Guest blog by Jennifer Galante, AmericCorps VISTA at Mutual Housing Association of Greater Hartford (right).
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Each session of the Mutual Housing Association Leadership Program would start in the same way: reading the quote of the day. Throughout the ten-week program, I learned to love and appreciate this simple exercise. In just a few minutes, everyone in the class was brought onto the same page. No matter what happened in the week since we all last met, the quote made sure that everyone in the class was all starting the session from the same state of mind. Sometimes these quotes re-affirmed our convictions and inspired passion. Sometimes they would raise questions and leave us without an answer. There were days where the quote could spark an entire discussion, and there were days where everyone just sat in silence, letting the words sink in. It was the perfect exercise to start each class session, and once the momentum was put in place by reading the quote, it had the ability to carry the class through until the end.
When the Mutual Housing Association of Greater Hartford (MHAGH) started the leadership program in 2009, it was originally offered only to residents of MHAGH properties who were interested in becoming better equipped to help make a difference in their communities. It did not take long for interest to spread, however, and by 2011 the program was opened to anyone in the Greater Hartford area who was passionate about learning how to become a leader in the community. Each session covers a unit of resident leadership. Students get lessons in asset mapping, community organizing, effective planning strategies, what leadership looks like in real life, and even public speaking.
I came into the leadership program feeling like a bit of an outsider. My connection to the group was different than all of the other participators. I am an AmeriCorps VISTA, and am completing my year of service with the Mutual Housing Association of Greater Hartford. My supervisor, the Resident Initiatives Coordinator for MHAGH, teaches the leadership program and thought that I would get the most out of the experience if I participated in the class as a student. Looking back, I realize how lucky I was to be able to absorb this experience both from a professional stance as well as a personal one. I started by thinking of the lessons only in terms of my work with the Resident Engagement department with MHAGH. However, I learned that I not only could apply what I learned in terms of being a VISTA, but I was able to take things away that were more personal, and that I could apply to my life and community that existed outside of my service.
You may be thinking that I’ve left off some important aspect of the program… What is leadership training even worth if you’re not asked to put the skills that you’ve learned to use, right?
In photos: Mutual Housing Association Leadership Program in action and recent graduates.
I agree. One of the most popular yet challenging aspects of the program was the Community Project unit. Our class was broken into three small groups, given a budget of $100, and asked to develop, plan, and execute a community project. The project could be absolutely anything that we wanted, but we only had about a month to complete it. As a part of the class, we were required to fill out action plans, conflict agreements, and policies for work distribution, but the rest was truly up to us. My group decided to raise awareness for childhood obesity and promote good nutrition by holding an assembly for students grades K-8 at a local Hartford school. The other groups implemented highly successful recycling and clean-up projects, and organized to get parents at a local school more involved. All three projects were not only a great success, but acted as the test to prove we were capable of wearing the title of Resident Leaders, and we all passed with flying colors.
I think that a lot of students, myself included, have sometimes been left wondering what steps to take after graduation. There’s a question of “what now?” that seems to be on everyone’s minds. The group of leaders that graduated in the spring of 2012 were able to address this question at the NeighborWorks CLI conference this October. A group of seven former students identified the need for a strong alumni association for graduates to receive further training, network with other generations of alum, and organize community building events and activities. The formation of the alumni association will come to fruition through a retreat where all graduates, from the very first class up to the most recent, will gather together and define the mission and goals of the group.
I believe that things are only getting better and stronger for the MHLA and the developing alumni association. I am excited that I now have a front-row seat to witness all that is to come. It is amazing to be able to watch as the word spreads around the community about this program—there will even be some fellow AmeriCorps VISTAs in the next group of students! I know that once the alumni association is put into place, I will continue to be an active member even after my year of service is over. There is no limit to the benefits of the MHLA, and I’m sure other graduates will agree with me when I say that my life both personally and professionally is better off after having completed the program.
Have you been through a leadership program? Do you plan or organize leadership programs in your community? Share your thoughts with us here, or contact Sara Varela to write a guest blog.