connect / 2019

United Parents and Students: Developing Cultures of Civic Engagement Across Los Angeles

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Grants Challenge by United Parents and Students

United Parents and Students envisions Los Angeles as a city where political power accurately reflects the population’s diversity. UPAS will continue to train and empower low-income community members to voice their concerns, engage city officials, and mobilize thousands of students and families to vote. It will also launch a broader activation strategy to raise awareness among Angelenos of the scale and impact of poverty, homelessness, underemployment, violence, and lack of access to healthcare.


What does your organization do?

United Parents and Students provides training in the formal skills of community organizing and promotes authentic civic engagement and informed activism in historically underrepresented communities.

Briefly tell us a story that demonstrates how your organization turns inspiration into impact.

“For far too long having fast food restaurants on every corner has taken a toll on the health of our communities,” said Keisha Mitchell, a United Parents & Students leader. In many underserved neighborhoods there is a higher likelihood of residents finding multiple fast food chains than wholesome grocery stores, which requires residents to venture into other neighborhoods or settle for less healthy food options. That’s why United Parents & Students launched a food justice campaign. Members have reported a prevalence of rotting, expired food and poor customer service in many of their local grocery stores. “Having fresh food options within communities can have a huge impact on the overall quality of life,” said Mitchell. “Nutritious food can change how disease and poor health plague areas that are saturated with unhealthy food options.”

Even though the Department of Public Health currently grades grocery stores, the department does not account for rotting produce, meat, and dairy products. “I have to travel outside of my community to have a good experience and that’s not okay,” recalled Isela Castro, another UPAS member. “I want to be able to shop in my community.”

As a result of their brewing frustration, families worked with UPAS to develop a report card and an evaluation process to hold grocery stores accountable for their food quality. Stores that meet these standards earn a United Parents & Students Certified Store of Excellence Seal to alert community members to its quality. While this seal may not be verified by local or state authorities yet, it’s a critical step toward taking back the power to demand change, and reward progress, in their local stores.

Grocery Outlet Inglewood was the first store to receive the seal; families wanted to recognize its efforts in meeting the standards. Ultimately, UPAS hopes to work with the city and county to institutionalize a county-wide program with a similar rubric and seal. “The food justice campaign is important to me because I believe that all families should have equal access to affordable high quality food,” said Castro. “We should be able to walk into the grocery stores in our communities and see fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy items, and affordable prices.”

Which of the connect metrics will your submission impact?​

  • Attendance at public/open streets gatherings
  • Government responsiveness to residents’ needs
  • Voting rates

In which areas of Los Angeles will you be directly working?

  • Central LA
  • East LA
  • South LA
  • Westside
  • City of Los Angeles

How will your project make LA the best place to connect?

Los Angeles has the the most rapidly rising rents in America, the highest rates of homelessness, and the fourth highest rate of income inequality among the country’s largest metropolitan areas. These issues hit low-income communities of color the hardest. But while 84% of the county’s eligible voters are registered, turnout in the city’s municipal elections is notoriously low, resulting in measures getting passed with fewer than 200,000 votes in a city with a population of almost four million.

Many existing solutions to persistent community issues, while admirable, often treat community empowerment as a volunteer, grassroots pastime. UPAS fundamentally believes that in order to secure long-lasting community progress and revitalization, community organizing must be recognized as a profession requiring knowledge and strategic skills. Furthermore, UPAS’ training is based on an understanding that systemic change needs to be pursued and sustained by the community itself rather than through the efforts, however well intentioned, of others. The organization aims to help build the capacity of grassroots coalitions in which local families can participate and ultimately attain leadership roles. UPAS’ Theory of Change is built upon the development and nurturing of parent and student leaders as they work to activate the latent capital of their communities. The organization carries out its program through a structured program consisting of parent education, formal advocacy training, coordinated public actions, and voter registration initiatives.

Education: UPAS’ Parent Academy offers free adult education workshops designed to develop basic skills and provide parents with a core understanding of the issues that most affect their communities. A schedule of classes, delivered at a partnering school site, is tailored to meet the needs of a particular neighborhood.

Training: Building upon the foundational knowledge base provided by the Parent Academy, the Leadership Institute follows a training model utilized by the Industrial Areas Foundation since the 1970s to teach participants how to prioritize issues, draft solutions, and develop strategies to engage elected representatives in meaningful and informed dialogue.

Public Action: Operating under the core belief that meaningful change is the direct result of concerted public action, UPAS translates theory into practice by guiding members to apply their education and training to active civic participation. UPAS’ public initiatives have resulted in many successful community-wide accomplishments.

Voter Mobilization: UPAS believes that action demonstrated through voting is essential to the organization’s strategy; meaningful self-advocacy requires communities to combine public action and voter registration efforts in order to establish and sustain broader, coalition-based civic engagement.

In what stage of innovation is this project?

Expand existing program (expanding and continuing ongoing successful projects)

Please explain how you will define and measure success for your project.

UPAS utilizes an innovative software database called M-Insights to measure quantitative impact. M-Insights tracks the attendance levels at each Parent Academy workshop, Leadership Institute, and public action. This data helps staff assess the evolution of program participation at the cohort and individual levels. M-Insights is also useful in measuring the impact of the voter mobilization initiative, allowing staff to document their interactions with prospective voters and track the particular outreach strategies that are most successful in leading people to register.

UPAS’ success is ultimately dependent on the number of community members engaged and trained, the quality of training, and the frequency of civic engagement as a result. The overall reach and effectiveness of UPAS’ work is measured against ambitious goals which are designed by the Executive Director and Board through close collaboration with local families and site-based leaders who drive the work at the neighborhood level.

– By 2020, UPAS will engage 2,600 members to participate in Leadership Institutes per year.

– By 2020, 60 students will be trained through the Young Organizers Institute.

– 1500 parents will attend the UPAS 2020 assembly.

– By 2020, UPAS intends for two or more partner organizations to have submitted proposals for affiliate membership. Organizations that have expressed interest include KIPP Los Angeles, Magnolia Public Schools, and Camino Nuevo Charter Academy.

– By 2020, a cumulative total of 6,557 parents and students will be registered to vote and at least 40 local public actions will be led by members each year.