What LA’s Mayor Taught Me About Being Mission Driven

October 21, 2016

by: RJ Sakai

Mayor Eric Garcetti at a monthly staff meeting

As a Designmatters Fellow sitting at an all-hands meeting held by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, I had a realization. For the longest time I’ve said that I want to work within a “mission-driven”—an environment where something other than money brought people to work everyday. Until this summer, this meant a life in the non-profit sector. And then, sitting in that auditorium as a member of the Mayor’s Innovation Team, it dawned on me: Government work is also mission-driven.

As employees of the city, he reminded us that our job is to improve the lives of Angelenos, period. He reminded us that there are real faces and real lives at the other ends of our initiatives, services, and programs. Though we might spend our days in City Hall, our work should always be driven by the needs and values of the Angeleno we’re serving. I left the room of 150+ employees realizing that my teammates on the Innovation Team affect just as much change as the activists I always saw myself working with at a non-profit.

As part of the Innovation Team, my colleagues and I implemented the Neighborhood Outreach Kit, a portfolio of eight initiatives which were designed to reduce residential and business displacement across the city. From supporting policy change, to facilitating on-the-ground programming, to designing awareness campaigns, each project utilized a different strategy. As a designer with a background in field research, my responsibilities were diverse. Over the summer I designed visual identities for our team’s programs, as well as logos for partner offices like the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement. I designed our team’s website and facilitated design thinking sessions around topics such as how the hiring and interview process of the City’s IT department might better reflect their focus on collaboration and creativity. I worked in a support role for many of the Innovation Team’s initiatives, but also was given my own brief to take the lead on over the summer.

The mayor set a priority of reducing residential and business displacement, the goals of the Neighborhood Outreach Kit were two-fold: increase awareness of city services that residents can utilize to shape their neighborhoods and foster social cohesion in demographically diverse neighborhoods. As with all Innovation Team initiatives, our task was to lead the piloting of the model and then pass it off to a city partner to own and sustain. In this case, we worked with the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council to design a direct mailer and social media photo campaign. The direct mailer advertises services such as graffiti removal and youth programming, and the photo campaign portrays testimonial about what it means to be a good neighbor. For both pieces I developed a model for content gathering that the council members took responsibility for carrying out by traveling to community events. The result of this public engagement not only directed which city services would be advertised in the mailer to Highland Park residents and generated content for the social media campaign, but also it facilitated new opportunities for conversation between neighborhood council members (the most local lines to City Hall) and residents. During these interactions, neighborhood council members were able to practice describing their responsibilities, and residents were able to voice their opinions on issues such as abandoned furniture, graffiti, and youth programming.

This experience with the Los Angeles Innovation Team grew my love for this city, confirmed my belief in publicly engaged design, and most significantly, inspired a passion for civic sector work.

Understanding which city services should be advertised in a mailer produced with the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council


With a background in cultural anthropology and design from Hampshire College, RJ has served as a design researcher in Uganda, Cuba, small town Massachusetts, East Harlem, and Los Angeles. In particular, he has an interest in the colliding of cultures—local and global, physical and imaginary. In the past, he has used designerly ways of framing and addressing problems to innovate in non-profit, startup, academic, and government sectors. Since 2000 he’s had a goal to visit all the U.S. state capitals (35 down).

MDP: Field