Creating a Stronger Los Angeles

By Brenda Gazzar   |   May 20, 2024

While he was raised in Southeast Los Angeles County by Mexican immigrant parents, Miguel Santana’s life was mostly driven by survival.

Miguel Santana with Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of L.A. County Department of Public Health, at CCF’s Trauma Prevention Partnerships (TPP) Convening. Through the TPP initiative, $25 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds have been invested in community-based organizations across L.A. County dedicated to violence prevention.

When his family moved from East Los Angeles into the working-class city of Bell Gardens in 1970, they were the first non-white residents to move to their block.

“Some people supported that and welcomed us, and some people didn’t,” recalls Santana, who became a father at age 19 and was the first in his family to attend college. “I have a lot of memories of that experience as a young child – feeling like I didn’t belong.”

Today, the father of four draws on his lived experience to lead one of Southern California’s most influential philanthropic organizations, the California Community Foundation (CCF), which tackles the region’s most pressing and formidable issues. Whether they’re taking on homelessness, income and educational inequalities, or immigrant integration, the goal is clear but hardly easy – to create a more equitable Los Angeles for all.

The Foundation does this through offering grants and scholarships, advocacy, and advancing systemic solutions that bridge gaps for disenfranchised communities.

“For more than 100 years, CCF has been a leader in connecting donors to some of the greatest issues that we’re confronting,” Santana says. “And over the last 20 years, under the leadership of [past President and CEO] Antonia Hernández, CCF has become a regional leader in advocating for marginalized communities and those who have been left behind during the many periods of economic growth in Southern California.”

Women and Families at the Center

CCF, one of the largest and oldest foundations in the state, doles out some $300 million a year in grants, including about $25 million in discretionary grants, to organizations largely serving Los Angeles County. And gender equity is at the center of what the Foundation does.

“All the issues we work on are issues that support women, and by supporting women, we’re supporting families, and by supporting families, we’re supporting communities,” says Santana, who previously led the Weingart Foundation. “We define success by how our work advances the quality of life for women and families.”

Among the women-centered organizations that CCF supports is the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), which aids unhoused women in the heart of L.A.’s notorious Skid Row. DWC offers women an opportunity not only to be sheltered but to turn their fragile lives around, Santana says.

“More than anything out there, their most impactful way of supporting our community is by putting the issue of women at the forefront of homelessness and housing,” he says.

Women made up about one-third of adults experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County in 2020; 80% of these women were living on the street versus in a shelter, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Unaccompanied homeless women who are unsheltered are especially vulnerable to violent attacks and to poor mental and physical health compared to homeless women living in a shelter, according to a 2022 Urban Institute report that cited multiple studies.

CCF also supports women-led immigrant advocacy organizations such as the Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles (CARECEN), led by Martha Arevalo, and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, or CHIRLA, led by Angelica Salas.

These nonprofits have ensured that a Los Angeles network is in place to welcome immigrants like those dispatched by Texas Governor Greg Abbott and “literally dumped at the footstep of [L.A.] City Hall with no support system, often with only the clothes on their back,” Santana says.

Organizations like CARECEN and CHIRLA have helped feed and house immigrants and connect them to any relatives they have around the country, he says. They’ve also partnered with L.A.’s first female mayor, Karen Bass, and the all-female Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the county’s governing body, to create “a culture of belonging” in the region.

“L.A. County has one of the largest immigrant communities, and we want to ensure that they’re full participants in our economy, that they are able to access services, and that they have the opportunity to really live the dream that they all saw when they came here,” Santana says.

A Bold Vision for Los Angeles

The Foundation, which develops a new strategic plan each decade, is gearing up to launch its next strategic planning process in the coming fiscal year. Santana has been on tour meeting with area residents about their “hopes and dreams and frustrations,” as well as with donors and elected officials, to help create a shared vision for Los Angeles.

“I believe that CCF should be bold enough to bring our community together – our elected leaders, our neighborhood organizations, our civic leaders – to insist that we set ambitious goals that impact quality of life, like ending street homelessness. We then use all of our assets, all of our resources, all of our know-how to do that,” he says, adding that he has worked on critical policy issues, like homelessness, during his whole career.

Moreover, Santana says that young people should not only be able to go to college – they should also be able to graduate college. CCF is one of the largest providers of scholarships to young people in the state.

More importantly, Los Angeles County should be a place where young people can envision their future, purchase a home, and start a family, he adds. Too many young Angelenos see those goals as unattainable today.

“We need to come together and identify solutions that make Los Angeles a place where everyone can thrive and to be fulfilled by their purpose in life,” he says.

However, one of CCF’s most significant challenges is to combat a sense of resignation that’s evident in the decline of civic engagement and voter registration in the region, Santana explains. People aren’t as hopeful as they once were about the future of Los Angeles, especially amid a contentious and divisive national political scene.

Santana recognizes that Los Angeles has real challenges that must be addressed, but he’s confident that government, the nonprofit sector, and philanthropy can rise to the occasion with the right vision, collaboration, and leadership. For if real change is to be realized, the dream of equality and inclusivity that brought so many immigrants to this country must be kept alive.

“We are very committed to this idea that L.A.’s best days are still ahead of us,” Santana says.


California Community Foundation

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California Community Foundation’s mission is to lead positive systemic change that strengthens Los Angeles communities. We envision a future where all Angelenos have the opportunity to contribute to the productivity, health and well-being of our region. And we believe that our common fate will be determined by how successfully we improve the quality of life for all of our residents. The impact we help create is of, by and for Los Angeles, because the community is our foundation.

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