Keeping a ‘Promise’: The LA Promise Fund and Russell Westbrook Promote Education and Equity
Charity and aid can take on many forms: nourishing the hungry, rebuilding communities lost to blight or caring for the sick and infirm.
Oftentimes, those problems are so ingrained into our society they seem insurmountable. But another approach is to attempt to circumvent these issues prior to their existing by reaching out and educating those who may be vulnerable to such outcomes – such is the ethos of the LA Promise Fund.
With a mission statement to prepare students for success in college and a career in life, the LA Promise Fund offers community-driven support to at-risk student bodies throughout South Los Angeles County, providing one-on-one education, special programs teaching high-value skills, financial support for equipment and programs, meals, and, most importantly, empathy and understanding for students adversely affected by institutionalized racism and unequal economic support.
LA Promise Fund has just this year partnered with NBA superstar Russell Westbrook and his two L.A.-area charter schools to further this vision. His academies,a middle anda high school, were founded because Westbrook himself is a product of the South L.A. school system and saw an opportunity to create better outcomes for its bright, diverse student body.
Both Westbrook and LA Promise Fund believe that education is one of the most powerful tools to break cycles of oppression, poverty and malaise, elevating the voices of South L.A., a group that has been silenced for far too long. Here is how the organization approaches this laudable task in their own words and how those from all over Southern California can get involved.
Tell us a bit about LA Promise Fund’s journey – its beginnings, its focus on South Los Angeles’ underserved youth, and its focus on education as a means to enrich and prepare students for their lives.
We believe that education is the most powerful tool available to change the future of a community and are deeply committed to increasing educational equity and ultimately closing the opportunity gap. LA Promise Fund targets our services to South and Southeast L.A., focusing on socioeconomically disadvantaged students of color who have been historically underserved by the education system. We work with an array of partners who have been engaged in a decades-long struggle to close the opportunity gap, giving students the educational foundation and access to post-secondary opportunities that they need to transition successfully to adulthood.
LA Promise Fund’s roots date back to the aftermath of the 1992 civil unrest when the organization’s founders began mentoring South L.A. students to support their pathway to college. Over time, we partnered with the Los Angeles Unified School District to operate several underperforming schools and eventually opened our own charter schools. During our decade-long partnership with LAUSD at the high schools we operated, there was a dramatic rise in the number of seniors accepted to a four-year college, tremendous growth in high school graduation rates and overall college acceptance rates.
Most recently, we are exceptionally proud of our ability to quickly and effectively pivot in response to COVID-19. Our Board of Directors and leadership team made critical strategic shifts, and our staff did a remarkable job of moving our schools and programs to virtual platforms and making programmatic adjustments as we prioritized meeting basic needs.
Leveraging corporate partnerships, we were able to ensure every student had both a laptop and access to Wi-Fi, closing the digital divide and limiting learning loss. Our school-based food pantry has given away more than one million pounds of food to our school families and the broader community, and we distributed $200,000 in micro-grants to families displaced from employment. Despite being faced with budget cuts that became an unfortunate reality that we shared with many of our nonprofit colleagues, we have continued to provide a high-quality education to our students and offer a portfolio of enrichment programs in South L.A. and throughout the County that place students on a trajectory for success in college, career and life.
With Russell Westbrook’s triumphant return to Los Angeles, how will his being here uplift and enhance LA Promise Fund? How has his personal journey as a child in Southern California shaped the organization’s goals and mission statement?
We began partnering with Russell prior to his return to Los Angeles, but of course, having him join the Lakers adds an additional layer of excitement and immediacy to the partnership. We hope that being local will give him the opportunity to interact more directly with our students – to inspire them with his lessons and passions. Russell grew up in the areas that we serve and knows firsthand that education opens doors and changes the life paths for people who lack opportunity. He has seen family and close friends with more negative life outcomes because they lacked sufficient resources and supports to reach their potential. Russell, through his Why Not? Foundation and work with the schools, seeks to inspire the lives of young people, teach them to always ask themselves “Why Not?” and help them to build the resilience to never give up. The Why Not? mentality was adopted by Russell at a young age, as a way to gain confidence that he could overcome any obstacle standing in his way. More than a catchy slogan, Why Not? is a mindset.
What is unique about Russell Westbrook Why Not? middle and high schools? How are they innovating childhood/teenage education and how do they support South L.A.’s underprivileged families?
We are committed to developing athletes, activists and academic achievers who are healthy in mind, body and spirit. Russell Westbrook’s “Why Not?” mindset is embedded in the schools’ DNA. Our students come to school facing a host of challenges, and it is our fundamental responsibility to give them access to the resources they need to unleash their full potential. While we have plans to grow the size of our schools, we want to maintain the personalized, familial climate we have created. Last year, our first class of seniors graduated. Many of our students struggled in the distance learning environment, with nearly 1 in 3 of our high school seniors in danger of not graduating. Our school team worked diligently to provide additional supports such as credit recovery services, tutoring, technology support, and mental health resources to get our students to graduation, and we were thrilled when 100% of our inaugural graduating class made it across the stage last spring and 85% of eligible students accepted to college. It is that level of commitment to meeting each student’s unique needs that sets us apart.
We know that our students will be able to function more effectively at school when they have family support and a stable home environment, so through our Promise Parent program, we have basic needs services available for families and help build their capacity to support their children’s educational journeys. We opened the first school-based food pantry in Los Angeles prior to COVID and expanded it during the pandemic as need intensified among our school families and the broader community.
How can someone less familiar with the challenges the LA Promise Fund addresses get involved? What are the benefits of volunteering, sponsorship and charitable giving? How does LA Promise Fund’s “high touch” approach maximize this?
There is no shortage of ways to get involved! We have a Young Professionals Council committed to engaging a broad network of young professionals to help raise awareness about our programming and to fundraise. Volunteers are always needed in our classrooms and our enrichment programs. We put a lot of emphasis on preparing students for careers in high-growth industries and work with great corporate partners such as Amazon Web Services, Paramount, and Nickelodeon, but we can always use more. We also offer a paid summer internship program and need businesses to host and mentor our students.
We just held our annual GirlsBuild Summit (virtually this year), which brings together thousands of girls to hone skills, inspire change, and support the next generation of female leaders. This year, the summit focused on climate change and featured Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and actor and environmental activist Jason Momoa. We have amazing sponsors onboard each year and are always looking for new sponsors who share our commitment to students who have been historically marginalized and not given equity of opportunity.
And, of course, we can always use donations! It takes a combination of money and a deep passion to make an impact in under-resourced schools and communities. Our donors help our students to have opportunities that youth from more affluent communities often take for granted – uniforms and equipment for sports, college field trips, tutoring and after-school enrichment, the list goes on. If folks want to get involved or donate, they can do so at lapromisefund.org.
As the Foundation has expanded from its roots to serving a larger swath of L.A. County, what are the continued plans for the LA Promise Fund’s future? What are the first few items on the goal list for the charity, and which achievements are now within reach?
We try to strikea balance between having a structured plan and being flexible and adaptive to our students’ and communities’ evolving needs. As we climb back from COVID, we are looking forward to expanding our services and supports through our schools and programs, including offering competitive sports, particularly since youth in our communities had limited opportunities to engage in physical activity during COVID. We are working diligently to prepare Russell Westbrook Why Not? Academy students for college and career through increasing internship opportunities and offering more college credit courses, which helps reduce the cost of their college education. We also have a partnership with Constitutional Rights Foundation to createa 6-12th grade civic engagement model and are excited to see our students grow as activists and connect to issues that they feel passionate about. Those are justa few tidbits. We invite people to check out our website– lapromisefund.org – to learn more about our current and future plans.