First published in the Jan. 1 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
The first time Elevate Burbank attended Magnolia Park Night Out, the organization came with goats.
It was an effective strategy, the nonprofit’s board President Linda Bessin said in a recent interview. Though Elevate Burbank was officially founded in March 2021, the group’s first outing was in October, when members set up a tent during the monthly event that draws crowds looking for live entertainment and small businesses to the neighborhood. It seemed like a good venue to introduce Elevate Burbank, which Bessin said aims to promote diversity and foster closer connections between community members.
But at that time, the Elevate Burbank website wasn’t ready, and its board of directors didn’t have many printed materials to distribute. To draw in passersby, Robyn Hawkes volunteered her adopted goats Benji and Buttons as the nonprofit’s mascots.
“You bring the goats out, and people will come,” she said.
It seemed to work, Hawkes explained, with many people stopping by Elevate Burbank’s tent and hearing about the groups. While Burbank already has a few groups dedicated to encouraging inclusivity and opposing discrimination, Bessin said, she and her colleagues at Elevate Burbank said they want to facilitate cultural events — such as food festivals and concerts — in which community members of different identities and experiences can feel welcomed.
“We aren’t pushing a platform of [saying], ‘This is what our city government should do, this is what our schools should do, this is what people should think, this is what should happen in Burbank,’” Bessin explained. “We want to unite and bring people together.”
Bessin came up with the idea for Elevate Burbank in 2020, when she made an unsuccessful bid for City Council. As she learned more about Burbank’s electorate, she explained, she realized that the city is home to many communities that aren’t always represented in public festivities. In early 2021, she began reaching out to residents she believed would want to get involved with the nonprofit, eventually forming the board of directors.
Elevate Burbank hopes to organize events that are particularly timely, Hawkes said, because the pandemic has often siloed residents into groups of similar people.
“We’ve been living much of our lives behind screens, and on screens people tend to go into their own little areas,” she explained. “We get in our little areas where we might have biases or blind spots. … And I think if we can kind of get people out of their houses, out from behind the screens and — when it’s safe to do so — face-to-face and have some real conversations with each other, I think that some real connections can be made.”
Elevate Burbank’s main priority this year is fundraising, Bessin said. The nonprofit doesn’t want to charge for events, so the board is discussing options for attracting donations. They’ll also continue to attend Magnolia Park Night Out — with the goats — when they can. Bessin added that her dream event is a food festival that will allow attendees to try cuisines from other cultures while connecting with local restaurants and chefs.
The board’s vice president, Jonas Schwartz-Owen, also explained that the nonprofit is open to working with other organizations, such as Burbank Pride. As a gay man, Schwartz-Owen said he didn’t know the organization hosted a pride festival, and expressed interest in seeing Elevate Burbank — which also regularly promotes other groups’ events on its website — cosponsor an event.
“It’s not about us coming in here and saying … ‘We’re the new cowboys, there’s nothing here that’s been done right,’” Schwartz-Owen said. “It’s to say, ‘There’s all this great stuff that’s right that probably a lot of people don’t know about — let’s try to spotlight it.’”
But with the pandemic ongoing, Elevate Burbank’s plans are uncertain. It’s difficult to predict whether it’ll be safe to gather six months or a year from now, board members said, and therefore to put events on the calendar.
When the nonprofit is able to host a concert or festival, board member and John Burroughs High School student Adelina Hernandez said she hopes all Burbank community members understand that they’re invited.
“Creating an organization that everyone in the community feels welcome to … is our major goal,” she said. “Making sure everybody … is able to have fun and express themselves.”