By Cheryl D. Fields
ITASCA, Ill.— Nearly 200 Kellogg Leadership for Community Change (KLCC) fellows, coaches and support staff gathered here in July at the Doral Eaglewood Resort & Spa for the first national meeting of KLCC. The three-day gathering gave participants in this new W.K. Kellogg Foundation program an opportunity to acquaint themselves better with colleagues from home as well as to learn about the work and challenges of the other program sites. By the end of the conference, several fellows said they felt inspired.
“I think America is going to have to come to grips with the need for us to work as a people to recognize identity and interests, and to cross the boundaries to bring those different parts of [us] together.”
–Dr. William Richardson, president and CEO, W.K. Kellogg Foundation
For some fellows, like Rashied McDuffie of Buffalo, coming to the national meeting marked a first-ever trip on an airplane. For others, like mother daughter fellows Anita and Mariah Big Spring of Montana, and Raul and Alma Valdez of Texas, it was an occasion for families of leaders to share a conference experience. Ranging in age from teenagers to senior citizens, the fellows came to the meeting from urban, suburban and rural communities, and represented a spectrum of professional, racial and cultural backgrounds. As a group, they were dramatically more diverse than what one typically finds at leadership conferences. It was a difference foundation officials said they deliberately sought to create.
“I think America is going to look very different in 25 years,” said Foundation President and CEO William Richardson, Ph.D., during his remarks at the meeting. “I think America is going to have to come to grips with the need for us to work as a people to recognize identity and interests, and to cross the boundaries to bring those different parts of [us] together.”
In separate remarks, at the close of the conference, Rick Foster, the foundation’s vice president for programs, said he’d heard rumors that the foundation was perhaps “afraid” of this diverse new leadership development program.
“We’re not afraid of this initiative at all,” he said, adding that the foundation expects to learn from it. He also emphasized that the success of the initiative rests with the fellows.
KLCC “is about long- term community action by people most affected by it,” Foster said. “The real guts of this whole conference, and of the whole KLCC initiative, is the 150 or so fellows and the network in each of your communities that allows them to be successful. You are the centerpiece of all this work.”
Throughout the meeting, fellows were urged to be true to who they are individually in their roles as community leaders and to incorporate their core values into their work.
Within the context of the meeting, being true to one’s self sometimes meant learning something new about one’s self and/or one’s community. During one of the sessions, Wisconsin fellow Dorothy O’Meara, admitted that the national meeting was perhaps the most diverse group she had ever been part of. The experience caused her to view her home community differently than she had before arriving at the conference, she said.
In a separate cross-site conversation about how identifying shared values in diverse groups can be a route toward improving understanding, Montana community coach Harry Goldman stood to explain that for him Judaism is more than a religion, it is how he identifies culturally. As he said this, others in the room nodded.
“KLCC is not about the soloist, it is about the choir.”
–Bill Grace, founder, executive director, Center for Ethical Leadership
“Knowing who we are and being willing to stand for it in public is at the heart of leadership,” said Bill Grace, founder, executive director of the Center for Ethical Leadership (CEL), which, together with the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) serves as the coordinating organization for KLCC. While knowledge of self is important and an essential characteristic of leadership, Grace was quick to note that KLCC “is not about the soloist, it is about the choir.”
Creating an agenda for such a diverse group of leaders was no easy feat. Leading the way were Coordinating Organization heads Kweisi Rollins of IEL and Dale Neinow of CEL.
The conference began Thursday evening with a few icebreaker exercises led by members of the Coordinating Organization, followed by brief site introductions. The presentations ranged from narrated video tours, to musical presentations, and face- to-face introductions of individual fellows.
During the opening plenary of the first full day of meetings, which was preceded by two unexpected fire drills in the main conference building, fellows were invited to be compassionate yet bold in their leadership.
“When we can speak the truth in love to power with courage, it is likely that change is going to happen,” said Grace during the opening session. He led the group through a Gracious Space exercise (for more about the Gracious Space concept, see the KLCC newsletter, summer 2003), after which each site gave a more detailed presentation on the work they are pursuing as part of KLCC.
Dr. Richardson’s appearance was one of the conference highlights. During his remarks, he reiterated the foundation’s commitment to KLCC by noting, that helping leaders learn how to work across boundaries and sharpen their shared decision making skills is, in his view, an essential step toward preparing for the nation’s future.
“As you all go through the important work that you’re doing, of which we’re so proud, [you’re] forging a way for us, in terms of a new approach to leadership, that we think is going to leave in place in your communities a group of people who will make a difference for generations to come,” Richardson said.
“On behalf of the whole foundation, I want to express our deep appreciation for your courage and willingness to learn from each other and participate in a set of tough, tough issues that you’ve laid out for yourselves.”
In a separate plenary devoted specifically to the topic of education, Harvard university scholar Dr. Ronald Ferguson, shared findings from his research on the Minority Student Achievement Gap project. The research reveals that teacher attitudes matter greatly to students, so Ferguson cautioned fellows not to underestimate the importance of teacher preparation and commitment. He further noted that while student involvement also is important to finding solutions to education problems, it is critical that education policy makers not exaggerate the role they expect student leaders to play in the process. “Be clear about what the boundaries are on youth participation, but then take it seriously within those boundaries.” Ferguson said.
The Harvard professor’s wisdom was underscored the next day, when a group of teen and young adult fellows confronted their colleagues about the role youth had played during the national meeting and in the overall KLCC process. The young leaders warned their elders that trying to solve education problems without adequate input from students is a prescription for failure. Bob Tenequer, a fellow from New Mexico, put the youth message in to broader context.
“We [elders] do not know what is on the minds of our future leaders, and unless we engage them, as equals in some of this work, we will never know…if we allow them to be absent from the process, it is the community that suffers,” he said.
In addition to the large group plenary sessions, fellows participated in smaller special interest group workshops. These sessions challenged fellows to think creatively while working through skill-building exercises and sharing individual experiences with fellows from different parts of the country.
The final sessions were devoted to exchanging lessons learned. While several fellows expressed frustration over the scarcity of time for unstructured interaction, and some dissatisfaction with the special interest group workshops, most expressed an appreciation for the national meeting experience, noting that they learned something about the work they are pursuing, their colleagues and/or themselves.
Sidebar: Diverse Solutions Pursued by a Unique Group of Leaders Each of the six KLCC Session One sites is committed to solving an education problem for their community. How they have identified the problems they aim to solve, however, and the strategies they’ve chosen for addressing them, are as diverse as the communities themselves.
The Llano Grande fellows from Texas explained that their team is divided into five special interest groups aimed at improving the educational and other conditions in their community. The Texas team also included a group of videographers who captured and compiled highlights from the conference into a video that was screened at the end of the meeting.
“The challenge for us is collaborating with everyone in the community,” said Gov. Fred Vallo, one of the KLCC fellows from Acoma, New Mexico. The New Mexico team is working to transform the local curriculum, making it more inclusive of the history and knowledge of the Native and Latino populations in the region. The concept of shared decision-making is a new and challenging part of the process Vallo said his community is experiencing because of KLCC.
The Buffalo fellows described how they are using direct action organizing to get a more diverse group of people in their community engaged in the process of shaping local education policy.
“The school system is failing kids in Buffalo,” said Fabiola Friot, a KLCC fellow and Colombian immigrant who came to this country 28 years ago. She is especially concerned about the educational plight of Latino kids in her community, but says she and her KLCC colleagues have discovered that they share many basic values, despite their racial and cultural differences.
We’re now “looking for what motivates people to connect to the policy and strategy we’re developing,” said Diane Bissei-Matheson, another Buffalo fellow.
Montana fellow Gary Acevedo took a moment during his presentation to share a question he recently read on a bumper sticker: “How much of your reality is your imagination?” On Montana’s Flathead Reservation, the fellows are searching for ways to decrease the high student drop out rate. Reflecting on the bumper sticker, Acevedo said he imagines a community where all students attend school and where the experience is enjoyable and enriching for them. “I imagine my imagination becoming my reality,” he said.
Members of the Minneapolis team explained that they are working in racial/cultural sub-groups to develop strategies for addressing a wide range of educational challenges. Reading and literacy are one priority for the African group, said fellow Paulie Salazar, an early childhood development specialist. The Latino group, meanwhile, is considering ways to get educators to understand that because of the vast cultural diversity within the region’s Latino population, translating materials into Spanish is not enough. You have to overcome cultural barriers as well. Similarly, Hmong fellows are searching for ways to eliminate the language barriers that exist between parents and educators, while also identifying ways to provide more educational support for students after school.
The Wisconsin team explained that it, too, is divided into several sub-groups. While each is at a different stage of development in their KLCC process, overall, they’re trying to identify ways to make lifelong learning a priority for residents. They also hope that by improving local educational opportunities they will help the community to retain more of its younger members, who increasingly are fleeing to pursue opportunities elsewhere. In a moment of levity, the Wisconsin team also explained to the other fellows the difference between mobile shelters—a necessity in a part of the country that spends several months of the year covered by frozen tundra—and homeless shelters.