Manhattan Beach Mayor Stern launches Kindness Initiative
by Mark McDermott
On the morning of May 22, 2020, Maureen McBride opened up her boutique in downtown Manhattan Beach, Tabula Rasa Essentials, for the first time in ten weeks.
Those ten weeks had been rough. McBride had endured many sleepless nights. The world had been turned upside down. The pandemic had launched its ravaging course that would claim millions of lives. Fear and uncertainty were in the air. For a small business owner like McBride, the worry for her own health and for those whom she loved was compounded by another concern. She had owned her business for twenty years, through economic ups and downs. But could it survive a global pandemic? McBride is also the president of the Downtown Business and Professional Association, so as she looked around and felt the eerie quiet among the formerly bustling small businesses along Manhattan Avenue, she wondered how many would make it through this pandemic.
And then, in through the front door walked Jeff Serota, his wife Peir, and their two kids, teenagers Rowen and Race. Something about them radiated kindness.
“Have you looked through your emails?” Serota asked.
McBride knew Serota. Weeks earlier, he’d reached out to all the small downtown businesses to let them know he’d started a campaign called Local Love for Manhattan Beach, with the intention of providing grants to help them through this economically bleak time. Serota had contributed $200,000 of his own money and would eventually raise another $425,000. McBride had applied for a grant somewhat hesitantly because it just wasn’t something she, nor most of her fellow small business owners, had ever done before — which was to ask for help. She had not seen an email and in any case didn’t think any grant, if it did happen, would arrive so quickly. McBride ran to her office in the back of the store and found the email from Serota confirming her grant was ready.
“I came out with just tears streaming down my face,” McBride told the Manhattan Beach City Council at its October 5 meeting. “They were there with their two children and they personally came in to hand-deliver my grant. And they did the same thing with all of the 49 businesses. They went in and spoke with each one of us, and it was really just tremendous. They were so excited and full of pride and kindness and we all shared tears and smiles underneath our masks. It was just such a really special moment.”
The idea for the Local Love for Manhattan Beach campaign had occurred to Serota from a combination of things that had been on his mind. First was his love for his adopted hometown and his concern for its fate during the pandemic.
“I was an East Coast kid who moved out to California 31 years ago, and after the first year was ready to move back to the East Coast,” Serota said. “Then I went to see what the South Bay was about and moved to Manhattan Beach, and it changed my life. I love this place. And I was worried that the energy you feel when you walk along all the small businesses on Manhattan and Highland avenues, that small-town vibe, was going to get damaged.”
The second thing was the daily conversations he had with his best friend of thirty years, Scott Krase, who is the founder of the One2One USA Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to revolutionize charitable giving by personalizing and customizing the act of giving. The idea is called “bespoke giving” and means the giving addresses a direct, specific need and the people giving and receiving actually meet, thus creating a moment that is directly impactful for each. Krase told Serota he could help him launch a campaign for Manhattan Beach quickly.
“This is somebody I talk to every day, and of course we talk about different things that are affecting our lives,” Serota told the City Council. “And I started talking about my little town of Manhattan Beach, which he has visited many, many times. I said, ‘I’m so worried that we’re going to lose our vibrancy. We have all these small businesses. I’m really worried about the downtown area.’ One thing led to another, and he said, ‘Why don’t you do one of my programs?’”
This was when the federal PPP loan program was in its infancy, caught up in bureaucratic processes. Small businesses were shell-shocked and had received no help.
“I was also very worried that businesses [would] make decisions very early on that they’re not going to withstand the onslaught of the pandemic,” Serota said. “And so I wanted to get money into their pockets fairly quickly.”
“I mean, it happened rapid fast,” McBride said. “They gave us a really restful night of sleep when we had months of sleepless nights at that point. They really relieved the stress, so that we could keep our businesses functioning and our staffs employed.”
Serota was able to give $10,000 to $15,000 to 49 small businesses at this crucial time. Kelly Stroman of the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce helped him design the criteria for the application process, focusing on the truly small, owner-operated businesses.
Serota had expected large donors to match his own contribution, but that didn’t happen. He received a few $50,000 donations, but mainly it was just a lot of smaller contributions. In total, more than 150 people contributed.
McBride said it was the realization that people cared that really moved her.
“It was the biggest hug any of us could have received,” McBride said. “They recognized an urgent need in the community they love so much. They didn’t want any of our small business owners to have to choose between feeding their family or paying their mortgage or rent or even looking at closing their businesses.”
McBride was speaking to the City Council because Mayor Hildy Stern in September launched a “Kindness Initiative” in which, at the beginning of each council meeting, a person or organization within the community is recognized for acts of kindness. The recognitions have varied from individuals, such as the Serotas, to groups such as the Palm Avenue neighborhood, which provided meals to first responders through the darkest days of the pandemic. Kelly Stroman, the outgoing CEO of the Chamber, was recognized for her kindness in helping businesses through the pandemic, and also for establishing an inclusion committee in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Karen Wooldridge and Donna Barney were recognized for establishing the local Stand4Peace organization, which brought together students from local schools with students from Compton to make a stand for peace — literally, standing together on the beach, forming the word “Hope”. Diana Skaar and Madeline Kaplan were recognized for creating the United Against Hate sidewalk chalk art event.
Stern’s intention is simple. She hopes that by bringing more attention to instances of kindness, more kindness will occur. Stern was elected in 2019, entering public life for the first time after a lifetime of citizen volunteering and activism. Her time on council has coincided not only with the novel coronavirus pandemic, but another pandemic, of sorts, in which anger, vitriol, and division have come to dominate the public sphere. She is aware that certificates of recognition are a small gesture, but is hopeful that emphasizing kindness can be some small part of turning the tide towards a greater sense of shared humanity and community.
“This occurred to me very early on after taking this job, that we have had a different way that we’re communicating, probably the last six years or so, since the 2016 election, and maybe even before — the way we communicate with each other has changed,” Stern said. “I noticed that the minute I got on the council, it was elevated to me. I felt like I was representing a community I didn’t recognize. It felt like we, as a community, were not working together. We weren’t respecting each other.”
Stern was concerned that this was destroying the very sense of community that has allowed Manhattan Beach, despite all its changes in demographics and socioeconomics over the years, retain its warm small-town feel. The most important thing she could do as mayor, Stern thought, was to shine a light on the ties that bind the community together.
“I do believe we are not treating each other the way we actually feel about this wonderful community that we live in,” Stern said. “So I did want to bring back the feeling of community that we really have in Manhattan Beach, and I think that has been lacking in this changed environment.”
Future recognitions will include the Manhattan Beach police and fire departments for their work during the pandemic, the Beach Cities Health District for helping spearhead the vaccination effort, Michael Greenberg for helping local restaurants during the pandemic, Mike Mignolia for his help on behalf of the World Food Bank, student activist Malia Kowal for her teaching program at the Roundhouse Aquarium, Silvie Gabriel for founding RE:HER to provide support for women business owners, and Jill Lampkin and Betsey Keely for launching MB Feeds the Heroes to provide meals for hospital workers.
“I hope kindness is not political,” Stern said.
Her larger hope, that kindness is contagious, is supported by scientific research. Lauren Nakano, director of the Blue Zones Project at the Beach Cities Health District, pointed to what is known as “contagion theory.”
“There’s science that shows emotions are contagious, and they impact you and other people, and can be negative or positive,” Nakano said. “Studies have shown how they ripple through social networks, among friends, among family. People really have a choice of what we want to put out there in the world, knowing it benefits us all individually by being more kind and it also reverberates within our communities and social circles.”
One of those studies was conducted at the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory and found that kindness was especially contagious.
“We find that people imitate not only the particulars of positive actions but also the spirit underlying them,” wrote the study’s lead author, Jamil Zaki, in Scientific American. “This implies that kindness itself is contagious, and that it can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way.”
BCHD has partnered with Stern’s Kindness Initiative, creating the “Kindness Counts” portal on its website to collect stories of kindness. Those stories have ranged from a man helping a stranger track down her runaway dog to a family taking care of an elderly neighbor. Nakano said addressing the community’s emotional health has been a BCHD and Blue Zones Project priority since the 2010 Gallup Well Being Index showed that the Beach Cities were among the highest of the 190 cities surveyed in levels of stress and anger. In 2020, after the pandemic hit, BCHD asked Gallup to survey Beach Cities residents again. The new findings showed that 86 percent of local residents felt elevated levels of stress since the pandemic hit.
“Daily stress is edging back up and actually surpassing our original markers in our baseline,” Nakano said. “Stress and worry have both shot up as a result of the pandemic.”
BCHD had already established its own Mental Health and HapPalm ss Initiative, and so it was only natural the organization would partner with Mayor Stern’s Kindness Initiative. But Nakano also noted that BCHD hopes to bolster any such efforts by local leaders to inject more positivity into public discourse.
“It’s so important for our leaders to lead by example, and really try to fit the narrative in our communities,” Nakano said. “And so taking part of this with Mayor Stern was a real opportunity for us to build on the Mental Health and HapPalm ss Initiative we already have.”
One thing many of the acts of kindness being recognized by Stern have in common is they involve children. The hope for real change is often most deeply invested in the youth. Some of the efforts, such as United Against Hate and Stand4Peace, are directly aimed at educating kids. In the example of Jeff and Peir Serota, they brought their kids to help disperse checks because they hoped the experience of kindness would have a lasting impact.
“It was real exposure,” Serota said. “We visited every recipient, and also gave them little gift bags with Local Love for MB face masks. We introduced ourselves and often the kids presented the gift. I think for my kids to see the impact you could have on other people… We were all hugging and crying, and you have to go back to the early days of the pandemic when people were scared. For my kids to see we could uplift people was meaningful.”
The kindness of kids
Donna Barney and Karen Wooldridge began organizing International Peace Day in 2019, when they brought together 300 people to spell “Peace” on the beach just north of the pier. Though the gathering included adults, its impact was intended for kids. In the wake of a string of school shootings, they hoped Peace Day would help replace a sense of hopelessness and fear among kids with empowerment. In 2020, they partnered with Pennekamp Elementary in Manhattan Beach (where Barney is a first grade teacher) and Emerson Elementary in Compton to celebrate Peace Day collaboratively. The event occurred via Zoom, due to the pandemic. Students created their own peace plans and pledged to encourage peace with their families, communities, and themselves. Peace Poles were erected at each school representing peace, hope, and togetherness. Finally, on September 18, kids from the two schools were able to come together, first participating in a beach clean-up, and then forming the word “Hope.”
“It was pretty cool to see these kids actually being together after being together virtually,” Barney told the Council on September 21. “One of my first graders was there seeing the third graders meet in person, and literally, he was jumping up and down, asking when were they going to be assigned to their Peace Pals in first grade. So it was pretty inspirational.”
Barney said the whole idea behind Stand4Peace is to give kids the tools to establish a peaceful, kind mindset early in life.
“It all starts with children understanding how much they have in common,” she said. “So for the third graders at Emerson and Pennekamp, when they were starting their peaceful relationship on Zoom, we began with them answering survey questions. As they answered these questions and began to talk to each other via Zoom, they began to realize how much they have in common. So they learned right before our eyes that they are more alike than they are different. That’s pretty wonderful.”
Stern thanked Barney and Wooldridge.
“I am so grateful for you being a leader in educating all of us on the value of bringing this culture of peace to our lives, and what you have done to educate our youth on the value of peace,” Stern said. “That can just be a springboard for bringing this culture of peace to all of our communities.”
That culture of peace also began forming in another way last spring, this time directly against the spate of hate crimes that had become prevalent nationwide against Asian Americans and those with Pacific Islander heritage. Diana Skaar, a Manhattan Beach resident who is Asian American, had been feeling a particular heaviness due to this upwelling of hate.
“Many of us, as children of first-generation immigrants, were taught to keep our heads down and to not complain,” Skaar told the Council at its November 2 meeting. “Being taunted for the shape of our eyes was nothing new. Being blamed for the ‘China flu’ was a cheap shot, but sadly also in line with a laundry list of bad jokes made at our expense. But then 2021 saw a 74 percent increase in hate crimes against Asians… And while many of you went about your day worrying about homeschooling when youth sports was going to come back, and when you could finally take your much-needed vacation, I was worrying about when and how my parents go to the market, explaining to my kids that no, your Chinese friends are not responsible for COVID, all the while reminding myself that keep my head down and not complain.”
Skaar also began wondering about her adopted hometown of Manhattan Beach. Nobody was saying anything about this epidemic of hate. She suddenly felt like an outsider.
“Do we just adopt the bubble mindset at all costs, and not acknowledge what is going on across the country?” she wondered. “Are we this idyllic beach town because we only know how to talk about schools, youth sports and summer vacations? Clearly, I hoped we had more depth than that. But then, something wonderful happened.”
School board member Jason Boxer introduced Skaar to fellow local resident Madeline Kaplan, who’d had the idea to organize a “Stop Asian Hate” chalk art event. Last April, they helped bring together neighborhoods near Polliwog Park to create chalk art showing love and solidarity with the Asian community. Messages of support were drawn on driveways throughout the city, and Asian American residents shared their stories.
“As the children of Manhattan Beach wrote their chalk messages of solidarity, neighbors came out to admire and support their efforts,” Kaplan said. “This event brought our community together, unified around a message of support for those who are targeted for their identity.”
Kaplan noted that one in four students at Meadows Elementary, the school her daughter attends, has an Asian parent.
“This is personal to them,” she told the Council. “The children were standing up for themselves or their dear friends. Some children have family members who were harassed.”
At the event, one of Kaplan’s neighbors recounted how his elderly Asian mother takes the bus to Manhattan Beach every week to help tend to his garden, but was now afraid to do so after being accosted by a woman at a bus stop, who blamed her for bringing COVID to the U.S., and told her to go back to China.
Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, who attended the council meeting at which Kaplan and Skaar were recognized for their kindness, said he also attended the chalk art event in April, and was deeply impressed by the beauty of both the kindness and art that was displayed.
“I think every Asian American has at one point or another, including myself, heard the words, ‘Go back to where you came from.’ And this pandemic obviously has been hard for everyone, but it’s been doubly hard for too many Asian Americans,” Muratsuchi said. “Because Asian Americans have unfortunately been scapegoated for the coronavirus in the eyes of too many of the haters. That’s why it’s so important for the Manhattan Beach community to stand together for the mayor city council to come together…to send a strong message that hate has no place in Manhattan Beach.”
Kaplan and Skaar organized another chalk art event at Polliwog Park on November 14, at which Pennekamp fourth grader Brooklyn Chan gave her own strong message, not just against hate, but for love.
“I know it’s called United Against Hate, but I’d rather focus on things we can do to love each other,” she said.
Chen gave examples of what kids do to help each other. If she sees bullying, she said she first tries to let an adult know, then tries to find out herself what the problem is. “I would say, ‘Stop it, there is no place for this in the world,’” she said. “If I see someone being excluded, I say, ‘Do you want to join our game instead?’ In closing, more love, less hate, more baked potatoes.”
Skaar said it was the stories the children shared that were the most powerful because of their simplicity.
“These kids really owned their brave space,” Skaar said. “To me, it’s not just bravery, but kindness. They shared their stories of what it means to be allies.”
Not random acts
Kindness frequently takes the form of an act that seems small but has an outsized impact. This was the case on Palm Avenue.
During the first month of the pandemic, resident Janet Jones was struck by the absence of children bicycling, and playing on her street. The usually vibrant few blocks of Palm Avenue were suddenly devoid of life, and this concerned Jones.
“Kids weren’t riding their scooters anymore,” Jones told Council at its November 16 meeting. Their bikes were gone. Neighbors weren’t stopping to roll down their windows and have small talk with each other. Things had dramatically changed. So it seemed to me that we needed to rise above the crisis, rise above the terror we were all experiencing.”
And so Jones walked through her neighborhood and put notes in the mailboxes of 48 homes, suggesting they all contribute to purchasing meals for the police and fire department personnel working through this difficult time.
“That was the intention,” Stern said. “But to just exemplify just how kind and how thoughtful all of her neighborhood was, within two days, she had received double what she had anticipated. And they were able to deliver both lunch and dinner to the police department and both stations of the fire department.”
MBPD Lt. Matt Sabowsky said the meals provided nourishment far beyond the food itself at a time when officers were working long hours and encountering incredibly stressful situations.
“I’m here tonight to personally thank those citizens for their support and I want to communicate that their acts of kindness truly helped our officers’ morale at that time,” Sabowsky said. “You know, [there was] anti-police sentiment and some uncertainty around the effects of the COVID virus at that time.”
“We were working every day during this time,” said MBFD battalion chief Tyler Wade. “And there were a lot of unknowns, especially at the beginning, with, COVID. It was interesting, because, as you may remember, it was even hard for us to find food at the local Ralphs and Vons. And so when this came through, it was a big treat for us.”
During that time, many residents and businesses likewise were able to count on a somewhat unlikely source for help deciphering the changed landscape that came with the pandemic. At a time when most offices were closed, the MB Chamber CEO Stroman kept her office open. She worked day and night trying to help businesses through the morass of red tape surrounding PPP loans and COVID protocols. She also became an informal information hub for residents. And as that difficult time morphed to also include the racial awakening of the Black Lives Matters movement, Stroman did something that at the time was uncommon for a Chamber of Commerce — she established an inclusion committee at which the difficult topics of inequity and racism could be discussed with the community. When a Black surfer, Justin “Brick” Howze, encountered racist slurs off the Manhattan Beach pier, she reached out to him, and included him in this conversation so that everyone could better understand his experience and what it meant.
Stern said that Stroman’s extraordinary capacity for creating a way for these dialogues to occur made a big impact on the community.
“That was just such an amazing way to continue to educate, to give people an opportunity to be a part of this important concept of unity,” Stern said at the October 19 council meeting.
Stroman’s extreme competence and capacity for caring were already well known when she left the Chamber for a position at the Friendship Campus in Redondo Beach, in late October. But at that Oct. 19 meeting, MB Chamber board member Jill Dunn shared a story that demonstrated the adage — it’s what you do when nobody is watching that matters. Dunn’s late husband, Robert Taylor, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018, and as it rapidly progressed, Stroman was stalwart.
“Kelly is truly a remarkable woman. In addition to being a hard working individual, she’s a single mom, having raised two amazing boys, as well as an amazing friend. She truly cares about Manhattan Beach and the people who reside in work here,” Dunn said. “When my previous husband was diagnosed….Kelly was there for me from day one, bringing us food from the farmers market, helping us raise funds for alternative treatment, and just being there for me when I needed a shoulder to cry on.”
Stroman’s recognition included comments from every council member — including Steve Napolitano, who called her “the Velvet Hammer” for her gentle but brutally effective advocacy — as well as business owners and even City Manager Bruce Moe. She was visibly moved, and left her own personal call for increased kindness. She said many people asked what her favorite part of her job had been.
“It’s easy. I really love making a difference for people,” she said. “I love connecting people. I love when that magic happens and you see the light in someone’s eye…And I say each act of kindness is a thread in the tapestry. And the more you weave, the bigger the tapestry gets, the more interesting it becomes, and that is the tapestry of Manhattan Beach. And so keep weaving, keep making those threads. Keep being kind, but keep making a difference. Because making a difference is what makes everybody tick, and some people need it at this moment.” ER