Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Omar Brownson, Executive Director of the newly rebranded River LA, a nonprofit whose mission is to ensure the 51-mile Los Angeles River integrates design and infrastructure to bring people and nature together, to discuss how a small nonprofit can take on big challenges.
Omar will be discussing this further at the closing plenary of our 501(c)onference, Changemakers (Re)Creating Los Angeles, where he and others like Sachi Hamai, CEO of LA County, and Tom Sayles, Chairman of the LA Chamber of Commerce, will talk about how they are redesigning their organizations and redefining leadership to help communities thrive.
What made you decide to take on the LA River as project?
I wanted a chance to change the face of Los Angeles. I wanted to look at water, public space, and people to see how do you do that.
The River makes up 51 miles and 1000 acres of land. My career has been in real estate finance and development. It’s rare to play with 1000 acres of land and urban space. I love taking an idea and seeing if you can bring it to fruition and to scale it. River LA is the third start up that I’ve been a part of. Creating the generation of infrastructure is exciting.
When you think about your original goal and where you are today, what has been the biggest surprise?
It’s been surprising how fast things have come together. It takes a long time to move forward at this scale usually.
We had a simple idea — connect the bike path. We made up a name, Greenway 2020, and a deadline, and then worked to get people excited around this simple idea.
We have 26 miles of the 51 completed to date. The Mayor made it a part of his first 100 days plan. Golden Road Brewery made a custom IPA to help spread the word. We’ve done 10k’s and half marathons. Measure R has allocated $425 million for the LA River bike path.
Conceiving of this three years ago to aligning agencies and elected officials to potentially having all that funding is exciting.
What can you share with other nonprofit leaders about taking on big challenges and creating change?
Lean in to the unknown. Just because you have done it one way doesn’t mean that’s always the right way. Have the courage to keep going forward if you feel it’s the right strategy.
Also, come from a place of curiosity and be hyper open to learning new things. A sense of discovery is essential to solving problems.
And lastly, strange bedfellows can create new things. Bring people together.