Tony Brown is the executive director of Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), a nonprofit organization in the Rampart district that provides after-school academic and arts programs for over 2,300 children with the help of credentialed teachers, teachers in training, and volunteers. It recently won $500,000 through Great Public Schools Now to help construct a new 25,000-square-foot arts, education, and recreation center to accommodate a large waitlist of over 300 local families.
Tony talks about the importance of staying passionate and how that informed his decisions to ditch lane swimming, pursue sports management, and start helping kids who aren’t getting what they need in Los Angeles public schools.
Are you a coffee or tea drinker? What kind?
There’s a crazy story.
I was a coffee bean, ice blended, vanilla drinker, but then I had a brain injury unrelated to coffee. So the doctors said, “No more caffeine for this guy.”
I seldom drink coffee, except for special occasions, and when I do, it’s decaf.
What was the brain injury?
I had a brain AVM. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, I had a grand mal seizure, among other things, in 2006. I was in the hospital for four weeks and ended up having brain surgery. It was something I was born with. You would never know you had it until your brain is fully formed and something happens because they don’t spot it in a routine exam that you can test for.
You used to be in sports management. How did you make the transition to running Heart of Los Angeles?
My first career was as an event planner. My second career was as an entrepreneur, owning sports camps for kids. It was during that time I met HOLA, in 1992 or 1993. I started working there part-time while also owning the summer camps.
And then I became a teacher. I taught PE, and I coached and after doing that for a while, I went back and got my master’s in sports management. I ended up working for a “dot com” as director of sports verticals and ultimately went to Fox Sports where I sold sponsorship packages and did some player endorsement work for local sports teams.
I came back to visit Heart of L.A., and they were looking for someone to help raise money for kids. It was very similar to what I was doing in sports.
What’s a “typical” day like at Heart of Los Angeles?
It’s grounded in humility.
Ninety-seven percent of the families we serve are living in poverty. Many, many family members to a one-bedroom, transitioning from someone’s garage to a sofa, bouts of homelessness. Kids are traversing through gangs, mental illness, drugs, and it’s amazing they come here after a full day of school.
We try to provide expanded learning opportunities through traditional academic coursework and, more important, the development of their social and emotional needs.
And also putting back into their days what has been stripped out of most schools, which are the arts, health and wellness, music. We aim to make sure kids get a well-rounded, no one-size-fits-all, individualized opportunity to find their passion.
I’m not discounting what happens during the school day, but we need to look at how we educate kids in underserved neighborhoods and say it does take a village. We aim to supplement what’s missing.
What’s your sense of the state of public education in Los Angeles?
We see this because we start with kids as early as age 6 and we see them through college, so what I‘m seeing in L.A.’s public education system is some success, but too much failure for kids who have the least amount of resources.
The failure looks like this: We have kids who are in middle school and high school and their writing is still very poor, their math skills are not sufficient, and they’re not prepared to enter into our community colleges let alone our four-year institutions without having to get hung up in remedial language arts and math. And then they become burdened with the financial ramifications of having to extend their stay at those institutions.
We’re not seeing enough spark in our kids. There are too many kids who come to us—in their high school years in particular and middle school, and they still say, “No one said hi to me in school today,” from the adults. That’s really sad. Everyone is just stretched.
It’s trying to do too much on its own.
The Olympics might come to L.A. What’s your favorite sport to watch? Water polo since you took it up in college?
I had been swimming competitively since I was 4 and I was so tired of swimming up and down that black lane line for 10, 15 years.
Perhaps it’s metaphorical to the work I do now, but we gotta find a way to make learning more exciting to the kids we serve. I’m excited for the Olympics. Our kids want to learn; they want to grow; they want to reach their potential. Whether it’s orthodox or unorthodox, it doesn’t matter. Go USA!