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April 20, 2009, at 12:00 pm — Audio | audio interview | Blogs | Interviews / / / / / /

Finding the Role Model in All of Us: an interview with Brian Center, Executive Director of A Better L.A.

When you talk with people in Los Angeles about leadership, it isn’t surprising when someone mentions USC football coach Pete Carroll. By win percentage he is among the winningest college football coaches of all time. He manages to recruit superstar talent, corral superstar egos, and produce a consistently excellent team of young athletes year after year.

He also is a cofounder of A Better L.A., a community improvement group whose mission is to transform communities that struggle with violence, and whose approach is to identify the important players and resources, bring them all to the table to talk and plan, and then teach people within a troubled community to make use of these resources for themselves and change their own situations for the better. The Executive Director of the group, charged with fulfilling this vision, is Brian Center. I had the pleasure of an unhurried twenty-three-minute interview with him back in February and wrote a bit about it in a blog a few months ago. Now, finally, you can hear the complete interview–it’s my first serious interview, so please be gentle!–and read some highlights and commentary below. I recommend listening to this inspiring interview about people accomplishing incredible things simply because they hold the belief that it can be done.

Listen to the interview.

If you only have time for highlights, here are some of my favorite quotes:

On Pete Carroll’s involvement in A Better L.A.: “He likes to get involved as much as he can, and part of that is he’s just very passionate about what he does. And he doesn’t have a huge ego.”

On why Carroll inspires the people around him: “He talks the talk and walks the walk, as they say. He really lives his philosophy of life 100% of the time.”

More on Carroll as a motivator and role model: “He’s one of the most disciplined guys I’ve ever met in my life. If he believes in something and says he’s going to do something he does it. And so you just can’t help but be inspired when you’re around him and want to do better and want to be the best person you can be because you see him acting like that and showing you it’s possible.”

Still more about Carroll: “People are very inspired by his vision. People are very inspired by the way he acts, how consistent he is. You can see him any time of day or night, and he could have had a really tough day, and he’s still positive and upbeat and pumping people up and talking about being the best you can be. And so it seems to impact just about everybody he’s around.”

On Carroll’s effect on a variety of people: “At A Better L.A., we’ve had a pretty diverse group of people around him, from law enforcement to social workers to very successful people to gang members. It doesn’t matter who it is. Everyone responds in a positive way.”

On the inception of A Better L.A.: “When Pete got the non-profit started several years ago, that was really the first thing that he did, was to just bring people together. He just creates this atmosphere that makes that very safe and doable and positive.”

More about the birth of A Better L.A.: “[He] brought together all these people who never talked to each other before and gave them a common vision to gather around the table and try to solve this problem of gang violence together.”

On the importance of role models in the A Better L.A. philosophy: “I think everyone needs a role model that they can relate to at some level. So the ideal role model would be someone who they know, who they can relate to and has a similar background. That’s part of our philosophy and one of our slogans, ‘Build communities from within,’ which means that, yeah, we’re helping, but the real people doing the work and the real extraordinary people are people within the community already. And we’re really just trying to … build them into the role models they can be. And so the inner city kids can say, ‘Hey, that guy’s not that different from me. He’s from my neighborhood and look what he’s doing. I can do that, too.’”

On solving the problem of violence: “You can’t stop someone from shooting another person … unless you talk to the person who has their finger on the trigger. And no one else is really doing that.” (Center goes on to explain that they are investing their time and energy in gang members and other troubled souls because they are the ones who can most effectively deliver the message, and because deep down, most folks really do want this change.)

On hope, skills, and the domino effect: “There’s hope for just about everybody out there. And if we can just pay attention to these folks who never get paid attention to, and give them some hope and some basic skills about how to approach life, then they can change. And if they’re the ones causing a lot of chaos in the community and they change, the domino impact is really tremendous.”

On a current A Better L.A. project to “try to make a comprehensive change for the better” in the Los Angeles community known as West Athens: “One of the exciting things about it is it’s sort of merging the worlds of grassroots efforts with research.” (As examples, Center cites the grassroots work of Multi-Systemic Therapy and the research of Irving Spergel and Edward Latessa. He explains that many groups have tried one approach or the other, and a few have made limited attempts to combine the two, but none has integrated the grassroots approach with serious research so extensively as A Better L.A. This way, he elaborates, people who need attention are getting that attention from people they know and respond to, but that information has been proven appropriate and helpful.)

I’d like to thank Brian Center for this lengthy interview late at night and for his generous offer to continue to answer questions and provide further information as needed. He is knowledgeable, professional, well-spoken and dedicated. And he invites people and entities in Los Angeles to get involved. Get on the group’s online communities and share stories and support. Give money. As with any big problem, every little bit really does help.

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