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Building a community of leaders – all ages welcome

November 6, 2012

“I want to be a veterinarian when I grow up,” said Daquann Brothers. And at twelve years old, he still has a lot of school ahead of him. He’s curious about how to prepare himself to be successful. What should he do now so that he can be a veterinarian fifteen years in the future?

Adults in his life have not been shy about sharing advice. Everyone repeats the same prescription: get good grades, don’t fight, be helpful, finish high school, go to college, go your own path, and be a leader, not a follower. Daquann has done his best, but often he has felt alone, especially at school. How can you be a leader if you feel alone? How do you go your own path if you just do what you’re told?

While sitting in a circle with people of all ages from his community, this advice started to take on new meaning.

Daquann is a member of SCI Eastern North’s Leadership Academy, organized by APM, LISC Philadelphia, Temple University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia (UCCP), and Temple University Intergenerational Center. On October 20th, the first of eight sessions, young people, adults, and seniors shared their stories, across differences in age and experience. The Academy aims to help this intergenerational group to strengthen their skills as leaders and agents of change in the community.

Everyone in the circle shared a story from their life when they acted as a leader. Daquann listened to these stories, and was able to share his story with this group. “I like that there are people of all ages,” Daquann explained, “because I had to rotate and look at my life from different moments, like how my life would be or what to expect if I was that age.”

Telling stories in a group allowed Daquann and his fellow participants to draw lessons from the real experiences of the people in the room. By relating to others in the circle, Daquann began to see how he could lend his gifts and talents to a larger undertaking to improve his community. “I would lead people on the right path, instead of wrong,” Daquann said, relating the lessons to his own experience. “Like on the block if somebody is doing something bad, don’t follow them and get in trouble, just stay.”

Each participant brings his or her gifts and resources to the Academy, “an opportunity to really showcase their skills,” as APM’s Manager of Community Engagement Programs Marangeli Mejia-Rabell said. “I think there is a misunderstanding that you have to be an elected official or hold a specific title,” she explained. “This training is starting from the premise that we are all leaders.”

Up to 30 participants in the training will learn leadership skills and then collectively lead a handful of small community-based projects. These projects will help the community overall implement the Quality of Life plan developed by the Eastern North community from 2010-11. Since then, under the leadership of APM, the community has taken great strides toward making the community a better place to live, work, and raise a family.

“This pilot Academy seeks to build off of the leadership goals and a mandate that came from the Eastern North residents and leaders during the planning process,” said LISC Program Officer Sarah Sturtevant. “In order to sustain and build a healthy community, new leaders must be cultivated to take action and ownership of their community.” As part of its Sustainable Communities Initiative in Eastern North (SCI-Eastern North), LISC contributed $11,000 to make the Academy possible, in addition to in-kind contributions from Temple.

During the first workshop, as the group worked to define leadership together, it became clear that freedom was essential to the idea. A good leader doesn’t force anyone to do anything – instead, having respect for differences and for others will welcome their respect. In a sense, being a good leader means being a good example, the group noted. So doing right is not about following the right path, but, as Daquann explained, recognizing your own power to choose the path that is best for you.

In this way, the training adopts a process of learning in line with this connection between leadership and freedom. Participants aren’t told the answers – they are asked to come up with them on their own, using what they know together. This model of learning is very different from the more traditional didactic methods most people are familiar with in school.

“We can actually get in groups and talk about ourselves, and in school it’s mainly just individual,” Daquann explained after the workshop.

“It’s better than the way I thought it was going to be, you know more strict and jotting down notes,” said Zavier Paul, a fourteen year-old student from Kensington CAPA. “It’s also entertaining to hear about people’s stories.”

By empowering participants to create knowledge together, using their shared experience, new ways of thinking about life and new ways of relating to each other become possible. Participants become more aware of their power and feel more connected with their community at the same time. If you’re in the room during a session like this, you can actually feel all of the minds opening – the fear, mistrust, and prejudices falling away. “We’re learning about each other,” said Amarilis Gonzales from the senior group Voluntarios en Acción. Building community among participants in this way is the first clear goal of the Academy.

In terms of community development, powerful leaders are needed to drive changes in distressed neighborhoods. At the same time, those changes need to come from and be driven by people living there. What’s needed, then, are ways to support average people to become leaders in their own way. This is why facilitators posed the question to participants: “What are the qualities of a good leader?”

In answering the question themselves, together, participants’ own knowledge and experience about the subject was validated. Sonia Collazo thinks this dialogue about leadership is important. She explained, “I have already learned some words and skills that a good leader must have. In order to guide the group or lead people to the right place, it is important to do it in a respectful way and in an informed way.”

In sharing their ideas, participants also had an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the progress of the group. “There’s a whole bunch of cultures, some people might want to live a different way. They can have their way, but we can lead them into the positive,” Zavier said, proud of what he was able to add to his small group conversation.

Helping people identify their power and encouraging participants to be leaders in their own right is the Academy’s second major goal.

Leaders who can help develop and mentor other leaders multiply the effect tremendously. “If you lead people to do something for the better, maybe they’ll follow, and then they become leaders and lead people,” Zavier offered.  Imagine one neighbor on every block leading a project to help benefit the community. Ultimately, more active leaders mean more impact neighbors can have.

Participants in the Academy mapped their own skills and resources during the first session, and they will eventually learn how to map the skills and resources of people in their communities. Every neighbor, friend, or family member becomes a potential resource for moving closer to their goals. This will help them cultivate a different way of looking at their community and learn how to support others and how others can support them, said Mejia-Rabell.

This is the third goal of the Academy: train leaders who can inspire, work with, and mentor other leaders.

Over the course of the eight weeks, the group will practice the skills they are learning by organizing projects to benefit the community. The training is kind of like a science experiment – folks have the chance to test their hypotheses, try out their new tools, and observe what works in the real world.

The projects may be simple and small, but they will be connected to the overall community plan to improve the quality of the residents’ daily lives. “The Academy provides an opportunity to work on the large scale issues and also things that are of a more ‘simple’ nature but that really make a difference,” said Mejia-Rabell.

This is the fourth goal of the training: moving beyond dialogue to action and practice to make lessons from the training real and give the group some direct experience in community action.

Even after the first meeting, members already expressed feeling more connected, energized, and motivated. Daquann, though still focused on being a veterinarian, saw his own journey as a piece of a larger whole. “Help out, pick up after your mess. The world is like a person. It helps us so we need to help it,” he implored. “But this program is a lot more than just helping us learn about our environment, it’s about us and about life and our future.”

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