If I were in the market for a grant and told the funder that the distribution of hundreds of flyers via face-to-face conversations with area residents had resulted in the appearance of exactly one participant at our event, and that I counted that as a wild success, I’m guessing they would consider me insane.
It is the dilemma all non-profit efforts face. How do you measure success? What can you point to as evidence of impact? Usually, funders prefer concrete numbers. The more, the better.
But when you are working to make sustainable cultural change in a complex context, like that of South L.A., numbers alone are often poor indicators. You may have lots of participants, but they may not be from the target population. Or, even if the participants are from your intended population, their experience may not be transformative or empowering. A one-off event may give participants new ideas, but no channels through which to act, meaning they have no way to implement new practices.
Shifts in thinking and behavior take time and investment, in other words, and are not always measurable in ways that conform to typical funding benchmarks and time-tables.
Take the Ride South L.A. ride through the Florence-Firestone and Watts neighborhoods yesterday.
A diverse group of just over 100 cyclists met at Augustus Hawkins Natural Park at Compton and Slauson Aves. Just about half of them came in the form of the biking groups from the area — the East Side Riders and YO Watts Ryderz — and representatives from T.R.U.S.T. South L.A. The rest came from all over the city, including some from Long Beach.
Most of the riders from outside South L.A. had not participated in the January ride. A few proclaimed they hadn’t been on a bike in years. A sizeable number had never been through the area before.
Riders came, they rode, they conquered.
Yes. But not in the way you might think.
One of the things that had troubled me about the January ride event along that route was that the community had not known we were coming through. Although they poked their heads out windows and doors and waved as we passed by, we were clearly observing each other from a distance instead of interacting. In neighborhoods where kids have so few opportunities to ride safely and so little recreational riding occurs, it seemed like a tremendous oversight to have left them out.
Though that event may have been flawed in that regard, it had a concrete output — a map — that has proven an incredibly useful tool from which to take the next step forward in community outreach. Map in hand, John Jones III (leader of the East Side Riders) and I were able to canvass the route, hand it to people, and explain the goals of encouraging recreational riding and healthy habits while promoting South L.A. as a destination. We explained they could join in the ride at any time along the route, in the event that they felt they couldn’t get to the start point. Ultimately, we both hoped that there would be greater active support from community members.
Looking around at the riders gathered at the starting point, it was clear to me that we had failed in that regard. There was exactly one independent rider from the area, an older gentleman named Paul. He had gotten hold of a flyer at one of the housing projects we had stopped at and was excited to see so many people on bikes.
“I can’t believe all these people have their own bikes!” he kept telling me.
He rides all over the place and had been happy to hear that there was a group coming through that he could join up with. He had had no idea that there were groups in the area that rode more regularly, but thought it was fantastic, given the safety concerns that keep most people off the street.
I had to laugh — the one person that had showed up independently was not even one of the people we had talked to directly.
Even so, his appearance was a major victory for us.
In many of the neighborhoods along the route, there are tensions and issues of trust within the community that impede them from being able to work and play together. Kids from one set of projects told me that if we were going to roll through this or that area that there was no way they would come along. Racial tensions within a few of the neighborhoods meant that if people were unsure of who was going to be riding, they would feel safer not participating.
Others might not have felt certain that they would be protected in rival territory, as was the case with Nico, one of the YO Watts Ryderz.
Despite having grown up just blocks from the Watts Towers, he had never been there and feared former rivals might spot him in the group. Javier Partida, head of the Ryderz, assured him he would be safe. But it took some convincing.
Once there, he was ecstatic. And proud of himself.
“I never been here in, what, the 20 years I been [living] here?!” he shook his head, grinning, as he pedaled his cruiser around the plaza in circles.
The ride along the route to the Towers also proved a victory for our outreach efforts.
All along the route where John and I had left flyers and spoken with folks, people I recognized were waiting for us with their kids, waving excitedly. Pedestrians stopped me in the street asking for more information about the ride. Even a driver forced to wait for cyclists to clear a narrow side street asked about our goals and applauded the effort to get more people out on their bikes. Other drivers honked and waved in support.
In short, the event felt more participatory than the previous one in that it was the kind of engagement that could be built upon. Now that people had seen what the ride was about, they might be more inclined to join in for the next one.
Success, in this case, is best conceptualized as a process, not a product.
Or, as Paul put it: “We need more of these! I love to ride!”
Thanks to all who came out and participated in making it possible, including the folks at the Bikerowave, Ride South L.A., the East Side Riders, T.R.U.S.T. South L.A., the YO Watts Ryderz and Los Ryderz, and RIDE: In Living Color. More photos from the event are available here.