Best Tables in the House

march 15 2013

Byline: Susan LaTempa

For more than 30 years of our 35-year history, Liberty Hill supporters have put the “social” in social justice by gathering for our annual fundraising gala, the Upton Sinclair Dinner, honoring community leaders at the frontlines of change in L.A.

How do we get hundreds of crazy-busy supporters together at one time? Whose job is it to make this event successful and feed our Fund for Change, which invested  $3.3 million in grants in 2011 to support economic, environmental and LGBT justice in L.A.?

And who has to remind everyone they talk to that the dinner is named for the influential muckraking novelist who ran for governor of California in the 1933 “End Poverty in Calfiornia” campaign?

Meet Liberty Hill’s marvelous Table Captains, a hardworking crew of more than 50 who step up and take it upon themselves to fill a table of ten—one way or another.

That’s a $3,500 commitment and in Liberty Hill’s broad-based donor-activist community, there are all sorts of ways to honor that commitment. Sound daunting? The Table Captains and Co-Captains we talked to said it’s all about their passion for social justice.

march 15 2013-2“I’m a cheerleader, a behind-the-scenes cheerleader,” says Celia Bernstein, who with her husband Brad Kesden rallys old friends to the cause every year.

“Especially when I’m inspired by the person being honored,” Celia explains, “I talk it up, nudge people, send impassioned emails: ‘Did you get your tickets yet? Who are you sitting with?’ “

“The dinner is for reminding people, ‘I’d love to see you. Let’s spend an evening together.'”

Ron Yerxa, who has been a co-captain with his wife Annette Ballester Yerxa for more than a decade, likes a mix at their table. “It’s always good to throw in some fresh people—people who want to be introduced to Liberty Hill.” Ron focuses on the remarks from presenters and honorees, who unlike Oscar winners, aren’t limited to just a few thank-yous, but often offer serious comments on issues or share thoughts about what motivates their work.

march 15 2013-3“There’s a lot of substance,” says Ron. “I think that’s what makes the dinner unique and why people enjoy it. It’s a satisying evening emotionally and an informative occasion, which is better than just an empty good time. Even people who’ve made a lot of money often wish their work had more meaning and substance.”

“Sometimes we get so many yesses we end up filling two tables. That I love!” says Annette. She, too likes introducing new friends to Liberty Hill. “They’re always bowled over by how wonderful the work is that’s being done by the organizations. We honor both people who have given to Liberty Hill to allow the organizations to do the work and also people who have been recipients of grants. So when people come to the dinner they see both sides and see the fullness of Liberty Hill’s work.”

“It’s a kind of utopian vision of L.A.,” Celia says, “Bringing together community members, activists, donors. You have to inspire people who have resources that ‘Hey, you’re a very important part of the equation!’ Organizing of resources is such a key part of this movement. And Liberty Hill has its unique formula of the Community Funding Board, having the activists who live and serve in our communities decide how the money should be spent.”

march 15 2013-4“What I love about the dinner is that it really does bring together a wide variety of people,” says supporter and former Liberty Hill staffer Vincent Jones. “You have community organizers, big donors, executive directors of nonprofits, elected officials, grassroots leaders. You truly have a cross section of L.A. in the room.” Vincent, who was a table captain at the Upton Sinclair Dinner before he worked for Liberty Hill, says he’s gained confidence in the fundraising responsibility of filling a table and that the evening is part of his annual giving plan.

He earmarks part of his own annual donation budget for picking up a portion of the ticket price for one or two guests who may not be able to afford it on their own. Meanwhile, he acts as an ambassador and encourages his guests who have the means to extend themselves for a premier ticket or to buy a sponsorship.

Jane Peebles has been a Table Captain for almost a half-dozen years. “I felt that as a Board member I had an obligation, and I very much wanted to do this and share my passion and try to get more supporters for Liberty Hill,” she remembers.

march 15 2013-5Her approach to captaining her table is a personal reflection of the strategic approach the Board takes to increase Liberty Hill’s impact. “I try each year to bring in at least two or three people who have not been to a Liberty Hill event or at least not to an Upton Sinclair Dinner. In the course of my year, I’m very diligent about remembering who I’ve met who shares my passion for social justice.”

She also invites longtime friends who have “stepped up to the plate” when she’s asked them to help out on her philanthropic projects. “It’s my way of reciprocating when I invite them as my guests.” These are people, she notes, who will often bid generously at the silent auction.The third group Jane turns to are her “regulars”—”I pay for tickets to their gala, they pay for tickets to mine.” And all of her invitees, she thinks,”are people who have a good chance of staying involved in Liberty Hill.”

But Jane’s methodical approach is in service to her sense of joy in the occasion. “It’s hard for me to be objective about the dinner. I find it very exciting to be in the hall with 800 people that really care about social justice!”

A Dynamic List: Table Captains for the 2013 Upton Sinclair Dinner.

Douglas B. Adler, Cynthia Anderson Barker , Celia Bernstein & Brad Kesden, Wendy Chang & David Lee, Sharleen Cooper-Cohen, Glen Dake, Julie Gutman Dickinson & Peter Dickinson, Laura Gabbert & Andrew Avery, Jim Garrison, Shane Goldsmith, Catherine Hess & Larry Frank, Rick Jacobs & Shaun Kadlec, Fran Jemmott & Bernard Rollins, Vincent Jones, Preeti Kulkarni & Rakesh Mathur, The Honorable Jackie Lacey, Paula & Barry Litt,  Alison Morgan & Parke Skelton, Barbara Osborn, Jane Peebles, Sarah Pillsbury, Michele Prichard & Rod Lane, Judy Rothman & Peter Rofé, Sara Sadhwani, Cathy Schleussner, Gary Stewart, Laurie Traktman, Darrell L. Tucci, Amelia Williamson, Renee Dake Wilson & Brian Wilson, Joyce & Joseph Ybarra, Annette Ballester Yerxa & Ron Yerxa.

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