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Meet Christine Spehar of RuckusRoots in East LA

Today we’d like to introduce you to Christine Spehar.

Christine, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I grew up in Los Angeles in a family that celebrated both art and the planet. My mom was a painter, a junk-collector and an appreciator of unusual objects and funky art. My dad is a musician and my sister a primatologist and conservationist.

I remember taking walks with my mom, picking up scattered plastic bags or wrappers we saw along the way. She would get so upset if she saw someone litter, chasing the perpetrator down and demanding they pick up their trash. I inherited her exasperation around this issue, and it’s only increased, especially since the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now three times the size of France.

Sometimes I think RuckusRoots spawned simply as a way for me to deal with my desire to fix this problem. It is my way of offering something: a love letter, an act of contrition to the planet I adore, through my two greatest loves: art and our vibrant Los Angeles communities.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
When I launched RuckusRoots as a concept in 2009, I had no idea how to start or run a nonprofit organization. I look back on some of the original proposals and documents I created at that time and cringe a little. But I also admire my 27-year-old self for being brave and putting herself out there with the best intentions. We received our official 501c3 status from the IRS in 2011, and I am still learning new things every day.

We have grown a lot since then, and, thanks to an amazing family, friend group and network, I have absorbed so much about running an organization, project management, team dynamics, board development, fundraising and more. Many essentials I deemed “boring” ten years ago I now know to be vital, like accounting and human resources. I’ve had to dive in and learn about those areas and find help when necessary.

There were many times I had so much self-doubt that I almost quit. My biggest mistake, besides starting a nonprofit organization during the financial crisis, was trying to do everything myself. I often felt burned out and anxious. But I eventually learned how to rely on my community.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and passed away in 2016. In my grief, I lost motivation and realized then that if I didn’t get help, I really would have to close the door on RuckusRoots. I reached out to friends and supporters who had been on our journey for many years. Together, we designed one of our best programs to date, and one of our most impactful art installations, Chimes for Change, with 100 high schoolers from Koreatown. I learned an important lesson then about collaboration, team mentality, and delegation, and since then, the organization has grown steadily.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with RuckusRoots – tell our readers more, for example, what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
RuckusRoots exists to unite communities through sustainability and art. We are one of very few if not the only Los Angeles organization simultaneously addressing the lack of climate change and arts initiatives in our low-income neighborhoods and schools. We believe that creative experiences are vital to a healthy society and that they can also serve as an emotional bridge that allows participants to connect to issues they might otherwise overlook.

Our work supports underserved communities that experience the most environmental pollution and enjoy the fewest creative resources. We fill both of these voids within Los Angeles, the 2nd most polluted city in the U.S. and one of the top carbon-emitters in the world. Specifically, much of our programming focuses on litter, waste and single-use plastics. These issues tie directly into climate change because our litter travels from the LA River into the ocean. Waterbound plastic greatly reduces the ocean’s ability to act as a carbon sink and increases the effects of climate change.

Our goal is to be part of the solution – to address the root cause of these problems. Over our 8-year history, we have created five unique programs (manifesting as youth workshops, public art and more), which we have implemented in at least 25 different locations in Los Angeles and beyond.

We have reached tens of thousands of young people, almost all of them underserved, created more than ten largescale, interactive art installations and done work in communities like Compton, Boyle Heights, Cypress Park, Hawthorne, and Long Beach.

We are the first outside organization to install a semi-permanent sculpture at the Los Angeles Zoo. Recently, we developed a method of creating paintable canvas out of plastic bags and in 2018 we diverted 4,000 plastic bags from streets, rivers, and oceans. Our goal is to divert 12,000 more in 2019.

Readers can check out our 2018 Impact Report to find plenty of facts and figures on how our work is transforming communities and creating change-agents across Los Angeles.

Do you feel like our city is a good place for businesses like yours? If someone was just starting out, would you recommend them starting out here? If not, what can our city do to improve?
I feel Los Angeles is a tough but necessary place for a nonprofit organization like ours.

Los Angeles is the 2nd most polluted city in the country, so if your work addresses that problem, you have the potential to create a lot of impact. Furthermore, if you want to follow any creative pursuit, LA is a fantastic location.

We have collaborated with so many talented artists through our programming, and I’m certain that if we were located nearly anywhere else, that network would not exist. Some might say that LA is overcrowded and creates too much competition, but I feel that there is always enough to go around if you focus on the right partnerships and believe fully in your idea.

My two pieces of advice are:
1) Make sure your idea is different enough from similar organizations. What do you do that sets you apart? Define that first. If you can’t pinpoint that, perhaps you should look for a fiscal sponsor instead of starting your own nonprofit organization from scratch.

There is no shame in reducing your paperwork and flying your flag under the umbrella of a larger organization.

2) Be adaptable. Be open. The nature of life is for things to change, and while your mission statement and the people or places you serve will most likely remain the same on paper, in reality, they will change drastically over time. Constantly ask yourself, “How are we doing our best to serve our demographic right now? How can we evolve to do better?”

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Monching Flores, Erinn Bone

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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