Talia A. Caldwell left me on read.
Admittedly, I was anxious when Caldwell didn’t immediately return my text about scheduling an interview. As the head of the Echo Park Fund, her work is a sort of philanthropic direct-to-consumer model; no nonprofit status, formal organization or middlemen obstructing her from addressing the many needs of the lake’s houseless. I found her through a friend on Instagram and was moved by her intimate, hands-on approach. So I cold-called her, hoping she’d speak to me about it.
The civic and social issues surrounding Echo Park’s houseless community are complicated, to say the least. If houselessness is a contentious and misunderstood issue within city confines, magnify that by 20: that’s Echo Park Lake. The historic reservoir, formally known as the Echo Park Lake Recreation Center, was rehabbed by the city in 2013. More than $45 million were put into the beautification and sanitation of the premises.
This revitalization speaks to the changing demographics of the housed as well as the houseless. With water fountains, bathrooms, Wi-Fi and access to shade, folks in need migrated to the lake as a strategic place to live. As COVID-19 persisted and relief benefits waned, I witnessed more and more encampments pop up at the lake. These encampments, along with the tension between nonprofit advocates and city workers, continue to grow. Enter Caldwell, taking on the many needs of the people who live there.
And by enter, I mean she jogged. Literally.
Born in Culver City, Caldwell grew up in Atwater Village, went to elementary school in Eagle Rock, attended high school in Hancock Park, went to church in Inglewood and played basketball in Crenshaw. She attended college at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was the first women’s basketball player admitted to the Haas School of Business. After college, she went abroad to play professional basketball. Seven years and one pandemic later, Caldwell hopped on the last flight before lockdown from Poland to Los Angeles, settling in with her mother in Glendale. She started jogging around Echo Park Lake nearly every day — and saw the same familiar faces.
“I felt like I was running through someone’s living room and not saying hi,” she says. “So I just started saying, hi, I’m Talia. I’m from the neighborhood. Thank you for letting me share the space with you.”
A casual hello turned into handing out masks, which in turn became butane runs that led to Caldwell learning about and helping the people of Echo Park Lake. Her role as an expeditious and exacting lifeline became the Echo Park Fund. With help from a couple of community members, Venmo donations and a social worker, Caldwell serves the needs that are time-sensitive or that might not have been met had they gone through slower, more bureaucratic avenues. Nearly every day, she brings supplies for the people living at the lake. She also helps them get their identification documents in order, as well as find work and file for unemployment.
Caldwell is incredibly proactive; she reflexively took action — as she puts it, she “doesn’t really have time to put self-preservation and feelings ahead of the whole.” I quickly realized how much her aid to the houseless emulated her life as an athlete.
Caldwell lives her life with a discipline most of us couldn’t fully commit to; it’s what made her a successful basketball player to begin with, and it’s what makes her a natural community advocate. We tour her tattoos, quotes from Desmond Tutu and Drake, the word “discipline” on her forearm and “greatness” in Hebrew. She shows me a detailed human heart on her sleeve and alludes to her shoulder where her “chip” tattoo is. All the while, her phone is buzzing. “From the lake,” she says. A man needs her to call for his social security number, another one needs supplies.
“I’m really good at compartmentalizing in a really good and bad way,” she says. “It’s how it is. As an athlete, you’re paid to perform. You couldn’t get through a lot of hard tasks without [that quality]. My threshold for stress, busy-ness, pain, emotional labor is very high.”
An athlete needs to be physically and emotionally strong. They need to be flexible. They don’t have time to sit and wait, but their moves need to be informed and calculated to ensure results. An athlete needs to concentrate on the task at hand and work as an individual in a larger machine for winning results. And, like Caldwell’s hope for the Echo Park Fund, an athlete’s career is finite.
Caldwell says she hopes someone else can take over the Echo Park Fund, someone who, according to her, is “smarter, more competent.” While she is clearly both of those things, she’s calling for someone with a wider resource network and skill set. Or, in the best-case scenario, the fund becomes unnecessary. “I want it to be taken over,” she says, “pass it on to a network of therapists, medical providers, housing people … I want someone better than me to evolve and think in more systemic ways, for the root causes … or for it not to exist at all.”
Her hope is likely shared by many, but for now, the 29-year-old is sorely needed by the lake community. She is a mouthpiece for those who live at the lake, she shares their stories and their needs. As such, I was surprised to learn that she has time for writing, yet another discipline Caldwell excels at. She’s an up-and-coming culture writer who would like to write for television. While her Instagram, 5FifthsCulture, is currently more devoted to her humanitarian pursuits, her website of the same name is a playful, Grantland-style read of sports, nostalgia, music and “Black Joy” featuring musings ranging from a discussion of slavery and immigration to the evolution of Drake’s taste buds.
As our interview came to an end, Caldwell mentioned her plans for the rest of the day: errands, plus two back-to-back workout classes — she enjoys boxing and running. Her phone was still buzzing.
So yes, Caldwell left me on read. Having a glimpse into her world- especially what she is called to do at the lake- I was thankful she responded at all.
To learn more about Caldwell or about how you can get involved with the Echo Park Fund, visit @5FifthsCulture on Instagram.