MixLA: 1984 to 2028 with Renata Simril

The Olympics are coming to Los Angeles, but 2028 is a long way away. Can Los Angeles rise to meet the incredible challenges that face us before the world comes to visit? Will we be able to game the Olympics into another successful civic venture? Or will we be saddled with Olympian ruins and debt like Rio and Athens?   

Renata Simril is the President and CEO of the LA84 Foundation an organization that sprouted from the success of the 1984 Olympic Games that has supported thousands of Southern California youth sports organizations through grant making, training coaches, commissioning research, convening conferences and acting as a national thought leader on important youth sports issues. She is also a third generation Angeleno who has worked with the LA Times, The Dodgers foundation, and even served  as Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Housing in the Hahn Administration. Most recently, however, she was a key member of the 2028 Olympic Bid Committee and had a direct hand in the complex process of turning Los Angeles’ Olympic dream into a reality.

Future of Cities L.A. is a civic initiative and project of Community Partners that aims to reinvigorate the involvement of civic leaders in creating a vibrant, cutting edge future for Los Angeles.  As part of of our mission, FOCLA founder Donna Bojarsky, sat down with Ms. Simril to discuss the bid, the future of Los Angeles, homelessness, gentrification, and of course, the Olympic Games.

Donna Bojarsky: So what does it mean to be hosting the Olympics again? What does it mean as an organization and what does it mean to you?

Renata Simril: For me, I'm excited because when I was a teenager my parents couldn't afford tickets to the Games. We didn’t have the kind of economic opportunity when I grew up where we could go and see the Olympics in person. I grew up in Carson, and I can remember riding my bike to watch what was going around where the games were happening, but not actually getting to be there. So for me, the Olympics coming back in 2028 is an opportunity for me to actually be at the games at the opening ceremonies. To actually be at the Coliseum.

Donna Bojarsky: In really good seats.

Renata Simril: One would hope! I hope that things in life keep going well and I can afford good seats. We'll see if Casey (Wasserman, LA Olympic Bid Committee president) and Mayor Eric Garcetti take a page out of Peter Ueberroth’s ‘84 playbook, where everybody had to buy tickets because it was the first privately financed bid in '84.

I'm just excited to see and hopefully experience as a city some of what we experienced in '84. It was a coming together. I think taking a page out of what LA accomplished in '84, and using that as an organizing principle to really bring people together, can demonstrate what is the best of Los Angeles. I think we can use this sense of unity to provide opportunities for those who haven't had them, very much the same way the LA84 Foundation has done for 33 years since the '84 games. It's really about an Olympics for all of Los Angeles. 

Donna Bojarsky: I was going to ask you about this organization, the LA84 Foundation. Can you tell us a bit about what you do?

Renata Simril: In 1984 we had a group of civic-minded leaders who had written into the Olympic bid documents that if there should be a surplus in the budget 40% of that surplus, which was Los 

Angeles' share would start a youth sports organization. That’s where it started. The LA84 Foundation 

was created with some iconic civic leaders of our day: Lew Wassermann, Tom Bradley, Peter Ueberroth, Maureen Kindle, Paul Ziffren, John Argue, Yvonne Burke. The purpose was to provide sport opportunities to kids in underserved, under-resourced communities throughout Southern California (not just Los Angeles). So our grant area and our focus is from Santa Barbara to San Diego, where most of the big games were hosted. It was a way to give back to the city, and the communities that took part in hosting an Olympic sport or event. And for 33 years we've had a tremendous impact.

Donna Bojarsky: Is 11 years a long time for naysayers to have to gripe? Will that have any effect?

Renata Simril: The folks who don’t want the Olympics here will get four more years to gripe and build a movement. As I have looked at the No Olympic movement and their argument, it seems to me to be very hollow and short-sighted. 

I think it's important to note that this is a privately financed bid, as it was in '84. There

is not one dollar of public money going into bidding for these games. The Los Angeles area has the facilities for the Games already in place – or will soon whether the Games were coming or not – and that allows the organizing committee to focus more on legacy and the athlete experience. So the argument that we should reuse these non-public resources to combat the serious problems of homelessness or provide affordable housing, again, seems hollow and short-sighted. 

Those things are critically important to Los Angeles in making us great and ensuring our status as a world class city; I don't mean to understate their importance. But I don't see the Olympic movement as the organization to fund those issues. Addressing those problems is without question the role of government.  And I think we can see government working accordingly with the passage of Measure H and HHH.

Donna Bojarsky: Is dealing with homelessness a test case for Los Angeles? We have had a hard time figuring out exactly what to do about it.

Renata Simril: I think that the increase of the homeless population, at least over the last 10 years, is directly attributed to the boom of development that's occurring in downtown. Prior to that, Skid Row was a self-contained area. It wasn't in Venice, it wasn't in Beverly Hills, it wasn't in my neighborhood in Studio City, so often you didn't see it. It has now become more in-your-face and so physical that you cannot escape it. It's not Skid Row's problem anymore, it is Los Angeles county’s problem. I think that the work that the United Way has done over this 10-year period and their work with Pathways Out of Poverty, the annual home walk, I think has been an enormous help.

When I was in Mayor Jim Hahn's office, there was a housing bond that failed by a short margin that could have changed things. If you look at the elimination of redevelopment agencies , and the dollars that were put into affordable housing, in the past 10 years there have been policy changes and issues that I think have exacerbated many of these problems. Certainly the recession of 2008, that hit folks hard. One thing that struck me in considering the ’08 recession: with other recessions you didn't see a reduction in tithing at the church. The 2008 recession hit people so hard that they couldn't give to the church at the level they had been.

Donna Bojarsky: Would you say homelessness in Los Angeles is getting worse?

Renata Simril: ... Yes, certainly problems such as the tent cities have accelerated—things that are very much on display and hard to ignore. I think people have said "I'll pay anything so that the problem is not on my five-mile jog on Venice Boulevard when I go to the farmers market in Brentwood I'm not seeing panhandlers. So that when I'm having dinner in Beverly Hills, I don’t have to see that wheelchair panhandler coming up to me asking for dollars when I'm just trying to have dinner with my family” 

Donna Bojarsky: But you're optimistic about propositions H and HHH? We are the first ones to have funds earmarked to address homelessness, and really there are many people looking to us, right? To see how we do this, so there is some pressure.

Renata Simril: I think there’s an opportunity with the world's attention being focused on Los Angeles, with the Olympic games and the 11 years  lead up to the Olympic games. I think we can use this as an organizing principle to really showcase the best of Los Angeles. But the question is: how can we use that opportunity to help address the needs and the crises that do exist in our city blocks? 

Donna Bojarsky: Speaking of problems,  do we need a broader conversation about gentrification?

Renata Simril: Yes. When you said gentrification, I think of Boyle Heights that's right in the midst of it now. To me there's a balance between economic advancement and gentrification. Steve Lopez wrote an article a few weeks ago about how a coffee shop has become the symbol of gentrification, and people were boycotting and breaking the windows. If you read the article, you realize there is a Latino partner from Boyle Heights that is a partner of that coffee shop. They're trying to bring good coffee, they're trying to bring prosperity, they're trying to bring jobs to the community of Boyle Heights. And as people start to see that in close proximity to Los Angeles and the job center, and that wow, you've got good housing, these amazing views in Boyle Heights—they’re realizing it's an opportunity where they can get a house at affordable price, comparatively speaking.

Donna Bojarsky: We have it in Leimert Park, they have it in Harlem...

Renata Simril: It's everywhere, it's not a new phenomenon. The question becomes: where are our policy makers and elected leaders, to say: what housing policies are the solution for this problem?

Donna Bojarsky: So, what's the right way to move forward though? I mean how do you get people who can understand the other side, even if they don’t agree?

Renata Simril: Donna, that's the million-dollar question.

Donna Bojarsky: Run for mayor.

Renata Simril: No, that's not me. I'm very happy running the LA84 Foundation and trying to help the next generation achieve their dreams, whether that's on or off the field.

Donna Bojarsky: When they talk about the Olympics, obviously there's opportunities and they've talked about transportation, public spaces, youth sports.. is this  also an opportunity to help renew, reinvigorate our leadership?

Renata Simril: I think it is. When you think about the relationship between the Mayor and City Council in terms of passing the whole city contract, it’s very promising.

Donna Bojarsky: The skies opened up, right?

Renata Simril:  Angelenos have a nostalgia for the '84 games. 88% of Angelenos support the games in an independent survey that Loyola Marymount University did; 88% is unheard of. And so, the mayor is looking at the Olympics as an organizing principle, to say we need to have transit to the city. Who would have thought we would have a subway to the sea where beach volleyball could be played in 2028? The Council votes leading up to this bid were unanimous. When has that happened in the past? And when you think about the sequence of transit, airport renovations... for twenty years we've been talking about a football team coming back to Los Angeles. Now we have two. There’s a state-of-the-art facility being built in Inglewood that will be our iconic stadium for the  Opening Ceremony. A great deal of exciting things have happened.--I don't want to say the Olympics spurred all of it. But certainly it’s been part of it. The mayor will tell you this in his own words that his first order of business, when he became Mayor and when Boston dropped out, was to write a letter to the USOC saying that we would like to pick up and host.

He didn't do that just because of his nostalgia for hosting the games; I think he did that because it was an opportunity to use the Olympics to really demonstrate his vision of Los Angeles. To be able to share that with the world. That's ultimately what we've done and hope to continue to do. 

Donna Bojarsky: Let's face it though, the LA bid was up against a challenge, right? Because this is not the easiest time in international relations.

Renata Simril: From watching it closely: yes, certainly a challenge. The federal government has to commit to making this a major event and putting federal resources into it from from a security perspective. So certainly it’s a big undertaking. 

But I think that the issue with Los Angeles predated our current president. Certainly, our current President has caused the world to look at the United States in a vastly different and not favorable light, and I think what Casey (Wasserman) and the Mayor have done is really talk about what is the best of the United States through the lens of Los Angeles.

Everybody is welcome here. You've got 27 or 28 countries whose Los Angeles population is the largest outside of their home country. I think because we're still a relatively young city we’re able to talk about that on a world stage, and perhaps bring a certain degree of humility to the international stage. People may start to think about Los Angeles and see Los Angeles in a vastly different light.

Donna Bojarsky: What's your favorite thing about Los Angeles?

Renata Simril: I have a lot of favorite things. I’m a foodie, for one. I love just diversity. I've traveled a lot and I can get authentic Korean food here. I had authentic ramen noodles in a place down the street from my house in the Valley; soothing and filling. That culture diversity perspective, notwithstanding the fact that sometimes we might be siloed in our own communities: it's the world in one place. You can find a little bit of French cuisine or French experience. You could find a little bit of Spanish cuisine and Spanish experience. The Lotus Festival is one of my favorites. CicLAvia has become a favorite, where you can actually see your city and various parts of LA that you might drive through on your way somewhere else, where now you have a moment to stop. You're engaging with your neighbors; you're seeing a part of your city that you've never seen. I think I’d have to say the cultural diversity, and that it has the right set of balances. There's so much to offer here and that you can experience.

But. I do hate traffic, okay? I hate traffic. It's awful. But ultimately LA has the right set of balances for me. 

Donna Bojarsky: Los Angeles ranks fairly low in both philanthropy and volunteerism compared to other large cities. Why do you think that is?

Renata Simril: I think perhaps we're not always good at asking, or creating shared and sustained focus on an issue, but when we do, it comes together. For example, I'll speak to one of my experiences working with Dr. Bob Ross, the California Endowment President, who’s a friend and mentor. Like me he’s very engaged in providing opportunity and resources to the next generation of young people.  Bob had a conversation with the 2028 bid team, and said: "I think what our legacy will look like in 2028, leading up to and beyond the Games, will be to really have the voice of the kids heard, and to have the kids be inspired."

So he called me and said "Let's bring out 300-400 kids, middle and high school, and let’s ask them what they think." And he said to us, "Would you help us coordinate it? We want it to be a group of philanthropists and philanthropic organizations coming together.” So we had Annenberg, the California Endowment, LA84, we had LA n Sync… I know I'm missing a number of others. There were probably 8-10 philanthropic organizations that came together, and we had 275 middle and high school kids from the communities that we serve on that day talking about what legacy and impact an Olympic games can leave in your community. That came about from simply asking the organizations to help and we are excited to keep that collaboration and conversation with the kids going

Donna Bojarsky: What were their top things?

Renata Simril: They want opportunities for sports and structured play in school. They want more opportunities at parks and recreation, but there needs to be more safety and lighting. Parks and recreation, more spaces, school based sports and structured play. And we're now talking about how can we drive resources to help support the ideas that the youth are bringing up. Because I know from being in community organizing, the worst thing you can do is bring people to talk about something and then nothing gets done.

Donna Bojarsky: Right. And then they stop doing it, stop voting, stop everything.

Renata Simril: They stop engaging and they stop voting. In my experience at the LA84 Foundation- having been out of the civic world for a while during my time with the Dodgers, LA Times, and others-- I'm now really starting to see through the work that we do, and the collaborations of different organizations and individuals, that there are a lot of effective people and groups want the same thing we're talking about. That it's a matter of asking and having that consistent leader getting it done. I think that there are those opportunities that exist—you got me in a moment of nostalgia and optimism.

Donna Bojarsky: What was it like growing up African American here and what is it like versus now? How do you see that progression and what does it say about LA? 

Renata Simril: Without question, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. The 25th anniversary of the Civil Unrest was earlier this year. I’ve found myself watching a lot of documentaries about it. It's where I started my career, helping to rebuild out of the riots. It's interesting how a lot of the similar or same issues that were prevalent then still exist today. Black Girl Magic, Black Lives Matter--we're having the same conversation. We talk about humanity, but we find it very difficult to embrace our neighbor. I live in Studio City; we moved, we lived in the Hills and we moved down to the flats because our kids are in school. We want them to have sort of a semi-normal life. And it was mind-boggling to me when we moved in: people left wine, the neighbors left wine and cake and little cupcakes on the doorstep and "Hey neighbor, welcome to the neighborhood” notes. And I thought: "Wow, Mayberry does exist in Los Angeles."

Decades ago that may not have happened. So, I am aware of race. I am aware of the inequities that exist not just in the United States but certainly in Los Angeles, as diverse and as inclusive as we are. I think that we live in a bit of a bubble in California, and Los Angeles in particular. In terms of race, we're far from experiencing what that really is like for folks in the South.

I had an experience with this after high school, when I joined the service and was stationed in Anniston, Alabama--you talk about the South and race…

So yes, race is still very much an issue. And again, the work that we do here, when we talk about Olympianism and the Olympic movement, and you think about what it’s really about: it's about communities. People from all walks of life coming together.

Donna Bojarsky: As human beings and celebrating the human spirit.

Renata Simril: Celebrating the competition and human spirit. One of my favorite things about the Olympics is those moments that invariably come up. I can remember the 5000-meter race in 2016 and the U.S. female runner who got entangled with a New Zealand runner, and they both fell. And they finished the race arm in arm.

Not even advancing, or conceiving of receiving a medal, but having that moment of our shared humanity, of embracing our neighbor whom we may have never met. I don't know if they’d ever met, and they were competing hard against one another, and they finished the race arm in arm. I think those are the things we're trying to instill in our next generation of youth, that coming together and being our brother's keeper.

Donna Bojarsky: Is civic leadership important for a city and is there an opportunity with the next Olympics to start doing that.

Renata Simril: You caught me on an optimistic Tuesday. I think that we've gone through a period of leadership where it was truly the "me" generation, and I think that nowadays it's more about individual pursuits as opposed to the greater good.  

What made Tom Bradley a great mayor? He had multiple terms to figure this out. to think about a long-term strategy of building a multicultural base of supporters and really advance a vision of a city to support the constituents. I think that term limitshas gotten us away from that. Certainly, the actions that the City Council has taken over the course of the last couple of years, when the city council terms have been extended may have an effect. Hopefully 12 years is enough time to build something.

Donna Bojarsky: Do you think our civic climate had anything to do with why the Dodgers haven't felt that they had to make a deal in four years on the TV?

Renata Simril: That's a pendulum swing! 

Donna Bojarsky: Name another city that would not have been sleeping on the City Hall steps.

Renata Simril: The Dodgers certainly want to make a deal. I think Time Warner Cable —I don't even know who owns whom now---but they wanted to make a deal. DIRECTV felt that they didn't have to make a deal and buy the channel, and it's unfortunate for the core of the Dodger fan base that stuck with them in the dark depths of the previous ownership. I know it wasn't because the Dodgers didn't want to make a deal. I think that it was driven financially by DIRECTV.

Donna Bojarsky: What was as a great LA moment for you?

Renata Simril: A great LA moment for me was just after being away from home for three years. A long stretch in Anniston Alabama, and then a year and a half in Europe and West Germany. Then coming home, and the first thing that I did when I landed was went and had an In-N-Out Burger. That was the best In-N-Out burger I have ever had in my life. That to me is quintessential Los Angeles.