On a recent Monday afternoon, representatives from tech companies including Facebook and entertainment companies Sony Pictures, Netflix, Television City and its owner, Hackman Capital Partners, gathered for a Zoom call.
The businesspeople and executives were not there to talk about the future of television and movies, and their conversation never touched on box office numbers and Nielsen ratings.
Instead, they were taking turns providing answers to “What is love?” and “Why do we find it so hard to love at times?” and discussing the topic with students from Fairfax High School as part of the Mentor LA initiative from Good City Mentors.
Good City Mentors partnered with Fairfax High School through Television City’s Changing Lenses initiative, a $2 million pledge to invest in the adjacent Fairfax District after the civil unrest of this past summer. For Mentor LA, Television City contributed $50,000 to get the leadership program up and running at Fairfax High School in September. So far, 39 mentors have spent a combined 336 hours with 56 Fairfax students, and on average, 34 students attend each week for program-wide talks and smaller breakout groups.
Zach Sokoloff, a vice president with Hackman Capital Partners primarily focused on the Studio Platform, said Television City connected with Good City Mentors through Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education member Nick Melvoin, 4th District, who is friends with Brian Larrabee, Good City Mentors co-founder and executive director.
“[Larrabee] is such a positive, infectious person … We pursued other organizations across the city, but the personal connection through Nick and the energy and excitement and passion that Brian brings to the work, it’s really for him a calling, and that’s apparent from the minute you meet him,” Sokoloff said.
“Every child deserves to dream without limits, and Good City Mentors’ Mentor LA Initiative is giving our students the knowledge, support, and confidence to envision limitless new opportunities for their future,” Melvoin said in a statement. “Living in the entertainment capital of the world, we’re thrilled to support the Changing Lenses initiative and facilitate a partnership that brings organizations like Television City and others in our creative industries into our classrooms to benefit our kids.”
For the past 10 weeks, that benefit has been focused on love and “what love looks like,” said Larrabee, who founded Good City Mentors with his wife, Allyssa Bross Larrabee.
“It was on purpose for them to see firsthand what love looks like and a big part of our program is a leadership program,” Larrabee said. “What we call the students to do is to take what they’re learning and experiencing out into their lives, to be able to impact their families, their school, their community, their state, their country.”
These students, the “people who are going to lead this country,” need “a really safe place to talk about these types of things, of what’s going on in the world, not just in their backyard but really in their country right now,” Larrabee added.
“That’s a big part of why Fairfax was such a critical school for us,” he said. “[The unrest after the killing of George Floyd] was right there, but also, L.A. is such a unique city where you might have some of the most underserved, highest-need high schools like Fairfax, serving low-income youth of color, next to some of the biggest companies. One of the things with Fairfax with having those comparisons, how do we create a pathway for the students to have access to these companies?”
Sokoloff said that mission melds with the Changes Lenses initiative, which also includes a previously announced partnership with Streetlights to train ethnic minorities from disadvantaged communities for jobs in the entertainment industry. Sokoloff said he thinks Mentor LA “embodies the best of what Changing Lenses could become.”
“This was our overarching goal, make a difference in the local community and expose kids to the entertainment industry. I’m a big believer in the phrase ‘you can’t be what you can’t see,’ and the opportunity to pair students with professionals in some of the biggest entertainment companies in our city is something that’s very involved with our goals,” Sokoloff said.
The program has had a big impact on the Fairfax students who have participated, said Yesenia Flores, secondary counselor at Fairfax High School.
“We knew that especially during this time we would be distance learning and we needed a place where students could interact and help with others. It’s been such a success and such a positive program for our students,” she said.
She added that between the civil unrest, the pandemic and the “isolation that we’re all experiencing,” the Mentor LA program “has really helped [the students] feel connected to others and relate to others and not feel so lonely.”
“They didn’t have school or a place where they could be having conversations about what really tested them, but having Good City Mentors and having a mentor they could have these conversations with helped them feel better and showed them how they could help their community … The feelings of uncertainty and fear and confusion, this gives them an outlet to decompress … I’m really happy with it and it is the highlight of my week. I look forward to it and I know the students and mentors do too,” Flores said.
Sokoloff, who taught at schools in Boyle Heights and Watts as part of Teach for America, also pointed to the benefits for the adults who participate. The meetings are “one of the highlights of my week, and I know I speak for the other Television City and Hackman partners when I say that,” he said.
“In this period of isolation and uncertainty, the personal connection is just, it’s a salve in an otherwise difficult time … It makes me a more empathetic person, and so I feel very grateful to Brian, to Yesenia and the Fairfax team, to the other mentors who participate, because it reminds me a lot about my experience teaching. I hope my students learned a lot from me, but I learned a lot from my students. I hope they learned a lot from myself and my other mentors, but I’ve learned a lot from them as well,” Sokoloff said.
Larrabee also sang the praises of the sessions, which allow people with different backgrounds and experiences to share their thoughts and feelings in a safe place.
“Just being able to release all of the things that are inside and talk to someone, create a space where we can take all the stuff we have inside out in a positive way, I would say it’s therapeutic,” Larrabee said. “It’s a therapeutic thing when you’re struggling with someone on the inside and to talk to someone you know cares about you.”
The Mentor LA program, which is already at 11 other high schools – including Hollywood High School, Alonzo Community Day School, APEX Academy and Bernstein High School – plans to expand when the meetings resume after the holidays. Larrabee said in addition to the 333 students and 264 mentors already part of the program, in January, they expect to add two more schools and more than 60 new mentors. Larrabee credited Television City and Hackman Capital Partners for their work in helping expand Mentor LA.
“The need is so great right now that without the sponsorship of these powerful and inspiring companies in Los Angeles and Television City, there’s no way operationally that we’d be able to reach the amount of kids who need this amount of mentoring service right now … [They’re] stepping up and really leading the charge [and] their hope is that they inspire other companies to jump in and follow their lead,” he said.
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