What’s Next Episode 4: Abby Arnold


Alas, one of Santa Monica’s most important and most-under heralded activists, Abby Arnold is leaving Santa Monica after most of her adult life, almost 40 years. Her kids have made lives in Sonoma, and Arnold is planning on joining then for a happy retirement.

However, that gives us a chance to have one last interview with the former co-chair of Santa Monica Forward, long-time member of several city commissions, and a host of other jobs and titles at various non-profits. However, a large portion of this interview is spent talking about the need to plan for the future by creating and nurturing new leaders. A copy of the transcript of this interview can be found below:

If you’re just joining us, you can catch up on past episodes of Santa Monica Next: Episode 1 with Jesse Zwick, Episode 2 with Kate Cagle and Episode 3 with Rick Cole.

One last programming note, at the end of the episode we discuss having someone with SMMUSD. That’s going to wait an episode because I forgot that May is Bike Month, so our next guest with be SM Spoke’s super advocate, Cynthia Rose.


DN: So welcome Abby. Thanks for being with us today.

AA: Thanks for having me, Damien. This is fun.

DN: So as I mentioned in the intro, you are going to be leaving us soon. For parts north, I guess. And we, this is sort of our unofficial exit interview, because we haven’t really done one like this before. 

So we’ve got three categories. As we’ve been doing in our things, there’s a topic, I want to talk about, a topic you want to talk about, and then the five fun questions. 

Yay, fun. 

So let’s go right into it. 

I know in your professional life, you’ve worked on issues related to homelessness, not just in Santa Monica, but in lots of other cities, helping design plans, helping write grants to get funding for programs, all sorts of things. And I also know that you’ve been obviously very involved with Santa Monica Forward, and other groups that have been pushing the City of Santa Monica to broaden the number of housing options that are in the city: affordable housing, market rate housing, you know, bring more housing in so that the city can meet its housing obligations and be the kind of city that is growing and attracting more, more young people and more families, more everything. 

So let’s start by talking a little bit about what’s going on in Santa Monica right now. We’ll start with talking about the city’s homelessness policies, and then move a little bit into the housing policies. Everyone in the region is dealing with different homeless crisis in their home cities. How is Santa Monica doing?

AA: So I’ve always felt that Santa Monica had a good commitment to addressing homelessness, because of what used to be called OPCC, and is now called the People Concern. We have a lot of shelter beds here in Santa Monica. So that when people are ready to come inside, there’s a bed for people. That’s part of why our census is very high, because when they say there are X number of people who are homeless in Santa Monica, everybody who’s staying at the shelter on Olympic and the ones on on Cloverfield, and other facilities all get counted as people who are unhoused, here in Santa Monica. 

And we’ve always had good outreach teams and devoted and dedicated group from the police department that works on connecting with people who are unhoused. So I feel like we do a pretty good job. The one thing that I wish I had put energy into while I was here, is changing a very antiquated policy that we have in Santa Monica, which is that people who are unhoused have to prove that they either had their last address here in Santa Monica, before they became unhoused, or that they have been unhoused in Santa Monica for three years. 

There’s no way anybody can prove that. So it makes it really difficult for the service providers to to give people the services that are available here. Because they have to go through, you know, this extra layer of proof on the part of the person. And it’s kind of an impossible proof. That’s a leftover from the very old policies of Bobby Shriver and Bob Holbrook, a long, long time ago. We should have gotten rid of those a long time ago. And I’m sorry that we didn’t.

DN: When I was doing the series on homelessness at Streetsblog, Los Angeles like five years ago, and was talking to all these different communities; one of the things that I discovered is one of the reasons that Los Angeles County has a disproportionately high number of people experiencing homelessness is because there are people that come to California and come to Los Angeles area, looking for a shelter of some sort because they were abused, because they were LGBTQ and were disowned by their family, or because they’re veterans and we have this huge veterans facility right here. 

When I did the safe parking program up at the VA that was they were all here because they could get health care. So it seems like having a policy where you have to be from here to access our services is really sort of flying in the face of the idea of California as a place where people can come and be accepted for who they are.

AA: Absolutely. And I think that, you know, we’re brought to the people of Santa Monica, you know, we would say, as a, as a community, we want to be welcoming, and we want to help people when they need help. 

There is an effort to try to get a really robust mental health center here, and even some beds, so that people who are experiencing homelessness can get the medical care that they need, and get calmed down after having lived on the street. Which means you’re not sleeping well, and you’re not getting getting good nutrition and all those things that make you depressed and unable to function. 

You are so right about the attraction of, of Los Angeles in general and Santa Monica, among several other cities. How many years did I write, “we’re at the end of a 3000 mile cross country highway, and people go west, and they end up here with nothing.” And,the same thing happens in Hollywood, where people come out saying, “Oh, I’m going to be a movie star.” And they end up unhoused and living under the freeway. They ended up in West Hollywood saying, “you know, I’ve got to be someplace where I’m safe. Because in my home community in whatever state, Florida, we can pick today. It’s not safe to be trans.” 

We have to recognize that people are coming here, not because they’re going to get a bag lunch; they’re coming here because they have dreams, that may not be realistic, but that they are trying to follow and that they’re trying to be safe.

DN: When we talk about homelessness, everybody we talked to be they, you know, a far left person or my City Councilmember in LA TracI Park, or even someone who’s conservative note that people get into the system, and they don’t get out of it in large part because we don’t have affordable housing options in LA County. 

The pre-pandemic stats, I remember were atrocious. And I can’t imagine it’s gotten any better in the past three or four years. 

So what do you see Santa Monica’s role and what do you see is how Santa Monica doing in being able to provide safe, affordable, or even subsidized housing. For people that are moving through the system that have jobs, have IDs. They just need a place to stay and they’re, you know, ready to have a normal life.

AA: So I think it’s important to realize that we need apartments for the 60,000 or more unhoused households in Los Angeles County. In order to achieve that, we also need to have housing for everybody who’s else who’s under housed. So the people who are moving here to work in tech, our kids who grow up, go to college and come back and get a job, and they end up living back in their childhood bedroom. Because there aren’t enough homes.

DN: Quick note, I’m recording this in my child’s bedroom right now. So after he’s gone, he can’t come back or I will lose my recording studio. 

AA: Good luck with that. Well, and I’ll tell you, I’m moving to Northern California because both of my kids live up there now because they could not find a way to make a living and pay rent here in Los Angeles. So it’s a real problem. 

And long before the pandemic, the LA County CAOs office, homeless group was saying that we needed half a million additional housing units in Los Angeles County in order to have enough capacity for the people who are unhoused. I was maybe 50,000 on house at that point. So maybe it’s up to six 600,000 that we need. You cannot force someone to go to Palmdale. Much as some people would like to do that. 

Someone whose medical care and safe places are here on the Westside isn’t gonna want to go to Palmdale. I actually have somebody who I I stay in touch with who is who was unhoused. He’s living downtown now and every week he has to come out to Venice family clinic. And so you just can’t keep on doing that, you know. And a lot of people aren’t competent to get on the bus and come out here and for their medical care and, and they don’t feel safe in buildings or in communities that they haven’t been to before. So I feel like every community, every neighborhood needs to find room, create room for the people who need that kind of help.

DN: All right, I’m not gonna take it, I’m not gonna talk about Palmdale. Pour Palmdale. So, let’s switch a little bit from my topic to your topic. You want to talk about leadership development, and why it’s important not just for Santa Monica, but for organizations and everyone to be recruiting new people and new leaders to take up for the old leaders. 

One of the reasons that you’re comfortable leaving is because there’s a lot of leaders that are my age and younger that have stepped up in organizations like forward. The guy I was trying to groom to take over for me at Streetsblog has moved well past. He’s at the NRDC now. And he’s my board chair, and I work for him. So that was a huge failure on my part, but I’ll have to find someone less talented than him. But …that’s a joke. Although not really, Carter, we love you Carter. Listen to the podcast. So, hopefully he’s laughing right now. 

So let’s talk a little bit about that you have at your, at the Streetsblog excuse me at the Santa Monica Next, (I just keep saying Streetsblog) at the Santa Monica next, welcome back party at your house. Juan Matute talked a lot about how you were very much a leader in a generation that looked for younger people to mold and to get into leadership positions. You weren’t interested in holding them forever, yourself, and be they Commission’s or Forward or whatever. So can we talk a little bit about that? Why do you think is important? And how do you identify younger leaders and start to get them ready to lead?

AA: Thank you for that opportunity to make this pitch. You know, I ran for city council in 2002, which was you know, 20 years ago plus. Last summer when when Kristin McCown said that she was not going to run again, people called me…many people called me…and said, “Oh, you should run, you should run.” And I’m like, “I’m too old. This is not the age to be running for city council.” And it has concerned me for a long time that we tend to keep power for ourselves, rather than sharing it with others. 

And that means that new ideas are hard to get to get in, that we don’t think beyond our own selves and our friends. And that we don’t think about the people, the future residents of Santa Monica. And without having new people moving in, what’s going to happen to our schools? When I first moved to Santa Monica, they were closing schools because there weren’t enough kids in Santa Monica, to fill the schools. And now they just import kids from other communities from Los Angeles mostly on permits to fill up the school.

DN: That sounds like a great idea, because I might be putting my kid in the Santa Monica school in two years.

AA: A lot of people do it. And, and the fact is that we need to keep our population replenished, and not just be a bunch of what they they used to say about Santa Barbara, “Newlyweds and nearly deads.” And Santa Monica needs to have new people coming in and we need to be taking leadership and passing on leadership to others. So I decided, some years ago to just really put my focus on helping and encouraging encouraging younger people to get involved, and helping them and supporting them, as they engaged with, with government. 

Telling people, ” Being on a commission is a good thing.”

 I often go to commission meetings to support people who have gotten appointed, help them figure out how to get appointed. 

It’s interesting to me, I recently was telling somebody that I’ve known for 30 years that I was leaving, and she started to tear up. And she said, “you’re my connection to power here in Santa Monica.” And this is somebody who’s a homeowner, a city employee, well educated, lived here over 30 years, who feels that she can’t engage with the power structure in a city of under 100,000 people. That’s ridiculous. And it’s because I think people hoard power. And we see the same people serving on commissions for years and years and years, and the same chair of the Commission’s. 

I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “Well, you’re on the city council, aren’t you?” And I’m like, “No, I ran once. That’s it.” I’m very mindfully trying to turn leadership over to the younger generation. As one of my friends who’s my age, said, “We skipped a generation in leadership development. There’s there aren’t that many leaders in their 50s.” We’re looking down to people now in their 30s and early 40s, and even 20s, and encouraging them to become leaders. 

So I am hoping that, that that will continue. And I’m, I will say, I am very, very confident in the people who I’ve been working with, through Forward and the League of Women Voters and, and other parts of my life,To have excellent leaders for the future.

DN: The leadership structure at Forward at least seems pretty good. I’ve interacted with them a little bit, a lot on Twitter, but a little bit in real life. I don’t think Juan has a position there right now. I haven’t looked at the roster recently. But you know, obviously, he and I have been working together and friends together for 15 years now. I guess. I met him when he was a grad student, and single.

AA: Right. And here he is of parent elementary school and served a long time on the board of downtown Santa Monica and really bringing his expertise on transportation to making a huge difference in the transportation policy here in our city.

DN: It’s a great example. I met he and Sirinya, his wife, at the same time at a 2008 Measure R rally, the county transportation tax that was on the ballot. They were they were waving signs, “Bruins for Traffic Relief,” I think they were called. I’m going to try to find that picture from when I get either one of them on the podcast. 

When you look at the structure that’s there, a lot of commissions, a lot of sort of your official power structures: they do have the same people that have been there forever or reappointed or some some deck shuffling, so to speak. Someone’s on this commission this year, and then they’re on another commission two years out. 

As we’re still only been publishing now for just over two months regularly, I haven’t gone into commissions yet. I’m trying to move into doing more stuff on the school district. But do you look at the Commission’s right now and see an effort in the city at that level to start to promote, you know, younger leaders, leaders in their 30s and maybe even younger 40s?

AA: Well, that was happening for a while but with the current Council, they’ve really turned turned around on that. For example, Leonora Camnor was on the housing commission. She’s one of the major housing leaders in Los Angeles County and actually statewide, and we were very lucky to have her on our, on our commission in our little city, and she was attacked like mad. She was replaced by somebody in their 70s So it’s a different world. I do think the rent control board has been a great place for leadership development of young people. And so I’m hoping, that that and other places the Democratic Club, etc. 

People get a chance to run as a candidate, and get their name out and have people vote for him. And look, Carolyn Torosis, came from the rent board and is now on the council. So I think that’s one of the places that we can look to for leadership development in the future. And just supporting people when they get into office as well. As you know, when you’re the parent of young children, it’s hard to be doing a huge amount of volunteer work on top of your parenting duties.

DN: Yeah, you know, I saw an email that was basically like, “We don’t know what Jesse Zwick’s job is. He’s a new council member and hasn’t reported yet.” I’m like, “I don’t think Jesse has a job. I think he’s a parent and a council member. I think council member is his job.” Even though I know it’s far from a full time job and how it’s paid. I don’t think he’s doing anything else. But it was like, it was so weird for me to see that as  an attack. Like, “We don’t know what it is who’s paying him? I’m like,

AA: His spouse has a job, right? And what’s wrong with the with a family where the female person in it is the primary?

DN: If there’s something wrong with it, I’ve got problems.

AA: Hate to keep having to say this in 2023.

DN: You know, it’s not as big a deal on the West Coast as the East Coast. I used to tell people when I moved out here on the East Coast, I would get ribbed by mostly men, but women too, “Doesn’t it bother you that your wife makes more money than you?” And I was always my response was always, “Oh, God, I hope she does. Could you imagine making less money than I do? That’d be terrible.” And I get a comment like that. I don’t know, maybe once a year at best out here, or at worst, I should say out here. But I used to get that almost every time. You know, we went out and she was an engineer and I was working in nonprofits. But I was always struck me as such a weird question, but I guess she’s texting me now, “Where are you?”So are you ready for the fun questions?

AA: I am ready for the fun questions.

DN: As always, our unofficial rule on this is that you can ask me one of the five questions, which is a way to for people to get to know me better. As I’m not as a public figure as past Santa Monica Next editors were in Santa Monica.  I mean, I live pretty close. But I don’t live there. I spend a lot of time running in the city. But no one has stopped me. I’d be like, “Hey, are you the Santa Monica Next guy?” while I’m off on my long runs. So, and part of that is to make it so that these questions don’t get too weird, because obviously, I don’t want to ask to answer a super weird question either. So All right. Question One: You’ve been involved in Santa Monica politics for decades, as you pointed out a couple of times in the interview and telling things that happened in the 80s or earlier, is there a political memory or advocacy memory that you’d really like to share something that sticks out as sort of a fun and or important moment in local history? 

AA: Yes, thank you. One thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, is because the Olympics are coming back in a few years, is the 1984 Olympics. And that was right when I moved into Santa Monica, I lived in Topanga for a couple of years before that. And I was working for the Campaign for Economic Democracy, which was Tom Hayden’s organization. 

My job with them was the women’s rights organizer or the reproductive rights organizer. And at that time, it was kind of a new thing to have Commissions on the Status of Women. And it was also a totally new thing for the Olympics to allow women to run the marathon. So, 1984 was the first time that women were allowed to run the marathon in the Olympics. 

So the Commission on the Status of Women and other women’s organizations made that into a big opportunity for us to show our colors, fly our flags, and so I remember I had this beautiful teal t-shirt with Santa Monica Commission on the Status of Women written on it. And there was a pink shoe lace as part of the logo for this effort. And I remember being out on the street, right right up against the beach when the women’s marathon came by. 

It was so exciting. I mean, I just I’m sure I cried and everything that women were allowed to run the marathon. And now we don’t think twice about that. But oh, no, you know, you might sweat. So, I will always remember being part of a Santa Monica group that went out to welcome the women who were running the marathon for the first time in the Olympics.

DN: Both my running buddies are women. And they I think they’re both older than me. One of them might be a couple of weeks younger or months younger than me they both have many marathons under their belts. So, yeah, that is a culture change. Like it wouldn’t even occur to me in 2023, that that had been a thing. All right. We haven’t covered in this interview. 

But people that know you well know you are a big Dodgers fan for some reason. I was gonna start off by saying, you know, the question is, how many games do you think they’re gonna win this season, but we know that there can’t be more than 160 Since they lost two games to the Cubs this weekend. So even if they won all their other games before that, and after, they’d still have lost two out of three at home. To the to the Chicago Cubs who you know, are the best team. 

AA: Damien. I’m rooting for them to get 120 I want them to be in there. And maybe 100 at worst, but I am hoping for a good year. I’m really excited about the new rules. So shorten the the pitch, the pitch time. And, and Mookie you know, and I’m, I think I’m going to at least three or four games before I move out of town. So I’m, I’m right there. And I guess I’m gonna have to figure out how to subscribe to be able to watch games on TV. 

DN: Oh, it’ll be easier to get the games up up north and it will be down here.

AA: Well, if spectrum.

DN: Oh, right, right, right. Yeah, no, let’s say you buy that MLB app. You can you can, my mom watched a Cubs game on the phone in a in cruise ship off the coast of Japan the other day. It’s a brave new world when it comes to being able to watch sporting events whenever and wherever you want to. I remember during the pandemic, because Korea didn’t stop their baseball games, they were playing an empty stadiums like all these baseball fans, I know we all adopted a Korean team for like three months.

AA: Well, that it was right at the beginning of a season and forget what Spectrum was before it was Spectrum, but the guy knocked on my door. And I said, “Can I make you a drink? Sit down? Can I massage your feet? Yes, I want to switch over to your cable company.” So I was just like, right there you came on the right day to get me to be your subscriber.

DN: I also like the optimism that you’re like, Well, maybe 100 games, but I’m hoping for a good season 120

AA: You know, there were times last year where it felt like they’re never gonna lose.

DN: Yeah, I was I they were I thought they were clearly the best team in baseball last year. The playoffs especially ,the shorter series are, (don’t swear on your podcast) they can produce such random results. You get a hot pitcher against you and all of a sudden, you know, you’ve got to win every other game in the series to advance. 

I’ve been talking a lot in these podcasts trying to get people to give tips for people and where they should be going to eat, get coffee and stuff like that and finding different ways to ask it so I guess for you it’ll just be, “what restaurant or a coffee shop or ice cream bar or whatever are you going to miss the most.” I’m sure there’s plenty you’ll miss.

AA: Yeah, so totally 100% I’m going to miss and my heart will stay there Back on the Beach. I just I think that is the best place in Santa Monica. And in fact, I got married there. I had my wedding at that location and so it’s really important to me..but also the food is great and you can sit on the beach with your feet in the sand. And you can have a beer or glass of wine out there. And you know what more perfect place then back on the beach? I will give props to their veggie burger too. They make an in-house veggie burger. That’s really really good. So that’s my choice.

DN: All right, question four. Do you have a favorite pop culture reference for Santa Monica out there? We asked Jesse’s wick this one. He talked about route 66 We sang song for a minute, but I felt…I don’t know route 66 is in a lot of cities…Is there a pop culture reference for Santa Monica that you that sticks out to you?

AA: There’s so many and if you had told me ahead of time, I would have really thought looked it up and thought it through so I’ll give you two one is in the movie, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. There are the palm trees are part of the major plot. And actually, adding on to that my my sister always says, “Oh, yeah, that place where Marcus Welby used to go to tell us take his patients to tell him they were dying.” And the other is a a song that I can’t remember who did it. But it’s said it goes i, which I just think is a brilliant rhyme.

DN: I don’t know that one. I’m gonna have to look it up. ,

So the last one is once you move, how long do you think it’s going to be before you send an email to the city of Santa Monica or one of their Commissions or their city council with advice on some motion or thing that it says before rule or whatever that’s before them?

AA: That is a really good question. Because of course, my way of looking at my transition is that I’m not going to be doing that anymore. But I suspect that something is going to come up that I’m going to be really passionate about and I suspect that it’ll be some something fairly soon. And it’ll be related to our library, because I’m leaving town at a time when I’ve been serving on the library board for awhile and which is a very nice noncontroversial place to be. Because who doesn’t love libraries?

 DN: And there are several states that don’t love libraries. 

AA: Exactly. This is a time in history. When when keeping our libraries strong is important. And it’s also a time when  libraries in communities that that support the First Amendment can make materials available to people in other parts of the country through ebooks and audio books and other electronic ways of of spreading information and giving people access to to books and magazines and other kinds of media. So I suspect it’ll have to do with the library. But you know, who knows. And it also, it’ll be interesting to see how my new city compares and whether I want to, you know, make some comparisons back to our council here.

DN: Well, then, before we wrap, you have the opportunity to turn one of the questions around on me. Or we can go right to wrap I’ve already we didn’t give Jesse the opportunity. Kate Cagle asked me who my favorite fictional police officer was. And Rick didn’t ask me a question, but I did volunteer about the time that I tried to ride a Bird scooter and how it didn’t go very well.

AA: Well, I want to ask you what’s the best east west way to to get across town on a bike? Because I know you are out there with your cargo bike.

DN: Depends how far east how far you’re going. If you’re going to be stopping before Lincoln, it’s Pearl. If If not, then it also depends on how strong your legs are to deal with the hills. I find Ocean Park really easy to run on. I don’t know how much I would like to bike those last, like 10 blocks. 

So then I would say probably Rose is a lot flatter. And the traffic is manageable. So if you’re where I live in Mar Vista, you sort of use the airport road to snake down to Rose and then take Rose the rest of the way over.

AA: Thank you.

DN: I meant one of the five questions that was on the list, but I’m always happy to answer a question. Dodgers are gonna win about 95 games, I think.  

DN: Well, hey, thank you so much for this interview. for everything you’ve done for the city. Everything you’ve done for me over the years. We didn’t mentioned that you were, you’re on the board of directors for the nonprofit that publishes Streetsblog and Santa Monica Next and have been on, on and off our Santa Monica Next advisory board forever

AA: I’m so glad that you are willing to bring it back up, because we definitely need a good news source in Santa Monica.

DN: I really think Santa Monica is the most fascinating city. I really do, for a lot of reasons. And not just that I live next door to it. And I want to yell about the airport every now and then. But I really think it’s just a fascinating place to cover and such a great microcosm, I think of sort of American liberalism in general, that I feel like, what goes on here definitely echoes either ahead of the movement or behind the movement. You can sort of see the how the national politics and mood in the Democratic Party sort of shifts in and out of Santa Monica. It’s just it’s a fascinating city.

AA: It really is. And since we haven’t had the Outlook for, what’s it been, you know, 30 years or something? 25 years since the Outlook went down? We just haven’t been able to get the coverage that we need for such an interesting city and then to amplify that. Now, statewide and nationally. 

DN: I’m hoping we are hoping we can do all of that, you know, we it’s been just over two months since the relaunch, and we’ve had some stories that have definitely had some impact. We’ve had some weeks where it’s sort of like our readership is extremely low. And nothing’s really caught on I think we’re doing this vendor series right now. I’m looking forward to talking about the bus cameras that are coming up. There’s a lot of good stuff going on. 

Yeah, all right. Well, anyway, I’m gonna hit the stop button. So thank you so much.

AA: Thank you. Now I can go see what my neighbors are up to. They’ve been knocking on my door and all kinds of stuff.

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.

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