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Watts Leadership Institute Is Serving Leaders of Color in South Los Angeles

"Watts leaders don't stop. They don't see no as an option. If there's a need, they will respond to it."

Jorja Leap and Karrah Lompa, co-founders of the Watts Leadership Institute (WLI), spoke with us about WLI and its unique collaborative, leader-led training model. They launched WLI in 2016 to support small nonprofits and real community leaders in Watts, a historically under-resourced community in South Los Angeles. Most of the participating nonprofits are small—the kind that work out of the back of their car or the public library—but the difference they’re making every day in their community is tremendous.

Even though Leap and Lompa are honorary residents in Watts, with Leap working for more than 40 years in Watts, they insist on being invisible outside of the community. They want attention to be placed on the true community leaders and their efforts, and not on them as WLI co-founders. “We want to be invisible support, to help from behind. We want this to grow and to always be in Watts, owned by Watts,” Lompa said.

Our conversation with Jorja Leap and Karrah Lompa has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Cal Wellness: What motivated you to establish the Watts Leadership institute? 

Jorja Leap: I began my career in Watts in 1978. I collaborated with the people there on community-based participatory research and grew to admire the vibrancy of the community so very much. But one thing came up over and over again: The individuals who were the leaders in Watts—the individuals who understood Watts and who people in Watts looked up to and followed—their voices were not being lifted up in areas outside of Watts including philanthropy, government, elected officials, policy makers, city and county agencies. Even at conferences, they were brought in to talk about the problems of Watts, but there was no sustainability.

In addition, the leaders in Watts were always a bridesmaid, never a bride. They were subcontractors, not contractors. They were brought in on grants because they were local experts, but they were never the leaders on grants. They were never who the money was given to by philanthropy, elected officials or the policymakers.

As all of this was percolating, I met Karrah who was a graduate student at UCLA in the Department of Social Welfare. She subsequently obtained her MSW, but she already had a Masters in Nonprofit Leadership and had been an executive director of a nonprofit. We began having these ongoing conversations about Watts and we found out that we were yin and yang. Karrah had the nonprofit experience and I had experience working in Watts. Into this came the California Wellness Foundation. You were looking for innovation and new models, and were willing to take a chance on us. You were our original funder.

Karrah Lompa: We were having lunch with our program director at Cal Wellness and were talking about these leaders who were making the work happen, who were serving the community without resources, without structure, without infrastructure, but who knew what the community needed. So, the question became: How do we equip these leaders who know what the community needs? How do we help them be sustainable? How do we provide them with additional knowledge that will allow them to operate outside of Watts? We understood that it required infrastructure knowledge, capacity building, nonprofit acumen, understanding the elements of running a business beyond running community service out of your truck or your garage or your apartment.

So, our motivation was to make sure that the people who have the answers, the lived experience and the know-how also had the resources. That it wasn't all self-funded. That it wasn't exclusively a one-time grant. That they had sustainable resources, knowledge, relationships and connections that could allow their investment in the community to grow and flourish and replace the outside entities that were coming in and airdropping support. Instead, we wanted to equip them from the inside to serve the entire community.

How did you select the community leaders to become part of the Watts Leadership Institute? How do you develop your training and curriculum?

Jorja Leap: Let me start by addressing the elephant in the room. The elephant in the room is that we are two white women who come from an elite institution, UCLA. In the past, various institutions, not UCLA, have airdropped in programming or have mined the community for data. As in, “Oh, this is an interesting place to look at the issue of race and class.” From day one, Karrah and I were very conscious of that and we continue to be very conscious of being invisible. This is not about us. We are here to serve.

From day one, our model has been that this belongs to Watts. We want Watts leaders to eventually completely take over and run the Institute. When that time comes, we will be there for support. For now, we begin by being invisible. Ultimately, we want to be useless.

Watts Leadership Institute is a community and we are a collaborative. That’s why our curriculum responds to what the leaders ask for. They drive the content, the direction and what comes next. Yes, there are certain elements that you need to know and understand about nonprofit management and sustainability, but that comes second to what they tell us that they need. They tell us what resources they want to be introduced to and what they want to know. They tell us about their challenges and their opportunities and we help wrap them with resources, knowledge, and support to address those pieces.

Jorja Leap: I have a concrete example of our collaborative, leader-led model. We had the inaugural cohort, Cohort 1, which comprised 7 leaders representing 6 organizations. When the time came to launch Cohort 2, Cohort 1 led the process. They selected the candidates, they created the questions, they interviewed the cohort members, and then we made our recommendations as a group. And, objectively speaking, the second cohort is stellar—and the Cohort 1 leaders drove it all.

Can you describe your leadership training model?

Karrah Lompa: WLI is a cohort model. The same group of leaders is consistent over the course of years. We are not drop-in. We don’t provide service and pull out. We don't have people who join halfway through. We don't have people who leave partway through. They really work together as a unit. This is a ten-year initiative. We often refer to the WLI family, which is both cheesy and accurate.

The model is two-pronged. It includes intensive one-on-one support and coaching. We call them office hours and they take place with an experienced nonprofit administrator. And then we also convene regularly for group learning and for learning modules where specific topics are covered. These are topics such as how to apply for a grant, how not to lose your 501(c)(3) status, how to work with a CPA to make sure you're filing your tax return correctly.

We wanted to sustain their knowledge and we wanted to sustain their growth and we knew it couldn't happen in the conventional way with one day-trainings or capacity-building workshops. That doesn't work for these small nonprofits and individual leaders. Those trainings are great and education is important, but for us, the cohort model was a way to have both that knowledge and the intimacy of a learning organization.

Karrah Lompa explains why the cohort model is key in building trust among leaders. [Read the transcript of audio clips here.]

Can you tell us a few stories about the Watts leaders and their work?

Karrah Lompa: In the second cohort, we're working with a gentleman, Dimitrios Jones, who has founded an organization called The People of Change. He’s committed to STEM education and economic development and had been doing these remarkable on-the-road STEM workshops, where he goes to housing developments and after-school programs. He has a lab coat and goggles on and he does these interactive, fascinating K-12 STEM workshops.

Then COVID hit and he could no longer go site to site to do that. He instantly transitioned to Zoom and started a virtual STEM camp that he was offering to students who were no longer able to go to school. He had a laptop that was about 10 years old and he didn't have connectivity of his own. So to make it work, he'd sit outside of a Starbucks or a library. And it was super rocky and bumpy in March and in April. In May, he stood up and said, “Look, I need to do a summer camp. The kids need a summer camp. And my computer blew up. I lost my curriculum. I lost my computer. I lost everything.” We were able to equip him with a computer and a WiFi hotspot instantly. We couldn't help with the curriculum that he had lost, but we were able to help him recreate pieces of it. And he went on to have an eight-week virtual STEM summer camp, which included going to Palmdale and doing rocket launches and taking kids on a virtual field trip through SpaceX. He had a chemistry week, a biology week, food and nutrition. He was also bringing in other cohort members asking them to be guest speakers and to share their expertise.

Jorja Leap: In Black communities and communities of color, STEM education is tremendously overlooked. But there are huge amounts of young talent that need to be nurtured.

We’d love to hear another story about a Watts leader.

Jorja Leap: There is the organization, East Side Riders Bike Club, and it is led by a man named John Jones III, who is a Watts leader. John is very sophisticated. He worked for council member, Joe Buscaino as his field deputy, so he’s knowledgeable in non-profit management. (Shout out to Councilmember Buscaino who has given us a beautiful rent-free office where we meet and have trainings. It’s a combination learning center, leadership center, computer center and clubhouse. We're so lucky to have him.)

John Jones came out of council member Buscaino's office and decided that he wanted to devote himself full time to his non-profit the East Side Riders Bike Club. And he grew by leaps and bounds, received a lot of airtime and press, and he now feels tremendous responsibility to give back and mentor. As his mentees, he took on the Sisters of Watts, which is a wonderful organization led by sisters Robin and Keisha Daniels. He took Sisters of Watts under his wing, to advise them, help them, help them to grow, help them to avoid mistakes he had made. And he decided to do this on his own initiative. He grew, he's expanded, he's media savvy, but he’s not keeping it all to himself—he’s sharing it. And that for us has been the strength of the model. The leaders in the community are leading and they're teaching. Watts is leading.

I know it's hard to choose, but could you tell one more leader story?

Jorja Leap: And the very last story I'd love to share is about Elder Michael Cummings, a leader from Cohort 1. Elder Michael Cummings, who's also known as Big Mike, is a force of nature and is a community leader in Watts. At one point he had been gang involved. At one point he had been a drug distributor. And when he was incarcerated, he had an awakening that he had to change and he had to work to heal the community that he had once sought to destroy, for lack of a better way to put it. And along with multiple individuals from Cohort 1 and Cohort 2, Elder Cummings put forth a get out the vote campaign, making sure people knew were to go and had all the information they needed. And he did not try to tell them how to vote. It was simply about getting out the vote, making the effort. And I have to tell you, it was extraordinary.

At one point he helped transport a woman who was in her 80s and she said, "I've been voting since I was 18 years old. I'm not going to miss it this time." And it was astonishing. There were people who for a variety of reasons were not able to vote. But they were also mobilized and were helping people who were able to vote to get to the polls vote, making sure that they were not just voting for president, but voting for ballot measures.

Shekalia Johnson (Your Special Day) and Adrian Costa (Ed Agency) formed a Black-Brown partnership around trauma and resiliency.

How has COVID-19 affected the Watts leaders and their work?

Karrah Lompa: The election, COVID, and the racial reckoning have changed our country, but the effect that it's had in Watts is so palpable. It’s important to recognize that this is not the Watts that you see on TV. It's not the violence, it's not the gangs. It is the community coming together and saying, "We're losing our jobs. We're losing our housing. We're losing all of these pieces, but we're not giving up. And we're here to protect one another.” The distribution of PPE, the response, the food distribution and grocery distribution, the efforts to ensure that children are not left behind in remote learning. I can't put words to how inspiring every cohort member has been. And there truly isn't enough time to capture everything they're doing.

They don't stop. They don't see no as an option. If there's a need, they will respond to it. These seventeen people will not stay home. They will not say, "Well, it's safer at home. I need to not be out in the community." They don't understand that because that's not who they are. So the question for us is, how do we support them and equip them and protect them and wrap them because we need them safe so that they can keep doing this work and responding in the ways that their neighbors need them. Not the ways that UCLA thinks that would be a good COVID response, not the ways that philanthropy thinks this is how we should manage the community.

These are the people who say, "You don't have food tonight. Here's your food. I will bring you food. I will make sure your kid connects." It's too much. It's too much for seventeen leaders to have to do this, but they're doing it and they're not going to stop.

Jorja Leap explains that Watts Leaders deserve the support and their efforts ought to be admired “in a profound, ongoing way."

Jorja Leap Head Shot copy
From day one, our model has been that this belongs to Watts. We want Watts leaders to eventually completely take over and run WLI.

Jorja Leap

Lompa headshot 2020 original
Our motivation was to make sure that the people who have the answers, the lived experience and the know-how also had the resources.

Karrah Lompa

Elder Michael Cummings put forth a get-out-the-vote campaign, even transporting community members to the polls.
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