How Street Vendors Can Build a Just Economy: Lessons from Los Angeles


This article is the second in a series of articles that NPQ, in partnership with Hispanics in Philanthropy, will publish in the coming weeks. (You can read the first article here.) The series brings forward the voices of Latinx leaders within the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to share their experiences on a range of economic justice issues that affect Latinx communities.

For decades, Los Angeles was one of the only major cities in the United States where street vending was illegal. The beloved entrepreneurs who bring life to our streets with their food and merchandise have long been criminalized, and many still feel unsafe. They have also been disproportionately devastated by COVID-19.

In recent years, however, street vendors have organized, achieving a major victory in getting their legal status recognized by the Los Angeles city council in 2018. Now, to create a more just and equitable recovery, it is critical to build on that victory. Street vendors, in short, must not only be part of our economic development plans but centered at their foundation.

For the last 12 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the most talented and passionate community-based leaders in Los Angeles. This collective, the LA Street Vendor Campaign, is a mix of street vendors and organizational allies who have worked to uplift the rights of micro-entrepreneurs who sell food and merchandise on sidewalks.

In 2009, Inclusive Action (then called Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, or LURN) researched how communities were responding to the “Great Recession” of 2008. We were inspired by the street vendors in East Los Angeles. Our research indicated that many were being criminalized and most were operating their businesses as a primary way of maintaining their households. Back then, Los Angeles was one of the only major cities in the country without a permit system for sidewalk vendors. Without permits or any other form of “legal” framework, street vendors were cited, arrested, and had their equipment (e.g., food trucks) confiscated. Their attempts to build their businesses were stunted, and in some cases, permanently canceled.

In response, the LA Street Vendor Campaign came together to advocate for the legalization of street vending. We hosted town halls across the city and spent countless hours educating lawmakers about the contributions of street vendors. Working with the vendors, we together built a multi-neighborhood leadership network and organized large public actions that engaged Angelenos and educated them about street vendor needs. As a result of this work, and what felt like endless public hearings, we succeeded in legalizing street vending in 2018. The campaign’s success was not limited to Los Angeles; our work also advanced legislation that decriminalized street vending statewide and set a baseline for legalization in other cities.