Erika Johansson: New York City

What’s your historical Los Angeles and New York connection?

I went to Archer—it was a rigid environment where all of the liberals sent their kids, and it built a strong foundation, but Gallatin (where I went to college ultimately at NYU) provided a great opportunity to focus on whatever I wanted—which ended up being travel histories and narratives in exploration.  New York was great for me as it was in the center (of the world).

After I graduated, I moved back to LA for 2 years, where I found a job working for Norman Lear, who had directed All in the Family and The Jeffersons.  He started People for the American Way, which inspired me towards movement building.  Norman was motivated by identity driven movements—he owned a print of the declaration of independence, and was struck by a greater sense of American pride—the common history and shared past type of pride, rather than gun toting and Americana version.  This was my start in exploring how identity gets people to drive action.  Norman and I ultimately registered 2 million voters for the 2008 election using viral video!  We also started Born Again American, which garnered 12 million views alone in the first month it was up in 2009.

After the experience of touring around the US with a print of the Declaration of Independence,  I decided to do multi-issue campaigning—I wasn’t looking for a job at the time, but found Purpose through a college friend.  Back then, Purpose was a startup of 6 people, and although I had a cushy job, I decided to take a risk.  I met the people at Purpose and was inspired by how driven they were—being in the office made me realize it could work.  I finished my tour for Norman by installing the Declaration print into theAmerican I Am exhibit with Tavis Smiley!

I then moved back to NYC, which was shockingly easy as I had found my apartment at a party in the Hollywood Hills.  I overheard this guy at the party talking about how his girlfriend was moving out of her apartment in New York, and I’ve lived in it ever since I moved back. Although the return was bit of a culture shock (many of my college friends had moved back home during the recession), I had some friends here and threw myself into Purpose.  I’ve been at Purpose since I moved back, and watched it grow, and am now in charge of managing the build out our new technology platform.

On moving back to LA
I’ll return when I’m between 35-40.  I grew up in Mid-City (Highland and Olympic) which might explain why I don’t like wide open spaces.  Now, I’d probably move to Downtown, where all of my friends startups are.  My mom actually used to lead tours of Downtown LA.  My Dad was in an Architecture class at UCLA, visiting from Sweden, and he took one of my mom’s tours, and she immediately fell for the cute Swede with a pipe.  They met in April 85, married in august 85, had me in april 86—so Downtown LA is literally in my blood.

On New York
New York has a bigger population and many problems to solve…there’s the opportunity for that in LA and it’s just starting to grow now.  There are a bunch of people starting things, while NYC has built an increasingly systemic approach and from that, the offshoot of the social good industry.  The nature of being online allows a community to organically talk to each other through the mediums that exist.  I can see this happening in both NYC and in LA now.

Can NYC and LA engage with each other?
LA has a lot to learn—NYC is a lot more developed, it’s smaller, more compact, you literally HAVE to talk to people.  LA could be more coordinated—a lot of people in NYC have connections with people in LA, but the people in LA just aren’t meeting each other.  It’s not LA’s fault–LA by nature is a bit opaque.  Most people know where they are going everyday and who to talk to, because otherwise you won’t necessarily meet anyone.  But, my favorite thing about LA is that it’s really a big city composed of pockets of cities that grew up among orange groves and then slowly moved into each other—each has a different taste.  Why am I still in New York?  Driving is the only reason I’m in New York—I want to be a part of the LA community eventually again, but I just don’t want to get in my car yet.

On your favorite street in LA
It’s definitely Hauser.  It’s the “secret pathway to everything.”

On your favorite street in NYC
Maybe it’s too obvious but I’ve always had a soft spot for Washington Mews. I went to school at NYU and that’s where the language immersion houses were. When windows are open in summer and you sit out on the sidewalk eating ice cream, you hear French wafting out the windows and feel a million miles away.

What would you be doing if it weren’t working at Purpose?
That’s an impossible question—maybe something in education.  When I was in Junior High, I got accepted to Stars (student travel and research school).  The program was 6 months in LA, focused on economics and history, then traveling around the world to create a cultural and global value system.  I traveled all the time when I was a kid since my mom was an interior designer, and I value it more than I can say.  I would love to build a school that prioritizes having that cultural and global understanding at an earlier age.  Stars went out of business right before I was supposed to start…and I would love to recreate it!

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From the 2462 Miles newsletter: connecting NEW YORK CITY + LOS ANGELES

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