We had the good fortune of connecting with Karen Mack and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Karen, what led you to pursuing a creative path professionally?
I believe I am a creative person although you wouldn’t know it given my initial majors in college – aeronautical engineering and accounting. I was a complete failure at the first, and successful to a point at the second, having passed the CPA exam. But that was only a way station to my current career, providing a valuable set of skills to allow me to effectively run an organization. Also, I studied piano for 12 years from age 4 and I’m sure that cemented a love for the arts, even though I don’t play now. I was so motivated that when I was 17, I called up the president of Cal Arts and asked his advice on how to help artists. His encouragement set me on the path toward starting LA Commons more than 20 years later.
When I started LA Commons, I was focused on how I could meet a need in Los Angeles based on my passion for the arts. I had been exploring for some time the importance of social capital or, in other words, the bonds of trust between residents that is at the foundation of successful communities. In the start up phase, I studied with a leading expert on this notion of “social capital,” Robert Putnam, and developed my business plan during a year long graduate program at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Los Angeles has always struggled to feel like a city, particularly when I started. Because of low social capital, 20 years ago it felt like a collection of distinct communities sharing the same space but not much more. It is better now and I like to think we have contributed in some small way to this transformation. Still, this issue of getting people to connect across difference is more important than ever.
What should our readers know about your business?
In 2000, when LA Commons was founded, Los Angeles was like a collection of neighborhoods connected by freeways and boulevards but not by common understandings and visions for the future. Wealthier westside areas enjoyed cultural and community resources, while neighborhoods south of the 10 and east of Crenshaw received little attention from residents outside those districts. Since 2000, LA Commons has helped marginalized Los Angeles communities claim public space, making room for people – particularly young people – to assert their identities in a city where they are often rendered invisible. By engaging people in artistic and cultural expression that tells their unique stories, we create the basis for dialogue, interaction, belonging and empowerment.
Over the last 20 years, we have produced more than 60 collaborative, grassroots public art initiatives that leverage the power of local residents and their stories to educate, empower and enrich neighborhoods. Through this work, we have cultivated enduring relationships and an expansive network across Los Angeles, with deep roots in central and South Los Angeles, that creates bridges among diverse neighborhoods, and provides a foundation for the creative engagement of youth, artists and communities needed to change our city for the better.
Artists and Communities Working Together for Change
Art is a critical tool to bring underground community stories to light and shift to a societal narrative that values everyone, not only the wealthy and powerful. LA Commons develops creative projects for communities and artists to envision a city, a country and a world that is more just, healthy and livable for those who are most impacted by systemic racism, injustice and inequity. Youth are central to these projects; the values and skills they absorb nurture their dreams of the future world in which they want to live. And artists are key in facilitating these processes because their craft is to envision new realities and bring them into being.
L.A. Commons’ Impact
Between 2000-2019, over 35,000 community members participated in LA Commons programs, from our very first public art exhibition Taking Flight: Migration Dreams with artwork sharing stories of immigration perched in the trees of MacArthur Park, to the Heart of Hyde Park mural honoring residents at Crenshaw and Slauson, to Found LA walking tours from Lincoln Heights to Little Bangladesh. In the summer of 2020, we produced the 10th Annual Leimert Park Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks, shifting this in-person event into a series of online workshops, artist dialogues and a virtual Celebration of Black Joy. We hired and commissioned nearly 100 local and international artists and culture workers and connected with 10,000 viewers across the country and the globe. This year’s version with the theme, Look Back, Moving Forward, will also be virtual on June 27, 2021
Our work not only highlights important community stories, but also inspires youth to lead alongside their elders. To address local challenges and – most importantly – to build on local assets, we engage youth in leadership roles, cultivating their voices as they develop creativity and artistic skills, and increasing their civic participation, community connection and agency.
As protesters in Los Angeles and around the world have taken the urgent movement for racial justice to the streets, we are inspired to witness people of all ages and races affirm that Black Lives Matter. The demand to be seen and heard fuels change. And the time for change is now.
Our newest initiative, “Creating Our Next L.A.” is a campaign to advance equity in our communities and our city and engage the power of arts and culture to make transformative change.
The story of our organization began, when, as many people approaching 40, some would say midlife, I was feeling unsatisfied with my career. The job I had then, working for Community Partners helping others start nonprofit initiatives, felt removed from the work of actually impacting lives. So one day, inspired by those I was guiding, I decided I had had enough. My desire was to truly be me in the world, which meant considering what work aligned with my values, interests and skills. I found a book, “Zen and the Art of Making A Living,” which was a guide for this process and I took a solitary retreat in the desert to complete it. This experience energized me and upped my courage to make the transition from executive level salary and benefits to struggling entrepreneur. I began conceptualizing what I wanted to do based on clearly understanding the intersection between my skills and passion and Los Angeles’ challenges, which I had a bird’s eye view of while in my job. Ultimately, I wanted more control over my situation which led to the idea of starting something and this guide helped me explore what that something would be.
When I was beginning to think about my next move before starting LA Commons, work life balance was a big factor. My motto was then and continues to be “life should be about life and not about work.” So I wanted to create a work situation that deeply reflected who I was so that I could integrate it seamlessly into the rest of my life. It’s amazing how that played out. I had a daughter a couple of years after we started and since LA Commons was still tiny, I could take six months off to welcome her into the world and I continued to work at home for some time so I was very present for her early years. Later, she went to a homeschool hybrid (two days at school, three days at home) from 3rd to 8th grade and being in control of my life made that possible. It worked beautifully for everyone in the family as my husband’s schedule has always been flexible as well. Because I love what I do, it often doesn’t feel like work and my daughter has been integrated into many of my activities since she was born.
Risk taking has been a defining impulse for me. When I was making the decision to leave my old job, I was a Vice President at Community Partners. This meant I would leave a stable situation for the unknown. But, I had really done the work to consider my choices and the most tenable direction balancing my long term satisfaction and dreams was to venture out on my own. It was hard at first, but once I laid the foundation, got beyond the initial stages of creation, things became more stable for me. I think that this initial challenging period is part of the territory when starting something new.
Key Lessons Along the Way:
You don’t need to have everything in place before starting out on your own. I believe rather the most important thing is getting clear on the alignment between your skills and passions and what your “target market” needs.
I’ve come to believe that when you do the deep work to determine your purpose, your unique role in the world, there is this invisible support that rises up. It’s like we are all part of a system, and once you find your place in the system, you get what you need to succeed.
Stay in tune with the environment in which you are operating based on deeply listening to what is going on.
Be nimble. Once you get intelligence based on listening well, you have to be willing to adjust to meet the moment.
Find the right partners who share your passion and balance out your skills. Nothing great was ever accomplished without a system of support. Think of the root system of a tree.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Day 1: Walk from my house to Park La Brea for brunch. There is a wonderful park in the center of this complex with the adjoining Curson Cafe. It’s a beautiful, serene scene to have a delicious, casual meal. It’s a bit secret also because most people don’t know you can walk into Park La Brea on foot even though it is gated. Following, we’ll go to Museum Row to see art at LACMA and Craft Contemporary where Marisela Norte, one of LA’s best poets, often runs the front desk. For dinner, we go to the Farmer’s Market to eat, people watch and listen to live music (on the weekend). This place, amazingly, never gets old!
Day two is a beach day. We love, love, love hanging out at Annenberg Beach House in Santa Monica. You can rent a beach umbrella and grab any other needed supplies to set up your space and order food from Back on the Beach restaurant.
Day three we head to Leimert Park, my other neighborhood, and the African American hub in the City. Our first stop will be my office at Kaos Network, where we can chat with my landlord, artist and LA icon Ben Caldwell. We grab lunch at Hot and Cool Cafe where Tony Jolly roasts his own coffee using techniques learned from his travels in Africa, and serves delightful vegan nosh. We continue down Degnan Boulevard to visit Eso Won books, the largest seller of African-American books west of the Mississippi; Sole Folks which features wearables by up-and-coming designers; Sika for goods from around the African diaspora; and, Ride-On which is a go-to spot for bicycles and all related merchandise. For dinner, we go to Dulan’s down Crenshaw Boulevard for soul food. We come back to Leimert Park for live music at the World Stage or Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center.
Day 4 is a day for a hike and there are so many great ones to choose from around LA. I think Griffith Park is an optimal choice because it is the home of our beloved observatory which has amazing views of the city. We picnic on the front lawn before departing to explore shops and restaurants in Los Feliz and East Hollywood. We go shopping along Hillhurst and then head over for dinner at the amazing Thai restaurant, Ruen Pair. While in the area, a Thai Town legend can be found in a tiny hair salon on Harvard boulevard – Faroh blends his hairdressing prowess with the traditions of his Northern Thai heritage and the persona of a Rock Star/Drag Queen.
Day five is reserved for experiencing arts in and around downtown. We have a choice of The Broad, MOCA and the Institute for Contemporary Art following breakfast at Home Girl Cafe of Homeboy industries, founded by the incomparable Father Gregory Boyle. For lunch we go to Mercado La Paloma, a food hall and marketplace owned by Esperanza Community Housing. The lauded food at Chichen Itza is prepared by Chef Gilberto Cetina and his son, Gilberto Cetina, Jr. operates another excellent eatery there called Holbox. Afterwards we walk to the California African-American Museum and Exposition Park to check out what is going on there. If it’s the right day, we can go to the Natural History Museum for one of their First Friday programs.
Day 6 we go to rest at Peace Labyrinth and Gardens, hidden away in the West Adams neighborhood. This is a beautiful and serene place to relax, enjoy the garden, meditate and eat vegetarian food. We can go grab dinner later up the street at either Mizlala, Alta West Adams or Delicious Pizza and visit Band of Vices Gallery if they are open.
Day 7 is a public art driving tour to experience LA’s amazing mural legacy, particularly in East LA, and other works in the public realm that help to tell the diverse story of our incredible city. We grab takeout along the way at La Azteca Tortilleria.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Alitash Kebede who nurtured my love for the arts.
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Photo 2, 3 Rafael Cardena