Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Being Inspired

As a writer, many things inspire my writing. I see and hear things through my character, or through the lens of the world I am creating in my story and incorporate them to enrich my writing. That in itself excites me. However, what really gets my heart racing and my mind spinning is when I'm inspired to be a better person overall.

In that respect, I am the luckiest woman on the planet because I get to lead an organization full of women who inspire me on a regular basis. As the executive director of Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines, I got to take an idea and turn it into a life-altering program that has the potential to become so much more.
Class of 2015
Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines (LLI) began as the idea of a group of people, many of them Latinas, who saw a gross lack of leadership development training opportunities for Latinas, particularly young Latinas who were just starting their careers. There are dozens of leadership programs across Iowa, but young Latinas are rarely recruited, nominated or selected to be a part of them. This group decided to do something to change that. 

They tossed around a lot of ideas, such as a leadership conference, and a mentoring program, but felt that the need was greater than what those efforts alone could address. They thought bigger and came up with a ten-week leadership development course that blends Latino culture, gender and leadership with a local spin that recognizing the gaps in resources and needs of our community. 

What amazes me most is that the founders weren't experts in creating a varied and unique curriculum that addressed these areas, but they researched and developed one. They had never arranged leadership development classes, but they did so for this cause because they believed it in so much. They were all very busy with their careers, families, and volunteer commitments, but they made time for this. They were not wealthy but they dug into their own finances when needed to move LLI from idea to reality. 
LLI Founders - Phenomenal, visionary, giving women
The idea began as a discussion in 2011. They created the curriculum, sketched out how the leadership development training sessions would play out, secured a location to host ten sessions, and hired me in 2012. I began a heavy publicity and recruitment push and by the summer of 2013 we were selecting the inaugural class. The first class graduated in 2014, just before the new class was selected. The second cohort is graduating this month, even as applications are open for the Class of 2016.

It has been a whirlwind getting this program off the ground, but it has been an awe-inspiring ride, and the best part has been the women I have the honor of working with - both in organizing the program, and participants.

The first group of applications were amazing. They had Masters degrees from Stanford, multiple awards, and hours of volunteer service to their communities. I remember thinking, "Where have these incredible Latinas been hiding? Why haven't other leadership development programs discovered them?"

But more than their impressive histories, resumes and recommendations, these young Latinas were hungry to improve their lives and that of their families. They weren't satisfied with the successes they had, they wanted to do more, and be more. They had goals that were lofty, but they knew that with the right network of support and nurturing they could surpass those goals. That's where LLI came in.
Class of 2014
LLI not only provided them with a circle of support, a mentor and training, but coming together and getting to know other Latinas like themselves was probably the biggest gift LLI gave them. I get why that has become like gold to the participants. 

As a young Latina who started her career in Des Moines, I remember feeling the isolation of being the only one: only woman at the meeting, only young professional in my office, only person of color at my company, only bilingual employee, etc. I could go days without seeing anyone who looked or spoke like me, who ate the foods I most enjoyed, who lived with the pull of two cultures. On top of that, I was always the unofficial spokesperson for all Latinos. That's a lot of pressure on a 22 year old, and above all it's unfair and degrading. I had no one who could relate to what I faced everyday. I wish I had a group like LLI to turn to.

Even though these women give up six hours of their Saturday to come to LLI sessions, it is more than a learning experience. It is a sigh of relief. When they come together among their peers they can speak in any of the languages of their heart without the fear of being reprimanded to speak English. They don't have to answer questions about their customs and traditions. Instead they can share their love for things that non-Latinos have a hard time understanding. They can make fun of the parts of their shared experience that are ridiculous without the fear of offending someone who has never been the only one. It is a freeing and empowering experience just being in that environment. 

As a bonus, they learn about the elements of their culture that attribute to their leadership abilities, parts of them they should showcase rather than hide. They meet and learn from Latinas who have come before them to pave the way so that programs like LLI can exist. They practice skills that will take them to the next level of their careers. Their mentors offer advice, guidance and cheer them on.

If it sounds like the participants get a lot out of the program, it pales in comparison to what I get out of being a part of it. 

For starters, I see my own drive and spirit in each of them. They remind me that I have it in me to do more and be more and it pushes me to live up to that. They develop a love and admiration for each other that reminds me to appreciate the strong women in my life. Their enthusiasm for working with their communities reignites my resolve to do the same. Their energy moves me to give everything my all - both within and beyond LLI. Their appreciation of the program helps keep me committed to how important this program is, even as I go nuts trying to find ways to keep it funded. When they come together to do things like organize an alumni association, and create scholarships for Latinas who will come after them, it touches my heart that they want to leave a legacy that expands well beyond their years. 

Latina Leadership Initiative is by far the most rewarding job I have ever done. I can't imagine another that can compare. It is one of the many beautiful things that I am grateful for in my life and that makes me excited for the future. 

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