Making Sense of it All

June 1, 2020

I am sure you are all watching what is unfolding over the last several days with strong, and painful emotions — I know I have.  For a moment, I would ask you to separate the intentions of the peaceful protestors from the disruptive actions of opportunist looters.  The combination of George Floyd’s gruesome death in Minneapolis, Admaud Arbery’s shooting death in South Georgia, and even Amy Cooper falsely manipulating the “justice system” to threaten a black man in Central Park — these are all stark reminders of how much still remains to be done in this country.  The chaos that has unfolded in the last few nights and continues today in almost every major city in the country lays bare the pain, the frustration, and the desperation that still exists in every black and brown community across America.  

As someone who has benefited greatly from opportunities in the United States, it is not easy for me to be critical.  Yet just as it is important to give credit when credit is due, it is right to criticize when criticism is due.  Despite the opportunities afforded me, I still see the daily inequities and deep disparities in the communities we work in and invest in due to decades of institutional racism.  

I personally remember being stopped while jogging in Philadelphia and asked to “prove” that I was not up to no good by having to show my dorm room keys.   I remember being pulled over by police in Greenwich, CT and nervously having to explain I was simply working extra late at night to keep up with my peers.

But my experience is different — and perhaps significantly advantaged — from the black and brown young people in South Central LA, in Minneapolis, in Atlanta, in Oakland, in Philadelphia…and the list goes on.  I grew up with loving parents, who despite very limited resources, had the wherewithal to partially decode the system. To realize that their children’s education was likely our only pathway to economic security and a better life.  I grew up in a secure and chaos free home.  However, it was true then and is true now, thousands around me lost hope.   What I saw in Northern Nigeria (where I grew up) was hundreds of young men became part of the Boko Harma ideology – is not that different from what we are seeing today:  the lack of hope, the lack of an equitable system, the lack of education, and the lack of resources combined together to produce very bad outcomes.  Interestingly, the term “Boko Haram” literally translates as “Western education is forbidden.”  For me, therein lies at least part of the answer. 

I’ve had the unique opportunity over the last decade of building a career by investing in black and brown communities in Southern California.  Several years ago, we launched a non-profit (the SoLa I Can Foundation) that is devoted to studying the societal and personal determinants of economic advancement and using for-profit like structures and incentives to create social change.  This weekend, I spoke to several of you about what is happening in Los Angeles.  Amidst the wide range of emotions, the recurring question everyone had was“What can I personally do about this?” My answer is two-fold.

#1.  Smart people with access to resources can make a material difference in societal problems, but it must be done intentionally.  I’m not just talking about SoLa and its staff, but also you – our investors, our extended ecosystem of partners, influencers, advisors, contractors, volunteers, etc.   Each one of you chose to invest, partner with, introduce, or support SoLa’s platform in whatever way you saw fit.  And we have growing evidence – both quantitative and anecdotal — that our collective time, energy, and money is resulting in positive change in hundreds of lives.  The reality is we at SoLa are working every day to address the fundamental issue of income inequality that is the underbelly of so many of the other problems we are seeing.   While SoLa does so primarily through the lens of housing, the end goal is to enable access to economic mobility and opportunity through housing, through education, through better health outcomes, through a host of other social determinants of mobility.  By the vote you have made with your time, energy, and your dollars: you are already a part of the solution. 

#2.  The most direct path to economic advancement is to create pathways for members of the community to self-select into opportunities of higher-education. This can be achieved through a broad range of avenues — certification programs, vocational and trade schools, community colleges as well as traditional colleges and universities.  Over the last several months, as the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted African American and Latinx communities and reminded us again of the fundamental inequalities of our society, we struggled to develop a longer-term solution than giving out food and PPE equipment. 

We settled on the COVID-19 Retraining & Recovery (CORE) Fund, which offers scholarships/tuition assistance to low-income residents to pursue professional certifications in fields likely to be in high-demand in a post-COVID economy. These industries will directly support the nation’s response to this and future pandemics. Equally important, it will give a segment of the community (not just our tenants) a free opportunity to change the trajectory of their, and their family’s, economic life.  Our goal is to raise $5 million to support this initiative and replicate it in other low-income communities with local partners.   We already started with a sponsorship from the founder of Lunya through its #sharealittlehope campaign; and are looking to meaningfully expand our corporate and philanthropic sponsors.  Knowing the power of education in my life, I strongly encourage you to support this endeavor in a meaningful way and introduce SoLa I Can to those who can. 

As I continue to watch the demonstrations and senseless looting continue this Sunday evening, I realize that although we are fortunate that our properties remain untouched and undamaged, our SouthLA community and its residents remain in trouble.  And as both the pandemic and the civil unrest have shown us, as our world gets smaller, our definition of community must get bigger.   Whatever you choose to do with your time, energy, and resources in the next few weeks, we hope we can be a resource, a sounding board, or an intentional partner.

Please stay safe and stay hopeful.

Martin Muoto,

Managing Partner and Co-Founder