Santa Monica microgrants bankroll grassroots community projects in the Pico neighborhood

By Hannah Levy

The microgrants initiative by Santa Monica’s Office of Civic Wellbeing is totally new — eight $500 grants for hyperlocal projects that boost quality of life in the Pico neighborhood, the city’s most ethnically diverse community.

The faces in the crowd at the microgrants reception on Aug. 27 were not new — many of the awardees have been active in Pico neighborhood projects going back decades, according to the city’s Chief of Civic Wellbeing, Julie Rusk.

“A lot of the folks here do all kinds of volunteer work in this community,” Rusk said, rattling off the volunteering credentials of the various grant winners, each of whom has until December to turn their grassroots proposals into a reality.

Marco Marin and Mulugeta Tadele are staging a series of Latinx/Ethiopian community workshops to build bridges between neighbors with shared experiences that cut through their separate ethnic identities.

“Escuchamos para entender: Las caras de Pico (We Listen to Understand: The Faces of Pico)” is an oral history project that pairs elementary school students at Edison Language Academy with Spanish-speaking seniors to record the history of the neighborhood.

Other projects include a pop-up playground made of upcycled materials in a lot on 19th Street on Oct. 21, a  community networking luncheon in November, and in December a dinner featuring chefs and recipes inspired by the Pico neighborhood’s cultural history.

The Wellbeing microgrants are an extension of a $1 million awarded five years ago by the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge that allowed the city of Santa Monica and the RAND Corporation to create a citywide Wellbeing Index.

The idea was to create a tool that, instead of measuring how residents feel about their local government, sought to measure how residents are actually doing in their community. Combining data from surveys, insights from social media, and more traditional data points such as crime statistics, the city’s Wellbeing Index strives to paint a more holistic picture of life in Santa Monica — one that captures how residents feel about everything from their economic situation to their health and overall sense of purpose — and that cuts across neighborhoods and demographics to provide deeper insights into specific communities.

“The important thing is not to measure for measurement’s sake, but to use it — to really look for ways that this information can give us new insights so that government policy and programs can be more effective and relevant to the things that matter,” Rusk explained.

Among only a handful of so-called “happiness indexes” in the United States, the idea alone has generated national buzz, with glossy national magazines reporting on some of the project’s more surprising findings.

For example, the Pico neighborhood scored consistently lower than its more affluent neighbors — most notably around the question of community. Between 2015 and 2017, the percentage of residents in Santa Monica who thought their children would be able to afford to stay in the community dropped noticeably, explained Rusk. “This anxiety about community, and being supported or not supported by it, was a huge theme, especially in this area of Santa Monica,” she said.

The disbursement of the microgrants coincided with heightened tensions in the Pico neighborhood about voter enfranchisement and how the community is represented in city hall. The same week the checks went out, Pico resident Maria Loya was in court suing Santa Monica to upend its citywide at-large election system. The trial stems from a question of whether Loya’s local election defeats were due to racially polarized voting, and the verdict will determine whether Santa Monica must carve out geographically based council districts in order to give its Pico-centered Latino community more concentrated power to elect a specific council member to serve that neighborhood.

Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer is among city officials who argue that switching to district elections would not only undermine two prior citywide votes that defeated such proposals, but might actually marginalize voters of color by concentrating their voting power in just one of seven seats.

During the microgrants reception, it was Winterer who handed out the money.

“This is a great part of the job of being mayor — getting to hand out the checks,” he joked.

The community members receiving them seemed equally giddy, cracking the paper open a peek on their way back to their seats.

“These microgrants,” the mayor explained, “are a way of saying we don’t have the solutions, you have the solutions. So, with a little bit of money and support, how can we find the best ideas and help make them happen?”

And with that, they were off.