USC Price School of Public Policy

Social innovators set sail

June 19, 2018

From think-tankers to bankers, from arts leaders to construction managers, a Noah’s Ark of mid-career professionals applied their new-found social innovation skills to solve deeply entrenched regional problems as the USC Price’s Southern California Symposium completed its maiden voyage.

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By Diane Krieger

Civic leaders usually get smacked down for taking on over-ambitious projects.

Not this time. Not these leaders.

At the graduation ceremony of the inaugural class of the Southern California Symposium: New Strategies for the Region’s Future, a new executive education program based in the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, 24 mid-career professionals from all different backgrounds presented five unconventional, ambitious blueprints for a brighter regional future.

Price Professor Roberto Suro, left, and David Morse, Senior Visiting Fellow at the Price Center (Photo by Tom Queally)

Picture thousands of “granny flats” in residential backyards of low-income Southland communities, filling the desperate need for more affordable housing while generating rental income for mortgage-strapped homeowners.

Imagine 2028 Olympians and residents of land-bound Huntington Park enjoying sun-drenched beaches and rolling surf on the banks of the LA River.

Envision a new generation of well-informed, self-advocating foster youth confidently navigating the byzantine statewide system, piloting a steady course for productive adult lives.

These were among the social innovations presented at a June 1 dinner honoring the first cohort to complete the Price Center’s Southern California Symposium, the team-based executive education program introduced by the Price Center this past spring.

Participants spent one weekend a month together starting in February. Their challenge, issued by Symposium director Roberto Suro, had been to “take a deeply intractable social problem and imagine constructing a 10-year plan for its solution.” Not some top-down legislative or regulatory fix funded by tax dollars, Suro stipulated, but a novel approach using the tools of social innovation—built around “inter-sectoral collaborations,” employing “novel financing arrangements” and calculated to have a “collective impact.”

Moderation in scope or ambition wasn’t part of the assignment.

Inventing the wheel

Price Center Director Gary Painter (Photo by Tom Queally)

The Southern California Symposium is unprecedented, according to Price Center director Gary Painter.

“There isn’t an executive education program like it. And we searched everywhere for models, because we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Suro, who designed the Symposium from the ground up last summer with input from Painter, called it “a complete experiment. We had no idea how this was going to turn out.”

He and Painter, along with David Morse, a Price Center senior visiting fellow, put inordinate time and effort into assembling a “Noah’s Ark” of people from around the region. Professionals working in politics, business, the arts, philanthropy, public service and NGOs, drawn from a variety of interests, geographies, talents and experiences.

Among the 2018 cohort were city councilwomen from Downey and Huntington Park, senior officials with the Federal Reserve Bank and the Mexican consulate, representatives of Clark Construction company, the Milken Institute and the California Endowment, and a dozen professional staffers working for local, state and federal elected officials.

After a thorough grounding in the tools and theory behind social innovation, between learning sessions with top scholars in housing, transportation, economic development and health care, Symposium participants broke into small groups, each with a faculty coach, to drill down on their chosen intractable regional problem.

‘Beyond my expectations’

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Melody Winter Head, who is Southern California regional manager for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, had doubts going in.

“Could five people from completely different walks of life come together around a problem that they don’t necessarily work on in their lives and think through a solution?” she’d wondered. “I would have said ‘no.’”

She wasn’t entirely wrong. “It got really hard at points when our team could not see a single point of agreement,” she said. “But we had a wonderful coach, and I knew that this was going to be transformational for all of us. Coming here tonight and seeing these presentations—they are way beyond my expectations.”

Head’s team had tackled education inequality. Their proposed social innovation: a novel Quality of Learning Opportunity Index, to be implemented by a coalition of local community leaders, educators, CDFIs and Wall Street financiers. By rigorously measuring after-school educational opportunities in low-income neighborhoods and standardizing the metrics, the team contended, under-resourced communities would be in a far better position to solicit grants from funding sources.

“There’s plenty of money out there,” Head noted. “Every community I’ve ever worked in wants change. They want access to information, and they want the opportunity to act on it.”

The four other teams proposed:

  • A portfolio of social innovations that will radically improve the quality of life in Huntington Park
  • A mission-driven “Community Real Estate Fund” that promotes homeownership by turning employers, unions, workers and even the unemployed into property owners or shareholders
  • A countywide strategy to incentivize and reward the construction of accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, in private backyards, and
  • A comprehensive digital platform that gives foster youth direct access to their official records, robust planning tools and resource databases, empowering them to be change agents in mapping their own futures.

Felipe Carrera Aguayo, who is chief of consular protection and legal assistance at the Consulate General of Mexico, was a member of the foster care team.

“It was very eye-opening,” said the career diplomat, reflecting on his symposium experience. “I personally didn’t realize how big the foster youth community of Mexican origin was.” Fifty percent of Southern California foster youth are Hispanic, Aguayo’s team reported.

A powerful tie

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As the projects took shape, team members started meeting on their own time, scheduling conference calls or convening in each other’s homes and workplaces, often without faculty coaches.

Morse, who was one of those coaches, encouraged the graduates to keep working together after the program ends, “because we really do expect and hope that you’ll refine these projects, perfect them, and move them forward into tangible social innovation,” he said at the diploma ceremony.

USC Price dean Jack Knott, who also spoke at the presentation dinner, called it “a unique convening: you wouldn’t be getting together except for this program.” He invited the 25 graduates to stay in touch with the school, too. “Work with us,” he said, “so that this is a relationship.”

Network-building is one of the Symposium’s major goals, according to Suro, who is currently making logistical tweaks and curricular improvements based on feedback from the inaugural class. Program alumni are expected to advise, mentor and collaborate with future cohorts, creating a tightly knit cadre of local social innovators who will put their learning into practice to create collective impact, and becoming part of the Price Center “family.”

In just four years, Suro envisions a brain-trust of 100 ardent social innovators from across the region connected through their shared Symposium experience.

“The hope is that this becomes something quite powerful,” he said.

Affirmative agendas

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In an emotional closing speech, Suro thanked the first cohort for their willingness to “think collectively, generously, positively about how we make the world a better place.”

In a time of deep ideological polarization and coarse political discourse, he said, “it has been an extraordinary gift to me to spend this time together. What you’ve given me is a sense of confidence about the future. I leave feeling so much better about this region, about our future, about my future, my children’s future and, as of two days ago, my grandson’s future,” Suro said, drawing applause.

“You have created that. You have offered it to all of us, and that is something really quite extraordinary.”