Setting a good example at Norwood Elementary: Leaders emerge from the Magnolia community initiative in Los Angeles

At Norwood Elementary School in Los Angeles, children learn the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic as their parents lay the foundations for building a community of hope.

A relaxed group of parents congregates each school day inside a Norwood classroom set aside expressly for them. On an unseasonably cool March morning, a few industrious mothers cut shamrocks out of green construction paper, stringing together garlands to decorate the hallways for St. Patrick’s Day. Another mom knits quietly while other parents engage in a lively conversation in Spanish, smiling and laughing the hours away.

The moments may seem mundane, yet they are profound. At Norwood Elementary and other venues within a five-square-mile area southwest of downtown Los Angeles, seeds of progress are taking root through the Magnolia Community Initiative. The initiative is a national model for mobilizing residents and organizational partners to build a community culture that can sustain strong families and keep children safe.

Peel away the layers of academic research and social theory that went into developing the Magnolia Community Initiative and it is about building a community of hope for the 35,000 children who live there – 65 percent of whom are being raised in poverty.

Magnolia’s community of hope follows this path: By encouraging social interaction among parents, a bond forms among them. From that supportive community, leaders emerge. Those leaders become ambassadors for the community and – in partnership with organizations – advocate for the children and families who live there. The community grows strong, helping to erase the feelings of social isolation that can lead families to desperation and despair.

Rosalba Naranjo, a mother who was raising three children in a difficult marriage, was on a desperate search for hope when she walked across the threshold of the parents’ room at Norwood and entered a new world. A parent leader reached out, and Naranjo – against her introverted instincts – grabbed hold.

Naranjo listened intently as the leader guided other parents through a Magnolia Community Initiative curriculum that focused on the “protective factors” needed for families to keep children safe – attributes such as strength, resilience and social attachment.

“The protective factors are qualities that individuals and families already have – they already are in the home,” says Lilia Perez, a Magnolia Community Initiative representative. “It’s just a matter of reinforcing them.”

Naranjo was moved by the message of hope and the show of support from the other parents at Norwood. She began to recognize the strength and resilience inside her, summoning that spirit to remake her marriage and create a safe environment at home for her children and for herself. Over time, Naranjo gained enough self-confidence to teach other parents in the community the same curriculum on protective factors that so inspired her.

“Before it was a matter of learning for me and for me only,” she says. “Now my focus is on teaching other parents. I worry about them. That’s why I feel like I have to take this information to them. I feel like I have much responsibility to be an example to my children and to other parents. I like being able to draw out the leaders that lie within them.”

The Magnolia Community Initiative’s ambition to spawn community leaders is part of its overall mission to improve the safety of children, quality of parenting, economic stability of families, educational success of children, and health and well-being of the entire community. In the 500 city blocks that the initiative serves, two-thirds of the 35,000 children live in poverty, one in three is obese, four in 10 enter kindergarten unprepared, and four in 10 fail to graduate from high school on time. The neighborhood also has higher than average rates of child abuse, child neglect and spousal abuse.

Children’s Bureau of Southern California, a nonprofit that aims to prevent child abuse and neglect, sparked the Magnolia Community Initiative and its growing number of partnerships. Children’s Bureau continues to be a steering partner to the initiative – although agency CEO Alex Morales is quick to say the real forces driving the movement are the families and other partner organizations within the community.

“We began this effort not by looking to simply add and offer more services but by studying the complexity of the needs within the community,” he says. “We looked at the health, poverty and education problems and wanted to be part of a larger effort to tackle full-scale community change. There is no real genius to what we are doing. Everyone is talking about it. We are just doing it.”

The community initiative is propelled by a partnership of more than 70 organizations – public, private, faith-based, nonprofit and philanthropic – including the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and Casey Family Programs. The partner network also includes service providers that offer and accept referrals, but Lila Guirguis, initiative director, says it is not about being just a service network. “It is so much more than that. It’s about creating a learning opportunity where organizations test their ideas and learn together about what works to create real change.”

Morales and Guirguis emphasize that while improved service access and service quality for the community have been positive outcomes of the initiative, they are not the only advantages.

“People don’t describe their lives in terms of the services they receive,” Morales says. “They talk about how their family nurtured them, how teachers reached out to them. They talk about the social interactions they have within their community.”

Services and social interactions share the stage at the Magnolia Place Family Center, another of the community hubs where the theories of the initiative play out. Inside a converted warehouse bathed in natural light, families enjoy a variety of unique amenities, including three saltwater fish tanks and a children’s library designed like a treehouse.

The Magnolia Place complex also features a child development center where parents spend several hours a day with their toddlers and take a pledge to spread the knowledge of what they have learned to their neighbors. Magnolia Place tenants include: a public health clinic; a community bank and loan association; a single office integrating several government agencies that serve children, including the Department of Children and Family Services; a foundation focused on job readiness; and even a children’s nature institute that introduces the joys of nature to city kids.

Early indications of success are coming from the residents themselves. Surveys indicate that parents are more aware of the importance of building protective factors in their homes. They openly discuss the paths to keeping children safe and making families strong, such as eliminating social isolation, reducing family stressors and understanding child development milestones. Organizational partners report that providing quality services is easier now because they are working within a seamless community network that offers families more of what they need to thrive. That includes connecting families to the kind of community social support that inspires hope in children.

Quiana Sandres, who lives near the family center, discovered it through a referral by one of the network partner organizations a few years after the center opened in 2008. “I honestly had no idea it existed,” says Sandres, who was busily raising two young children, now 4 and 2. While seeking services for her son, who has ADHD, she visited the center and heard Morales give a talk about the vision and goals of the initiative.

“I was mesmerized,” Sandres recalls. “I stood up and asked, ‘How do I volunteer?’”

Sandres now is a community ambassador for the initiative, spreading the gospel to her neighbors through Facebook, Instagram and word of mouth.

“Once you walk into Magnolia Place, it draws you in,” she says. “All I need is to get somebody to visit just one time, and they’ll be back. This has become a place where everybody knows everybody, or is getting to know everybody, because everybody is here. And that’s great because everyone needs their neighbors, just like everyone needs their family.”

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