Angeles.”

In June 2018, the LA Unified Board of Education approved a resolution directing  LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner to develop a CSA plan. “We are excited to have LA County as a partner in our goal to provide college savings accounts to all first graders across the county,” said LA Unified Board Vice President Nick Melvoin, the resolution’s author. “This step toward preparing kids for college and careers may start with a small, simple investment, but it has the potential to produce big, life-changing results for our students.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas discussed the proposal with Superintendent Beutner during a joint visit to Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles on Tuesday, the first day of school after the summer break. “As we fulfill our promise to provide all students with a high-quality education, we must also build a framework to support their long-term success by helping families pay for college beginning when their child is in first grade,” said Superintendent Beutner. More than 80% of LAUSD families live below the poverty line.

The motion also directs County staff to consider other populations that could benefit from a CSA program, such as foster youth.

Over the past decade, the number of CSA programs subsidized by government has rapidly increased. For example, the City and County of San Francisco have launched such a program in partnership with the school district. Research has shown that the mere opening of a CSA can increase the likelihood of college attendance: low and moderate-income children with college savings between $1 and $499 are three times more likely to attend college. Furthermore, the existence of a CSA was found to deepen a parent’s belief that his or her child will attend college.

New Willowbrook Library Opens

The new Willowbrook Library at the Grand Opening on July 28, 2018 with over 100 affordable senior housing units above. Photo by Martin Zamora / Board of Supervisors

Willowbrook Library has opened its doors after a $8.3 million construction project, thanks to an investment by the Second Supervisorial District of Los Angeles County. Withee Malcolm served as the architects and Thomas Safran and Associates developed the project, which was co-managed by the Library and the Community Development Commission.

The construction of the new library began in early 2017. The new 8,000 square foot Willowbrook Library replaced an outdated 30-year old 2,200 square foot library which includes, reading areas for adults, teens, and children; early childhood and family areas, a shared community room, programming space, group study rooms, a workforce center, public restrooms, support areas, staff areas, express-service checkout machines at the lobby, laptop kiosk machines, information pod, public access computers, Wi-Fi, and parking. It also features the county’s first collection of modern art with five original art installations, commissioned especially for the Library by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and Civic Art.

The sustainable features in the Library include; energy efficient cooling and heating systems; energy efficient LED lighting; energy saving lighting control systems with use of sensors and timers, an automatic window shade system to optimize natural lighting; low flow plumbing fixtures and, the use of low paint and flooring adhesives.

Willowbrook Library is the first in Los Angeles County to be in a mixed-use building with housing over 100 affordable senior housing units above.

“This development is the first of its kind in Los Angeles County,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who initiated the project. “We are optimizing the use of County property to provide housing and library learning together under one roof where communities can thrive.”

The free event will feature several family-friendly activities, including performers in the shared community meeting room and stations throughout the adult, teen and children’s areas of the library.

“The new state of the art library will provide services that are most important for the community. We will also offer more of what libraries are providing in the 21st century to meet the educational and personal goals of County residents,” said Skye Patrick, Library Director. “This is a comfortable and welcoming space, for all.”

On July 28, the library will be open until 5 pm, for library card sign-ups, general library use, and special programming for the whole family, including a sampler of the Library’s MākMō maker mobile activities, art and craft activities.

“Combined with improvements to the new MLK Medical Campus, the tight-knit community of Willowbrook will have yet another asset,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “This is a legacy that will live on for generations to come.”

LA County Renews Focus on the Arts

LA County Arts Commission’s Annual Arts Summit for students participating in the LA County Arts Internships Program. Photo by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors.

Los Angeles County is reaping the rewards of a renewed focus on the arts.

Community Chandelier at Stoneview Nature Center. Photo by Fallen Fruit.

Two of the County’s civic art projects in the Second District have been recognized by the Americans for the Arts as outstanding public art projects created in 2017. Meanwhile, the County’s Arts Internship Program is providing 179 university and community college students with meaningful experience in nonprofit arts organizations this summer – its largest class ever.

“It’s important that we create an environment that fosters creativity because this offers a range of benefits for individuals and communities, besides being an economic powerhouse,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, lead author of a recent motion to create the County’s first ever Department of the Arts, as well as another motion nearly a decade ago that saved the Arts Internship Program from elimination during an economic downturn.

The latest Otis Report on the Creative Economy estimated the County’s creative economy generated $178 billion in economic output in 2016, directly employed more than a tenth of all private sector workers countywide, and supported close to a fifth of all jobs countywide.

Taiko Drummers perform at the Japanese American National Museum during the LA County Arts Commission’s Annual Arts Summit. Photo by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors.

“Arts and culture in Los Angeles County are vibrant and growing at a phenomenal pace,” said Kristin Sakoda, executive director of the County’s Arts Commission, whose profile will be raised by the creation of the Department of the Arts. She committed to further “increasing access to opportunity in the arts and expanding career pathways into the creative sector” through programs such as the Arts Internship Program.

This summer’s 179 interns – a quarter of them from community colleges – will participate in paid internships at 127 nonprofit performing, presenting and literary arts organizations. Since its inception, more than 2,000 young people have completed the internships.

Sakoda noted the County’s deep pool of talent has not gone unnoticed. Americans for the Arts, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts and arts education, has recognized civic art projects in the County four years in a row through the Public Art Network Year in Review program.

Original Watercolor painting by Sandy Rodriguez for the Martin Luther King Junior, Recuperative Care Center Project. Photo by Audrey Chan.

This year’s honorees include the Artist-in-Residence project at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recuperative Care Center (MLK RCC) in Willowbrook. Visual artist Sandy Rodriguez enabled patients and staff to create artwork to adorn the walls of the MLK RCC, and developed a program to help support homeless patients’ transition into housing. “This project demonstrates ways in which creativity can be part of the healing process,” she said.

Civic artwork at the Stoneview Nature Center. Photo courtesy of Fallen Fruit.

Also among the honorees was the civic artwork at the Stoneview Nature Center in Culver City. David Burns and Austin Young, who constitute the artist group, Fallen Fruit, held community meetings and then created artwork in the lobby that includes quotations from local residents, personal photos, family portraits and historic images. They also created a garden of “living sculptures” that feature different species of fruit trees and California native plants.

Fiscal Health Matters:
Can LAUSD Govern Accordingly?


By Mark Ridley-Thomas

I recently had the opportunity to see Austin Beutner in action as the new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District when we both visited the Boys Academic Leadership Academy at George Washington Preparatory High School in South L.A.

LAUSD is at a pivotal moment and must take advantage of this change in leadership to avert impending financial disaster. I urge Superintendent Beutner and the Board of Education to join forces to ensure the nation’s second largest school district and its students are thriving.

I recognize that our schools face profound educational challenges, with more than 60 percent of students struggling to read, write and speak fluently, and more than 70 percent struggling with math. Though the district had an 81 percent graduation rate in the previous school year, more than half of its graduates were found ineligible for admission to the UC and CSU systems.

Nevertheless, I remain steadfast in urging LAUSD to make fiscal solvency its top priority.

One might argue that the district doesn’t have a choice. With a deficit projected to surpass $400 million in the upcoming fiscal year, the District may become obligated to spend more outside the classroom than inside it. Unless reforms are implemented, and quickly, that gap will grow even wider. California school districts receive state funding based largely on attendance, and enrollment in the LAUSD has already dropped precipitously, down to 500,000 from a peak of 700,000.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was growing up, engineers in Los Angeles helped put an American on the moon. Whether students want to be engineers, machinists, artists, doctors, teachers or even public servants, they need the basic building blocks of education. When even those are threatened by their school district’s financial instability, even the best academic innovations will fail.

Already, California ranks near states like Mississippi and Alabama – at the bottom of the list – in terms of how much it invests in students. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, provides more than $20,000 per pupil; compare that to just $15,000 in Los Angeles. But matching or even exceeding those numbers would not be enough of a solution, given LAUSD’s structural challenges.

Superintendent Beutner should work closely with the Board to appoint an independent fiscal monitor who will deliver monthly reports and recommend immediate steps to bolster economic stability that can be implemented within the 2018-2019 school year.

As teachers hold the key to our students’ success, I hope Superintendent Beutner will invest in them as well. He should consider teacher residency programs, as well as individualized professional development plans.

Superintendent Beutner should also prioritize improving the curriculum to adapt to the changing economy, and increase access to apprenticeships, paid internships, and specialized instruction that can better prepare students to join the workforce.

I always marvel at how Los Angeles County’s economy – the 17th largest in the world – continues to grow and diversify. The next generation of Angelenos must to be prepared to succeed in emerging job opportunities across all sectors, such as bioscience.

Previous superintendents have wrestled with the district’s grim fiscal reality with varying degrees of success and failure. Some established misguided priorities, while others aimed too low to be deemed truly successful.

Superintendent Beutner must have the courage to make bold decisions in the face of resistance, the business acumen to correct the district’s perilous finances, and an understanding of local culture and politics to carry out the necessary changes.

We cannot continue to do business as usual. We must ensure that future generations of Angelenos are empowered to lead our industries and our communities.

Mr. Superintendent, you now have the job you sought. Now show us how to save the District.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is a former high school teacher and currently serves as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.