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Want to save the world? Do your homework first

Jorge Alvarez, center, hands out produce to a  resident at the Pico Union Project in Los Angeles.
Jorge Alvarez, center, hands out produce to a resident at the Pico Union Project in Los Angeles.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

At first, the founder of the new nonprofit in Pico-Union offered community yoga classes, but at the appointed hours, no one in the community showed up to take them.

At first, he had flowers from his San Fernando Valley garden planted up and down the sidewalks surrounding the building he’d just bought and assumed that the neighborhood would be delighted. He was stunned to come back and find some of the plants unceremoniously ripped out.

From the moment he arrived there seven years ago, Craig Taubman sincerely wanted to help the people of this poor, densely populated downtown neighborhood. But he soon realized that they saw “this white guy coming in and maybe wanting to change things, wanting to gentrify.”

He was just at the beginning of a long and likely never-ending process of asking, listening, learning, proving his commitment and, inch by inch, earning the neighborhood’s trust.
I’m telling you the story of Taubman and his Pico Union Project today because I see it as a parable relevant to this moment, when there’s so much positive energy hovering, searching for places to land.

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So many of us are feeling a strong drive to try to find ways to be useful to others. It’s a drive that has led thousands onto the streets, even with the threat of the coronavirus, to collectively demand an end to systemic injustice and racism toward Black people.

It’s a drive that has made those who just now are starting to see the extent of their own privilege want to get engaged right away in work to level the playing field. But finding appropriate ways to aid other people whose experiences are very different is complicated, as Taubman’s story illustrates.

Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s the principle, central to Judaism, on which Taubman launched his nonprofit seven years ago after he bought a more-than-century-old house of worship on Pico-Union’s western edge.

 Jorge Alvarez and Craig Taubman at the nonprofit Pico Union Project.
Jorge Alvarez, left, and Craig Taubman of Pico Union Project at the nonprofit’s headquarters.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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The building, with Stars of David in its beautiful stained-glass windows, had first been a synagogue. Then it had become a Welsh Presbyterian church, whose congregation had over the years so dwindled, to a handful of elderly faithful driving in from the suburbs, that there was little choice but to sell.

Taubman, a singer-songwriter and music producer who made his name as a children’s entertainer for Disney, was sure he could find wonderful ways to breathe new life into the space.

Here he was, a man with enormous energy and heart, who wanted to share the fruits of his success. Here he was, a person of faith, who wanted to put that faith into practice.

He’d already done so in one way at Sinai Temple in Westwood, where 15 years before he’d been tasked with creating a monthly Friday night service that would try to draw young people back to the synagogue. Thousands had come to Friday Night Live — which centered mainly on music and song. At the conservative synagogue, he and Rabbi David Wolpe had sometimes turned the services into opportunities for dialogue, bringing in leaders of other faiths to share wisdom.

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Taubman assumed the experience he’d gained at Sinai Temple would be transferable to Pico-Union. He felt a certain kismet since the 1909 building he’d bought had been Sinai Temple’s first home.

For a minute, he had considered converting the building into a nightclub with a fine whiskey bar. As he asked people their thoughts on what he should do with it, his daughter Abby, who just graduated from college, set him straight.

Why ask me? Ask the community, she told him. Starting to question his new neighbors about how his investment could be of service to them turned out to be his first good step. (I tend to think it’s always a good way to start, as I’ve said to you often about homelessness.)

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 Residents wait in line at a food giveaway at the Pico Union Project.
Residents wait in line at a food giveaway at the Pico Union Project.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Last Friday, I went to meet Taubman in the parking lot of his building, where he and a crew of volunteers and people from the neighborhood he was paying for giving over their time to help were readying to distribute boxes of produce — apples, oranges, melons, potatoes, onions — as well as eggs, clothes, toilet paper and toys. Neighbors had begun lining up around the block well in advance.

The Pico Union Project now works in partnership with Seeds of Hope, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles’ food justice ministry. Seeds of Hope trucks in pallets of produce gathered by another nonprofit, Food Forward, which rescues and redistributes fruit and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste.

Since the coronavirus hit, the Pico Union Project has scaled up from giving out food to 250 families twice a month to helping feed as many as 2,000 families twice a week, Taubman said.

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Because here’s what Taubman learned first when he started asking people in the neighborhood what they needed, with much assistance from the Latino members of his small staff. They weren’t so much short on yoga. They were short on the very basics, a problem the virus only exacerbated.

 Craig Taubman directs people to wait in a line for a food giveaway for needy residents at the Pico Union Project.
Craig Taubman directs people to wait in a line for a food giveaway at the Pico Union Project.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Some didn’t have money to do laundry, so he launched Loads of Love, asking donors to underwrite the costs at a local laundromat.

Some didn’t have enough food, so he started handing it out and holding nutrition classes.

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Those efforts began to draw the neighborhood in, said the project’s caretaker, Jorge Alvarez, who lives in the Pico Union Project’s building and worked for the Welsh church before Taubman arrived. Soon the classes got so big that they had to be held in the sanctuary.

“We thank them for coming. We tell them, we appreciate your presence. And it’s like a big wall of ice breaks,” Alvarez told me. “You start getting a community, and it feels so great. People start to feel that confidence that we really are here to help them.”

Instead of ripping out the backyard plants, neighbors started helping to keep them alive. When they saw Alvarez wheeling around a heavy cart holding trashcans full of water, some started watering for him or offering the use of their hoses.

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 Yanira C. Ruiz, 50, looks over her box of produce she received at a food giveaway.
Yanira C. Ruiz, 50, looks over a box of produce she received.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The project soon got trashcans installed on the nearby sidewalks and started planting dozens of trees — including orchards of citrus and avocado up against a 110 Freeway underpass to provide sustenance for the neighborhood’s homeless. They put pantry boxes around the area, loaded with nonperishable food, asking people to take what they need and give what they can.

Taubman has over the years turned his building’s sanctuary into a multi-faith worship and cultural center, offering groups of a variety of faiths the space for minimal rent in exchange for a commitment to volunteer. He’s held Sabbath gatherings in which rich and poor, housed and unhoused, gather to worship and then break bread together. He’s rented the space out for concerts to bring in additional money for his community efforts.

And he’s tapped into a network of fellow nonprofits and sources of support — including the offices of city Councilman Gil Cedillo and county Supervisor Hilda Solis — because there was no need to reinvent the wheel.
He’s also never stopped asking for neighborhood input. This Tuesday, when I arrived for the food distribution, it started with a listening session. Quite a few people asked for more free chili and tomato plants. One woman expressed her gratitude and said that she hadn’t worked or paid her rent in three months.

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Volunteers with the Pico Union Project hand out produce and other necessities to needy residents and families.
Volunteers with the Pico Union Project hand out produce and other necessities to residents and families in the area on Tuesdays and Fridays.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Yanira Ruiz later told me she hasn’t been able to make money either cleaning houses or driving for Uber since the virus arrived, and her landlady — who like her comes from El Salvador — harasses her relentlessly for the rent money. When I mentioned that to Taubman, he immediately made a note to give people at a future distribution information about tenants’ rights and rent forgiveness.

All of this, of course, still adds up to baby steps in helping empower people to better help themselves. That, rather than handouts, has become Taubman’s ultimate, much more complex goal.

His daughter Abby, 30, now a county social worker, who has spent the last three years as an activist with White People 4 Black Lives, said she thinks there are a lot of people out there at the moment with “white savior complex,” who need to spend more time in self-reflection before they venture out with their plans to remake the world. The kind of societal changes people are now talking about “take lifetimes and lifetimes of work,” she said.

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Work that starts, I think, with loving your neighbor by first taking the time to get to know your neighbor.


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