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Communication and Understanding is Key in Inclusive Community Leadership

Miguel Arriola, Intern

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Are you a political creature  seeking to influence the world around you?  Have you ever wanted to organize your community to stand for an important cause?  Whether one seeks to be a local politician serving the community, a community organizer providing support services to those in need, or a protest leader in disagreements with the authorities, a nuanced understanding of people is crucial to being a successful and equitable leader.  Inclusiveness is the magic word.

On Wednesday March 1st, the Center for Student Involvement hosted one of its workshops called U-Lead at the Student Union Montebello Room.  These gatherings are designed to aid in the development of student leadership skills.  Each workshop has a different theme.  This time, the theme was diversity.  Speaking on the subject were Nyehla Irsheid and Jocelyne Sanchez of the CSULA Cross Cultural Center.  Respectively, they represent programs focused on gender and sexuality, as well as local Latino communities.  A primary purpose of the center is to host events that educate people about related social justice issues in order to bridge relationships between different groups of people.  Sanchez explained that as program coordinators, “…we have to take into consideration people’s different backgrounds and where they come from, which is what this activity will promote.  We have to listen and be aware that people aren’t exactly like us, and that their culture or upbringing could be different than ours”.  Participants  receive a postcard indicating their attendance.  If the student completes 8 of these workshops and accumulates the associated postcards, he or she receives a certificate at the Student Leader Awards.

I decided to participate and overall it was neither a bad nor a useless experience.  Even when appealing to the moderately lethargic individual, it is a fairly useful experience for learning how to better engage people in dialogue.  For those looking to improve their leadership skills, the activity promotes basic reflection on how and why to have an inclusive  leadership style.

Participants are asked a series of questions designed to illuminate the similarities and differences of the circumstances and experiences of various groups of people.  One question asked, “what are some attributes of a good community leader?”  Well, a good community leader is preferably someone who is involved in the community, seeks to help people, and is not dictatorial.  Irsheid explains that part of being this type of leader is being a great listener to “know what are the needs of the community so that you’re not making assumptions and you’re not fueling things that wouldn’t benefit the community or movement”.

This type of listening is often disparaged in a brand of loud mouth politics that is dominated by alpha personalities.  Other questions that were asked include: “Who are you?”, “How would you like others to see you?”, “What were your parents’ views on education and money?”, and “What were your family’s views on the roles of men and women?”

The various responses given by each person over the course of one minute per question reveal the differences of a given person’s self-identity and self-image. Experiences in various places like high-school and the home, aspirations, academic interests, knowledge sets, and thought processes also manifest various responses.  These questions humanize people to one another and expose them as perpetual works in progress rather than statically what they are in a given moment.

The entire activity is reminiscent of the first day in a new class, when students are asked by the teacher to tell peers about who they are to establish familiarity, mutual interest, and mutual respect.  Participants also gain practice in public speaking by talking about themselves for a set amount of time.  If one is trying to promote understanding between diverse groups of people, the questions asked in this activity are exactly the kind that make people feel more connected.

For aspiring politicians, this workshop should make clear that they must lead all people in their area of responsibility, not just those they choose.  For the community organizer, this workshop teaches how to become aware of the local community’s needs.  Lastly, for the protest leader, this workshop emphasizes the need to connect and overlap the concerns of various groups of people so that a given movement is more difficult for authorities to disperse by exploiting differences in a strategy of divide and conquer.

Alliances among communities foster understanding. When there is overlap in issues and a genuine wish to include the solutions of different issues together, people at the top of a hierarchy have much more difficulty in peeling off layers from a movement to marginalize a given group again. Being diverse is not a slogan to repeat to others for moral high-ground. Our diversity must be practiced through exposure to and comprehension of one another.  Otherwise we are not diverse– we are simply a mass of different communities that live next to each other without a sense of cohesion.

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Communication and Understanding is Key in Inclusive Community Leadership