Thu, Jun

Weho Chamber of Commerce: My Fish Out of Water Story


WEHO - I recently learned at a comedy workshop that fish out of water scenarios are one of the major tropes used in joke writing and reflecting on my own fish out of water experience, it’s not difficult to see why it works.

No person who knows me would ever have guessed that I would end up working for a chamber of commerce – me, a progressive, abolitionist, and anti-capitalist. Always up for a challenge and an experience, I accepted the offered position and reminded myself daily to keep my mind and eyes open, while holding firm to my beliefs – determined that the job would not change me.

And funnily enough, while my experiences over the past 20 months working for and getting to know Chamber members didn’t change my core beliefs, it did expand them by providing a perspective I hadn’t realized I was missing. And honestly, leaving out how an entire group of people fit into the big picture wasn’t very progressive of me. The joke, it would seem, was on me.

I should also mention that all chambers are not alike, especially on the local level. And if you take 30 seconds to think about why that is, it makes a lot of sense. Local chambers serve a city’s local business market – their membership is a direct reflection of a city’s ethos that drew entrepreneurs to do commerce and put down roots in that area - the local businesses. Your West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce is perhaps the most liberal and progressive chamber in the entire nation! Our values are West Hollywood’s values.

It would be fair to say I lean more pragmatic progressive, which I believe is a good thing. Seeing, living in, and accepting the world as it is, I believe, is the healthiest way to affect transformation. I may not be a capitalist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t accept that it’s the system we use, and while I may dream of economic reform towards one more firmly rooted in equity and anti-oppression, I think it is crucial to work with the system we have to make those changes.

Progressives – pragmatic or not – must also acknowledge the huge disparity between big national, conglomerate corporations and local businesses…even those, through their hard work and desired services or products, enjoy major success. We need to accept that business is an integral part of the current whole – not an evil overlord (which some can be, of course, just like there can be some nightmare workers). Additionally, those of us that have never run a small business really need to appreciate all the complexities owning a business entails, which goes so far beyond what we get in a sound bite – like before this job, I never understood that reported profits are frequently gross, not net; profit margins are very small for most small businesses. It’s simply not a binary issue – us verses them, owners verses workers, landlords verses tenants, rich verses poor – it is profoundly complicated and requires open hearts and minds, active listening and compassion.

Mostly, it’s incumbent upon us to dig a little deeper into – to peer behind the curtain of the entities and PACs trying to sway politics to their favor. As a long-time union supporter, the irony wasn’t lost on me when a big national organization like Unite Here, which on the surface appeared to match my progressive values, came into our small community and targeted its local small business economy by equating them to mega corps. I mean, when other unions call out one of their own for egregious behavior, that is a call to pay attention . When any big-business outsider has such a huge political interest in WeHo, that should be cause for critical thinking, asking questions, and listening – to all sides. Because Unite Here's impact has been far more like a corporate conglomerate takeover eating their perceived competition for breakfast than a concerned social-equity champion. In fact, I’m not sure I have ever seen a better example of American capitalism in real time than this seemingly insatiable organization intent on making more members from which to collect dues. How does that support West Hollywood’s social safety net?

Small, local business owners in West Hollywood have proudly supported this city’s economy which has afforded its progressive generosity in social welfare programs. What will happen to those programs when there isn’t enough revenue from WeHo businesses to support them? This is not hyperbole. I have personally seen the P&Ls and been on calls with our members who sacrifice to pay their employees fair wages who respect their workers, and value their contributions to their enterprise – some of these business owners have been near tears, agonizing, and utterly distraught over the reality of what doing business in West Hollywood has become to mean – trying to reconcile what closing means to their employees, to themselves. Some scream, lamenting how can they possibly keep their doors open – they know what a paycheck means to their employees, and they feel an immense sense of responsibility for their part in maintaining their employee’s financial health. They don’t want to let go of a single person. They don’t want to close their doors. Most small business owners are not to blame for corporate greed. Nor is the worker for wanting or expecting a living wage from one full-time job in the city they work in.

A totally unfounded critique I often hear bandied about is that the WeHo Chamber blanket supports all development because a large portion of our membership are deep-pocketed developers. This is a purposefully divisive and egregious accusation – we have policies, practices, and bylaws in place to prevent rubber stamping – for anyone in any sector, which is something this chamber, under CEO & President Genevieve Morrill’s direction, is extremely proud of. The West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has four core values that every single staff and board member commit to – my favorite one, which is germane to this critique, is Impactful Leadership with Integrity. Of course, chambers are for development – that’s a core piece of capitalism; this chamber, however, is for development when it is good for business, residents, patrons, AND the city – this list is not mutually exclusive.

Would it surprise you to know that a majority of the WeHo Chamber membership is comprised of small and micro businesses whose budgets are far less than major national corporations or big developers? Restaurants; retail; health, beauty, and fitness; real estate; and marketing, PR, social media, and graphic design sectors – many of whom are solo-entrepreneurs – make up nearly half of our current membership. We have nearly the same number of non-profit members as we do major hotel members. There are only five are developers and/or contractors on our roster.

We must start listening to each other, really listening – not from a place that divides us, but rather a place where we recognize each other’s humanity, worth, and dignity – a place where we understand that it is only in lifting one another up, do we all succeed – a place that honors the importance of residents, visitors, businesses, and government in making this city a true shining example.

Your vote matters this midterm election. Your voice matters – make it heard… Because you love WeHo!


(Nalani Santiago (they/them)  graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in Human Geography and Environmental Science & Policy in December 2019 and started working for the WeHo Chamber in February 2020, during the pandemic lock down.)