The Center for Community Engagement at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) was awarded a $200,000 grant from the California Community Foundation (CCF) to develop and implement a leadership development curriculum to build community member capacity for civic engagement through a Southeast Los Angeles Civics Leadership Academy. The 26-month project began in mid-November.
“The proposal was based on developing what we are calling a civics leadership academy and it’s basically a curriculum that we would implement with community members,” said Juan M. Benitez, the executive director for the Center for Community Engagement at CSULB. “The community members themselves expressed an interest and asked if there was a chance we could come and offer training and the foundation stepped up and asked us to submit a proposal to work in these target areas that they have already been working with.”
In the first year there will be focus group meetings and community forums, from which the first 40-hour component will largely be based beginning around June.
“We use very participatory teaching techniques,” said Benitez. “We’re there as learners with the participants because we’re not from these cities, so we will draw a lot of the curriculum from the participants’ experiences in these cities and communities themselves. A lot of table discussions and interactive activities will better inform us of what is taking place in their communities.”
Community member involvement will be focused on what Benitez called “emerging leaders,” individuals who are working through formal or informal organizations, but who are not executive directors or elected officials. With up to eight participants from each city, the program could have as many as 64 individuals involved in leadership development. The focus will be on developing a curriculum and technical assistance framework oriented towards fostering a culture of civic engagement, which could then be used by the CCF for future projects. The project will help increase the knowledge of identified individuals in civic affairs; strengthen the civic engagement skills in order to identify key community issues and develop civic projects; and strengthen residents’ understanding of city governance structures, city budgets, the politics of budgets, the role of contract negotiations as well as all levels of government, roles and responsibilities for the citizenry.
Benitez’s group will be working with communities identified by the foundation because it felt they represented a good cross section of some of the issues and assets. Those cities include Bell, Bell Gardens, Maywood, Huntington Park, South Gate, Vernon, unincorporated Walnut Park and Cudahy.
“One of the first things we talk about in the sessions is what are the criteria for leadership and who do we refer to as leaders vs. community leaders?” said Benitez. “Initially they may not consider themselves leaders, but maybe they have exhibited qualities of leadership. The idea here is not to create leaders, but to support leadership, enhance the leadership skills and to introduce concepts, skills and values that are seen as assets in whatever they may be involved in.
“We’re going to partner with local organizations to help us identify individuals,” added Benetiz. “For instance, if there is a YMCA in Huntington Park that has a volunteer who has been working with them for five years on youth development programs and for whatever reasons, maybe budget reasons, they just haven’t been able to hire on as staff, then that would be someone we would consider inviting to participate. There will be focus groups with anyone who has been recommended or identified and the idea here is that we wouldn’t hand-pick folks, but we would propose key issues in their community and get them to give us feedback to see if those resonate and to see if they have a motivation to address some of these issues.”
There are no formal education or age requirementsto participate in the program, though anyone 17 or under will need parental permission to participate. There is, however, a commitment requirement.
“We are looking at high school-aged participants, but I don’t mean that in a formal graduation sense because we are working with some immigrants who have low formal education levels,” said Benitez.
“We’ve proposed that each component would be composed of about 40 hours of training, so members would have to commit to completing those 40 hours to receive the completion certificate from us.”
Along with Benitez, Kendra Jennis, project coordinator; Christian Ponce, extended education specialist; and other staff members from his center will participate in the project. In addition, Chicano and Latino Studies’ professor Rigoberto Rodriguez, who is the co-designer of the curriculum with Benitez, will serve as an instructor. The project will also involve approximately 8-10 CSULB students who will serve as facilitators.
“We have offered these leadership development trainings for four years now through our center,” noted Benitez. “In the last two years we have brought in over $1 million in funding to support the implementation of these programs–we call them community scholars programs, but they are really leadership development programs.”
The CCF is a public, charitable organization serving Los Angeles County in multiple capacities since 1915. It encourages philanthropy by individuals, families, companies and organizations, and serves as a steward of their charitable funds and legacies. It also makes grants to nonprofits and collaborates in addressing the needs of vulnerable populations such as persons with disabilities. In addition, it actively engages in community problem solving with business, civic, government and other organizations.