Thursday, February 26, 2015

Let's Welcome Back Eric Gurna, LA's BEST New President & CEO

By Sam Piha

Sam Piha
Eric Gurna returns to LA's BEST and his old stomping ground to serve as President & CEO of LA's BEST, one of the largest and most influential afterschool initiatives in the country. LA's BEST was founded by Carla Sanger, who was a strong leader in California and across the country, helping to propel the afterschool movement.

Eric has been a long-time friend and colleague and we are excited to have him back on the West Coast. Below, we asked Eric a few questions about his transition to LA's BEST. You can learn more about Eric by clicking here.

Eric Gurna
President & CEO
Q: Welcome back to California. Can you say a little bit about your roots in California and with LA’s BEST
A: Thank you! I definitely consider myself a California boy. While I was born in New York and have lived on the East Coast for many years, I moved to Oakland, CA when I was nine years old, and graduated from public high school and university here. My family still lives in the Bay Area, so even when I’ve been living in the East I’ve always been out West on a regular basis. 

I moved to Los Angeles shortly after finishing graduate school in New York City, in 1998. I met with a few people in the youth development field and all of them mentioned LA’s BEST, so I knew I had to learn more. I joined the organization as Director of Staff Development and though I only worked in that position for a couple of years, I was lucky enough to be around for one of the first major organizational growth periods, and gained incredible experience being part of a team that was dedicated to increasing access and the scale of the program, while maintaining the spirit, culture and values that had made the program great to begin with. I continued working with the LA’s BEST team over the years from the outside, assisting with staff development, curriculum and other program resources.

Q: You created a very successful organization in New York, Development Without Limits, providing training and curriculum for afterschool programs. Can you say a little about why you left this to take over the reins at LA’s BEST? 
A: This was too huge of an honor, and opportunity, to pass up. I loved the work I was doing with the Development Without Limits (DWL) team, and am thrilled that the organization is in great hands and continues to thrive. Now I am so excited to get to work with the LA’s BEST team and all its partners, and the chance to lead the organization through this transition, and into the future. 

For the past fifteen years with DWL, I have worked with dozens of youth organizations and programs across the country in all kinds of settings, so I also see this new role as a chance to incorporate some of the innovative practices I’ve seen into LA’s BEST. Really what I’m most excited about, and what made me feel it was worth it to uproot my family and move across the country, is the LA’s BEST team – it is in amazing group of people who put young people and community at the center of everything they do.

Q: You are stepping into some large shoes. I am referring to the shoes of Carla Sanger. Can you say something about her influence on the field? 
Carla Sanger
Founder & Former CEO
A: Throughout this transition, it is amazing how many times people mention Carla’s shoes! Carla’s influence on the field is tremendous - she has been a key part of the driving force that has created statewide and local afterschool infrastructure and resources in California that just don’t exist (yet!) in other states. 

She’s been a force nationally as well – bringing the fresh air of honest dialogue, humility and inspiration to every conversation and collaboration she is a part of. But I think her biggest influence is on the many individuals she has worked with – she’s shown that you can be courageous and outspoken without having a large ego, that you can be sensitive enough to care deeply about how young people feel, but fierce enough to fight the good fight when you have to. For me personally, she has been my most important mentor, and someone I admire endlessly. To my good fortune, I still have her number, and I plan to use it as needed!

Q: What do you see as the next step for LA’s BEST? 
A: I don’t know yet! I only just started in this role February 17, and I don’t come into this with a preconceived notion of what changes are needed, or next steps. I need to learn a lot more about how things work – and maybe what isn’t working so well internally and in the field, before I can have that sort of plan. I do know that I want us always to be striving to create even warmer environments for kids, to listen closer to young people and to each other, and to be more creative in how we do so much with relatively little. In terms of the field, I’d love for LA’s BEST to connect with other afterschool programs more, to collaborate and build us all stronger.

Q: Could you comment on the LIAS learning principles?
A: I’ve been a fan of the LIAS learning principles from the beginning. I think they are a clear and succinct articulation of the values of most out of school time programs, and I think providing that language is very helpful as youth professionals interact with all the important stakeholders, and need to express what we are about and what we do. 
Eric Gurna joined LA’s BEST as CEO and President in February 2015. LA’s BEST Afterschool Enrichment Program, is a partnership between the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the private sector that operates in 195 schools. 

Previous to his arrival, Eric founded DWL in 2000 with the vision of supporting youth programs and schools to improve the quality of their work and create more youth-centered environments. There, he hosted the podcast, Please Speak Freely: Honest Conversations About Youth Development and Education, during which he interviews leaders and practitioners to shed light on key issues and explore different perspectives. Before founding DWL, Eric served as Director of Staff Development for LA´s BEST. He cofounded the LA Partnership for After School Education. Eric also worked for Educators for Social Responsibility and Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families (now Harlem Children’s Zone).

Eric holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California at Irvine and an M.S. in Urban Policy Analysis and Management from the New School for Social Research. He lives in Los Angeles, CA with his wife Elia, who is an artist, their two children, Rosalie and Rafael, and their two cats.

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