Experiences matter for they often give way to feelings that propel us into action. Actions matter because through taking action, we unleash agency we previously ignored or underestimated while simultaneously creating an opportunity for something better to exist in the world around us.
Something better, something inclusive, something impactful is what then-Mayor Tom Bradley was looking to create thirty-four years ago after he had an experience he was unable to shake and unwilling to accept.
Being the first Black mayor of a large city with a predominantly white population came with its fair share of tension, and Mayor Bradley was aware of this. But because awareness and acceptance are different, Mayor Bradley used his five terms as the first Black mayor of Los Angeles to right any wrongs he felt were inconsistent with his vision of a united Los Angeles.
One of those wrongs played out as Mayor Bradley hosted England’s Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh during his visit to Los Angeles for a World Wildlife Fund fundraiser and the 1984 Summer Olympics. Prince Philip was coming to be a liaison for Great Britain’s Olympic Team prior to their arrival in L.A. As it turned out, once the word spread about Prince Philip’s visit, the California Club invited him to speak there. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Mayor Bradley’s caravan takes Prince Philip to the California Club. Both men exit the car. They walk up the steps to enter the club. Mayor Bradley is prohibited from entering. Wanting nothing to do with the blatant racism being peddled against Mayor Bradley, Prince Philip immediately refuses to speak. The two men then walked down the steps and left.
Having a clear understanding that being denied access to the private club broke with years of tradition of previous mayors being flanked with honorary memberships and exclusive invitations to L.A.’s social clubs, Mayor Bradley knew it was time to do away with discriminatory practices that allowed some people in and kept other people out. Consequently, with diversity and inclusion at the top of mind, he took two immediate actions. According to Brent Stokes, current Board of Governors Chair at City Club Los Angeles, “Mayor Bradley did one thing to change their [the other private clubs] membership. He worked with the city council to pass an ordinance that any private club that has a discriminatory membership business practice would not get their liquor license renewed. This hit them in the pocket. Then, they changed their policy. The second thing was by putting that ordinance in place; it became possible to start a club that did adhere to the new policies of no discriminatory history.”
This was when Mayor Bradley convened the likes of former City Councilman David Cunningham, Jr., former Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burkes, businessman David Lizarraga, attorney Patricia Phillips, and several other influential leaders of Los Angeles together to explore what starting a new club would look like. The conversation commenced in 1984. The doors of City Club Los Angeles officially opened in 1989 on the 54th floor of the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Los Angeles. It later moved to its present home on the 51st floor of the City National Plaza building.
City Club’s captivating views, warm ambiance, elegant decorum, and friendly staff reflect the club’s intention to create a space where everyone feels welcome, connection is encouraged, and changemakers can create magic.
Thirty-four years and over twelve thousand members later, City Club Los Angeles has indeed proven to be the leading inclusive social hub its founders intended. Whether looking for purpose, fun, a group of people who see value in impacting Los Angeles’s marginalized communities, or a thought partner to help flush out a big idea, City Club Los Angeles checks all the boxes.
With the celebration of City Club Los Angeles’s Second Annual Founder’s Day Luncheon taking place on October 24, 2023, we felt it was the ideal time to speak with three of the club’s past and present leaders about the club’s rich history and expansive impact. By way of two phone conversations and one in-person conversation on the 51st floor overlooking Los Angeles’s bustling downtown business landscape, I was honored to speak with current Board of Governors Chair Brent Stokes, former Board of Governors Chair Troy Jenkins, and the first Women’s Committee Chair, Wendy Gladney Williams.
M.D.: When did you join City Club, and what led you to join?
B.S.: I joined in September 2001, the week after 9/11. The club was running a special where part of your initiation fee would go toward the Red Cross. I knew I wanted to join and this was just the perfect time.
M.D.: Did you know or did you have the opportunity to work with Mayor Tom Bradley?
B.S.: I did not know him. I’ve never worked with him. But I could appreciate his vision behind starting the Club. I liked that for Bradley; it was not about our own club for Black people. He wanted no history of membership discrimination, but he also wanted an impact outside of the Club. To this point, one of the things that happened after George Floyd, the general manager of the Club that year, a group of clergy, political leaders, and law enforcement from Long Beach to L.A. to Santa Monica convened at the Club. No news reporters were invited. We were able to keep it quiet and work together to deal with the national issue here in greater Los Angeles. The best thing that came out of the George Floyd convening was people who had never met together were in the same room wanting to do something about the same thing. Law enforcement got a chance to share what their thoughts were in relation to Floyd’s incident itself. And to me, that made the biggest difference. Prior to that convening, everyone was just getting sound bites. But together, each entity was able to express themselves from their perspective.
M.D.: That sounds pretty powerful.
B.S.: It was.
M.D.: Something else I find powerful is that women have a strong presence, not just as members, but also in leadership here at the Club.
B.S.: Absolutely. Again, women were among the founding members. Also, the Women of City Club is one of the original committees of the Club. They have their own agenda, and they have a chair. For the last fourteen years, they’ve had their own Women of City Club Luncheon where they honor women who’ve had an impact on the Club and on Los Angeles. There’s a lot of activity, including Unstoppable Women of Los Angeles.
M.D.: You’ve been with the Club for over twenty years; talk to me about your path to Chair of the Board of Governors.
B.S.: I took the conventional path. I chaired the Business Alliance and Heritage Committee. I chaired the Social Committee and the Golf Committee. Each a two-year appointment. Chairing three different committees during my time allowed me to meet a lot of fellow members and allowed me to make an impact.
M.D.: You have a big event coming up in October. Tell me about it.
B.S.: October is officially Heritage Month. For thirty-two years, we had never honored the legacy of the club or its members. Last year, we held our First Annual Founders Day Luncheon. This year, Tom Bradley’s daughter Lorraine will join us for our Second Annual Founders Day Luncheon. We’ll also be honoring David Cunningham, Jr. and giving Mayor Karen Bass the first-ever City Club Tom Bradley Leadership Award.
M.D.: What do you love most about the Club?
B.S.: It’s the empowerment of the Club and its members, which starts with the membership policy and the membership representation itself. So, if someone who is Hispanic or lesbian feels like they’re in an inclusive environment, it’s empowering to feel like you have another place to go. Also, I love that the committees are truly committees. They are not little Banana Republics with dictators on them. We emphasize to new members, if you want to get involved and feel like having an impact, get involved in the committees.
M.D.: Thanks for your time and leadership.
B.S.: You’re welcome.
M.D.: What attracted you to City Club and when did you join?
T.J.: I was attracted by the culture of diversity. I joined in 1995 when I was twenty-nine years old. At that time, I was the youngest and first young executive here at the Club. I appreciated that they took a chance on me. They saw that my desire to be a part of the Club was bigger than my bank account. I will never forget that. I carry that with me everywhere I go. Also, the Club was still rather new and finding its way, which is why I’m proud for what the club has become twenty-nine years later.
M.D.: Say more about what the Club has become from your perspective.
T.J.: Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the population was about bankers and real estate people, but the advent of more residents being downtown and the movie studios becoming a part of the business landscape, we now have academics, clergy, arts, and producers who have joined the Club and not just for business, but because of the quality of the service, it’s family culture, and the Club’s overall purpose.
M.D.: What else has changed in the twenty-nine years you’ve been a member?
T.J.: I have. I joined really for not the right reasons. Initially, I was thinking, “What can I get?” But I had enough good experiences to cause me to pivot and say, “I love this Club, and I’m going to stay.” Almost until the day of my pivot, that’s when the energy changed. The moment I relaxed and let the Club be to me what it wanted to be, things changed. If you love this Club, the Club will love you. But you have to let it develop into a relationship. You’ve got to show up and put your membership to use.
M.D.: That’s beautiful.
T.J.: Also, when I first joined, there was a time when you came after five o’clock, and almost no one was here but the staff. I would order a cocktail, and they brought it to me on a cart and served it through a window. Now, as you can see, things have changed dramatically. The decorum has evolved as we’ve evolved.
M.D.: It’s lovely in here.
T.J.: We have great food, great fundraisers, a DJ on Fridays, a New Year’s Eve Party, and much more.
M.D.: Talk to me about your leadership role at the Club.
T.J.: Before serving as Chair of the Board of Governors in 2014, I served on the Membership Committee and the Heritage Committee, where the tours exposed us to so much about L.A. that we’d never seen or knew existed. 2014 is also when we moved from the Wells Fargo building to where we are now. Because of construction delays, we went three months without a physical location. That was a little tough. It was an honor to serve. I learned a lot. The Board of Governors is comprised of about 35 people that consists of past chairs of the Club and those who chair committees. It’s the continuity of knowing the mission of the Club and those who have their finger on the pulse of what members want and need.
M.D.: That makes sense.
T.J.: Yeah. It’s also great to see what our current Chair is doing. Brent has done a fantastic job. I always say he’s the best Chair we’ve ever had.
T.J.: Yes. And I say that knowing I am a former Chair.
M.D. Thanks so much for your time and insight.
T.J.: No problem. My pleasure.
WENDY GLADNEY WILLIAMS
M.D. How did you become aware of City Club Los Angeles, and when did you join?
W.G.: Years ago back in the early days of the City Club, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, when it was in the Wells Fargo building downtown, my ex-husband and I became members of the Club through Clifton and Stella Albright. Membership is based on being "sponsored" by an existing member. During those early years, I became very active in the Club, and I met a fellow member by the name of Don Bailey. Mr. Bailey was a McDonald's Franchise Owner and at the time they were looking for an event planner to assist with their various meetings across Southern California I had an opportunity to interview and get the position.
M.D.: That sounds pretty amazing.
W.G.: It was. Things were just taking off. Also during those early years, Larry Ahlquist, who was the General Manager at the time, came to me one day and said, “Hey, I see you around here, and people seem to take to you. I’m getting questions about doing a Women’s Club. Would you be willing to take that on?” I told him it would be my pleasure.
M.D.: Oh wow!
W.G.: I started the first women's group and became a founding member of City Connections — now referred to as the Women's Committee in the Club. I was thirty years old at the time.
M.D. Well, congratulations on that historic role.
W.G.: Thank you.
M.D.: What was your experience like taking on that role, especially with it being a brand new role and a new committee?
W.G.: The group helped build my confidence as a businesswoman. I was with women from all backgrounds. It opened up my world with respect to being around other women who validated that I had a voice. The experience taught me that we can grow together.
M.D.: And we need to get that as women. Pivoting a bit, I understand that because of your history with the Club, you’re helping with the Founders Day Luncheon. Talk to me about your involvement.
W.G.: David Cunningham is my uncle. He’s also one of City Club’s founding members. He passed away a few years ago. His second wife was my father’s sister. I always stayed connected to him. I was literally there at the hospital the day he died. He was a councilman, a businessman, [and] a consultant. He was always willing to share and make sure I was in the mix. He was always proud of my work. He would find out something I was working on, and he would get on me because I didn’t tell him or ask him for favors. He would say, “I wish you would come to me so I can make your load lighter.” I just enjoyed being around him. When David was Chair of the Board, he would call and say, “Come on by the Club.” And we’d have lunch and talk. We were also friends. He was my unofficial mentor.
M.D.: He sounds like a great man.
W.G.: He was, which is why I’m happy to help and be a part of the Club honoring him at the Founders Day Luncheon.
M.D.: Talk to me about what you love about City Club.
W.G.: I love that it’s traditional, but honors what it means to be a part of a private club. It’s welcoming. And for someone like me who is an entrepreneur, but lives an hour away, it gives me a workplace away from home. I love that it’s affordable compared to other clubs.
M.D.: In this economy, that’s a plus.
W.G.: Yes it is. My husband is a speaker and trainer and one of the things he always says is: “You never can take out of something what you’ve never put in.” City Club is a great networking place where you can enlarge your circle and network, but you have to put in the time. It’s not going to just happen.
M.D.: I find it interesting that you, Brent, and Troy all said the same thing as it relates to how one has to lean into membership if membership is to work for them. Thanks for your time, Wendy.
W.G.: You are quite welcome. I enjoyed talking with you.
Experiences create founders, and founders create what we either didn’t know we needed or what we hoped would someday come. Because of the founders of City Club Los Angeles, Angelenos have an epicenter where goodwill and human dignity loom large.
Learn more about City Club Los Angeles by visiting their website cityclubla.com, and by following the Club on IG @cityclubla.