Can talk therapy cure LA's civic malaise?

future-of-cities-crop.jpgPhoto: Future of Cites website.

Can talk therapy cure LA's civic malaise?

I've been asking myself that question after attending not one, but two civic conversations this month dealing with the future of cities; and more specifically, our city. These are basically events in which corporate sponsors provide complimentary food and drink in swanky settings--after which a bunch of smart, hip, interesting people sit around telling us about all the smart, hip, interesting stuff they're doing to make our community a more smart, hip, interesting place to live.

Talk therapy has a mixed record in medical circles; opinions differ on how effective it can be in dealing with individual patients' depression. A 2015 report published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, for instance, culled through a number of previous studies and concluded that, as with prescription anti-depressants, the benefits of talk therapy had been significantly overstated due to publication bias. These researchers found that publications were more likely to publish psychotherapy studies showing greater patient benefit, and researchers were correspondingly reluctant to submit for publication studies that find only slight or no benefit to the therapy, knowing they had less chance of being accepted.

In other words, we all need a little hope, and we all want to believe, even hard-headed scientific researchers and jaded political reporters. Please, give us some good news!

So it was in that spirit of scientific inquiry that I decided to check out these events.

On October 3, LACMA hosted The Seam Summit, the latest event organized by Future of Cities: Leading in LA, an effort launched back in 2015 by Donna Bojarsky (full disclosure: she's a longtime friend and I'm a longtime admirer.) A second-generation Angeleno, former aide to Mayor Tom Bradley and Assemblyman Richard Katz, co-founder of the volunteer action agency LA Works, and seasoned political operative, she created FOC to help jump-start a civic conversation about what kind of city we want Los Angeles to be, and what various engaged and creative people are doing to help realize that vision.

There's no faulting Bojarsky's longstanding commitment to her hometown. Over the decades we've known each other, every professional endeavor she's been engaged in has been dedicated, in one way or another, to public engagement, political participation, and civic improvement. She's done it by working within the system, and by leveraging talent and resources outside the system. The Seam Summit--an evening of panels devoted to people, place, and connection, interspersed with corporate and philanthropic pep talks, a little entertainment, and an inspiring personal testimonial--was part of her ongoing effort.

But as the evening wore on and the crowd thinned out to a few dozen hardy souls by the end, I had to ask myself: what would this really accomplish? What could it accomplish? And in fact, the event was strikingly similar to an FOC event held almost exactly three years before in the same location, featuring some of the same people and organizations, sounding many of the same themes. Three years in which some of our problems, such as homelessness, have dramatically grown much worse.

Later in the month, it was up to the Loft in Hollywood's W Hotel for a breakfast nosh and the Sustainability Summit hosted by The Atlantic magazine and Nestlé Waters North America, in which for two hours and four panels a parade of entrepreneurs and corporate representatives touted their success in building "sustainability" into their business models--the consciousness that resources are finite, our planet's ecosystem is fragile, excessive consumption and waste impose increasingly intolerable financial and environmental costs, and that there are wiser ways to conduct ourselves as corporations, as communities, as individuals.

I probably should have known from the outset, but it turned out that the program was less about sustainability than about marketing sustainability, i.e. virtue signaling for companies marketing products and services to the young and the woke, from shoes to snack foods. The tone was set by the session produced by program sponsor Nestlé, in which one of the company's executives did a softball interview with the author of Good Is the New Cool, a book laying out the seven key principles for "re-branding branding as a powerful force for good."

See, according to the author today's media-savvy young people don't trust conventional advertising--stop me if you've heard this before--so marketers are urged to tap into pop culture and enlist young celebrities for more values-based ad campaigns. For Boomers, this is truly back to the future: yes, corporate America is still chasing that elusive youth market, promoting relevance, responsibility, conscience, yet not forgetting coolness.

Somewhere, the ghost of Don Draper must be chuckling.

Still, in the toxic miasma of today's political discourse, it's refreshing, even poignant, to place your bet on something as elemental and old-fashioned as civic conversations to engage the community and elevate the discussion.

A wary Henry David Thoreau warned us to "beware of all enterprises requiring new clothes" because, he wrote, "If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?" It takes more than just dressing up, in other words--or in this case more than a lot of smart talk--to really effect transformative self-improvement.

But let's think of it not as dressing up, but growing up. If we all--our elected officials, the media commentariat, the captains of industry and finance, our local civic leaders--cannot begin with a respectful discussion, and a collective effort to rediscover those lost values of civility, courtesy, and respect for differing or opposing views, it's difficult to imagine how we can ever move forward on any front. So here's a shout-out for Bojarsky and The Atlantic for trying to lead us in a better direction.

We've lost a lot of ground over the last three years. There's not a moment to waste, and this kind of talk therapy is a good place to begin that recovery.

Previously on LA Observed:
New future of LA initiative launches in a big way
Examining Los Angeles from within is all the rage
History matters even in Los Angeles
Future of Cities event coming in October
Why LA missed the new economy


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