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Virtually the Best – Reflection

Jennifer Duston, VCLA Cohort XXVI 

Client Partner

Franklin Covey



As John Quincy Adams so eloquently stated, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, & become more, you are a leader.” I couldn’t choose words more appropriate to describe Cohort XXVI and our day of learning with community leaders as a part of the Ventura County Leadership Academy. 


Although we began the day in the ever so normalized 

Zoom meeting that has come to be the standard for group meetings these days, let me tell you it did not disappoint. We were guided through a beautiful history of leadership by the knowledgeable and thought provoking Genevieve Evans Taylor (VCLA Cohort XVI), Chief of Staff to the President at CSU Channel Islands. We examined the evolution of leadership throughout the years and began on a deeper dive into the journey of relational leadership. We each explored the concepts of being inclusive and ensuring diversity is at the table, sharing our power to empower others, as well as the importance of leadership being purposeful, ethical, and process oriented. We leaned into and celebrated the idea that anyone can be a leader, being reminded it is a choice one makes and does not happen by accident. 

Next up, we were headed to our very first on-site meeting as a cohort at The Search Dog Rescue Foundation in one of the most beautiful facilities I’ve experienced in our county. With lots of open space, we were each given our own chair, doused with hand sanitizer, and told to pick a space on the grass of what seemed like the size of a football field. We are the FIRST VCLA Cohort to meet in-person in the midst of a pandemic and we handled it well...socially distanced, masked, and hand sanitizer flowin’! As VCLA Director Pattie Braga gave us the rundown, it became evidently clear that the opportunities abound for our group and the importance of taking advantage of connecting with and learning from the leaders around us.

Thanks to Dr. Tiffany Morse (VCLA Cohort XVII), Superintendent of Ojai Unified School District, we got to know our fellow cohorts real quick! Who knew a group could have so much fun and learn so much about what another through “socially distanced icebreakers?!” We so appreciated Dr. Morse’s approach to facilitating this and going the extra mile to ensure just the perfect mix of fun and seriousness to begin forming the bonds that will carry us through this year. 

Throughout the day we had multiple sessions that were nothing short of engaging and thought-provoking as well as welcomed by various county leaders. Brad “Brick” Conners, City Manager of Port Hueneme and President & CEO Pharos Leadership joined us and shared his excitement and admiration for our group and what we are doing. Chiany Dri, Anti-racism Educator and Consultant spent some time leading us through a series of Bias exercises and a very meaningful discussion around diversity. Rhett Mauck, Director of Development at The Search Dog Foundation gave us a tour and history of their work--simply amazing--I encourage you to reach out for a tour and learn more! Last but not least, Herb Gooch, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science (Ret) at California Lutheran University gave us a crash course in local and state politics. 

We even had a visit from VCLA Alumni, Caitlin Barringer, it was so inspiring to hear her say that "The VCLA program gave me the opportunity to learn from the best and inspired me to engage more with my community, which is what made me want to run for Santa Paula City Council!”


By the end of the day all I could think of was how grateful I am to be part of such a quality organization, surrounded by so many amazing leaders. In just 2 meetings with my cohorts, I can already tell that we are being called to dream more, learn more, do more, & become more! We are after all, virtually the best!

All Barks & No Bites

Caitlin Brooks

VCLA Cohort XXVI

Program Manager/Transportation Planning

Ventura County Transportation Commission


If you don't like dogs or puns, this recap of VCLA Cohort XXVI Session 2 is going to be ruff. Please furgive me and I promise by the time you've finished reading you won't be hounding anyone for more. 

Our second session (but first in person!) was held on Friday October 9th at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, which is truly one of the most spectacular facilities I have ever visited. I highly recommend you sniff them out if you have a chance. Not only were we lucky enough to visit this beautiful spot tucked away in rural Santa Paula, but we also learned they didn't charge us a dime for the meeting space. If you thought this was a real treat like I did and are interested in throwing them a bone, I added a link to donate to their organization here: https://donate.searchdogfoundation.org/1170.  

Before we set out for Santa Paula, we started our morning on Zoom diving into the basics of relational leadership with Genevive Evans Taylor, who laid the foundation for us to evaluate our approach to becoming a successful leader. Her presentation was enlightening and I appreciated that the tools she provided could be put into practice immediately. I look forward to using the lessons learned from our morning session as I move forward in my professional development. After the morning Zoom session, we drove to the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation where I was immediately comforted with the sound of barking dogs and also put at ease to find we were meeting outside, socially distanced, with my fellow cohort members wearing masks (so no bites!).


Dr. Tiffany Morse led us through a pandemic friendly ice-breaker and we were off to the races to learn more about each other and what we have in common. I felt encouraged to open up to my group because Dr. Morse did an excellent job fostering a positive environment where we could focus on our similarities. After our ice-breaker we split into groups to recap our Immersion Activities and it was great to hear about the wide spectrum of options we each had to choose from in our County. We went on to have lunch and go through a bias workshop with Chiany Dri, who did a fantastic job teaching us about our own inherent biases. It reaffirmed that we all have room for improvement and I was thankful to have a presentation on such a timely issue. 


Afterwards we went on a facility tour guided by Rhett Mauck, the Director of Development for the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.  Although there was much less dog-petting than I was hoping for, I was nonetheless fascinated by his overview of the work they do. Their mission is to strengthen disaster response in America by rescuing and recruiting dogs and partnering them with firefighters and other first responders to find people buried alive in the wreckage of disasters. The property is immaculate, the dogs sound incredible, and I will continue to talk about their organization to anyone that will listen for the furseeable future.

 

The final presentation was given by Herb Gooch, who gave us a crash course in Ventura County politics. It was refreshing to receive an unbiased overview of the political races and I appreciated the comprehensive background on our state and county history, which will definitely come in handy as we go through the upcoming election. 

 

VCLA Alumni have often described the program as "drinking from a firehose" and after only two sessions, I couldn't agree more. Session 2 was informative and a lot of fun. I can only imagine how much work went on behind the scenes to make it successful. Thank you to Pattie, our speakers, and the VCLA Board. 

I'm grateful for the opportunity to participate in VCLA and continue to learn more about our County and build relationships with my fellow Cohort members. Although we are transitioning to safe in-person sessions, Cohort XXVI will continue to be virtually the best!

Thanks fur reading.

VCLA Inspires

Caitlin Barringer

VCLA Alumni, Cohort XXV 

Development Manager, Kids & Families Together


The mission and purpose of Ventura County Leadership Academy (VCLA) is "connecting people & issues to strengthen our county" and it is something that they embody well.  As a recent graduate of Cohort 25 (Aptly named “We Survived”, due to the COVID-19 pandemic cutting our year a little short), I had no idea the impact that VCLA would have not only on my career, but on my heart for our community as well.  

Although I enjoyed and learned from many aspects of the program; our visit to Sacramento & meeting with our representatives, visiting the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Situation Room, touring the Waste Management Recycling Plant and the Colleagues Municipal Water District, it was being invited to attend the California Lutheran University’s Center for Economic Research & Forecasting (CERF) luncheon in 2019 that helped sparked my recent run for office.  It was at this luncheon where I realized for the first time that Ventura County is experiencing negative population growth.  Additionally, the city in which I reside (Santa Paula), is in the second year of population loss.  I asked myself how this could be, as I see Ventura County as a gem on the coast, so beautiful that we are a tourist destination, with amenities that would attract anyone to want to live here.  That is when I decided that while I may not be able to help the county at large, I can be more involved on a local level and work to shine a light on all the wonderful things Santa Paula is and can be.  The VCLA program gave me mountains of great information which I learned from the guest speakers and presenters that were experts in their fields.  This knowledge gave me the confidence to sit and have breakfast with the City Manager, ask probing questions and learn more about local issues impacting my community. I decided to get more involved and was soon appointed to the Measure T Commission, then eventually deciding to run for City Council, hoping to be that next generation leader and voice in our community.

I believe that I am qualified to serve on Santa Paula's city council not only because of my roots in the Santa Paula community, my experience in the nonprofit sector, but because I completed the VCLA program. It has taught me about the issues impacting in not only my own city, but throughout the county.  I’ve built lasting connections with my cohort, many of VCLA’s over 600 other alumni, and I believe it has allowed me to build relationships with people that I can partner and collaborate with to make our community a better place.  Thank you VCLA for staying true to your mission and supporting existing and emerging leaders like myself and giving me tools to go out and make a difference in my community.

The Beginning – Cohort XXVI, Alumni Reflection by Melissa Miller

The mission of Ventura County Leadership Academy is connecting people and issues to strengthen our county.  And today, on Patriots Day, Cohort XXVI did just that.  With the task of taking a deeper dive into ten of the largest cities in Ventura County, each team had the opportunity to connect with many key individuals that make up each city.  Even with Covid restrictions and limited “in person access”, our virtual research and meetings were a fun way to get to know fellow cohorts and learn about a specific city.

From City Council Members, local Mayors and Assembly Members, to business owners, college presidents, artists and General Managers of Park & Rec, we were able to ask the tough and not so tough questions that make each city unique.  On the surface, we found significant city differences in housing prices, school district sizes and funding, crime statistics and populations.  Then we looked below the surface.  The one thing that each city had in common was the success of community and connection.  Each council member, business owner, county representative or board member we spoke with agreed that “their sense of community and connection” allowed for their cities success during some of the toughest times in the county.  Each city embraces their diverse culture and longstanding history that make them unique, all the while knowing we all form a bond that connects – We Are Ventura County!

In the weeks and months ahead, each immersion activity that we complete not only brings our cohort closer as leaders but allows us to embrace each and every part of our county.  We will be pushed out of our comfort zones to ask the deep questions.  Then, we will look deep inside ourselves to help find and answer.  But mostly, we will continue to connect, grow and expand our knowledge of this beautiful county . . . and create some lasting partnerships that will stand up to the hardest of times.  We are virtually the best – Cohort XXVI.

Melissa Miller, VCLA Cohort XXVI

 

Alumni Reflection – Kevin Brannon, Cohort XX

Lately, as the success of the Reel Guppy Outdoors program has surged, I have taken some time to reflect upon the people and events that have gotten us here. An important part of my success with this program has been the lessons I took away from my participation in the Ventura County Leadership Academy.  What VCLA has done for me in my career and volunteer work is incredibly valuable: first and foremost, it taught me how to be a leader.

I have been active in my community for many years. I have long held a deep drive to serve others and to make my community better. What I needed were the tools for making connections, for building a network of leaders to support my vision, and for taking my dreams from vision to reality. From day one in VCLA we were instructed in a leadership approach that involved empowerment, personal connection, and ethical behavior. I grew tremendously; I learned how to be a leader in building my own company and brand. I learned how to identify a need and then step up to fulfill it.

In short, I want to share three key take-aways that I learned through my participation in VCLA Cohort XX.

  1. Education is valuable. By becoming more educated I was building more value in myself. This allows me to make a decent living, and empowers VCLA graduates to apply for top positions in the county. This lesson inspired me to go back to Oxnard College to take filmmaking courses. What has developed since then has exceeded my expectations. By building my personal value, I have been able to use that as the vessel to start an impactful nonprofit organization that has served more than 2,400 youth and counting. The Reel Guppy Outdoors program serves Ventura County kids, connecting them to the outdoors and a valuable and relaxing hobby (or career). It teaches them patience, hard work, and about aquatic ecosystems. It is endorsed by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, and has been recognized by state, national, and international fishing organizations for our educational and ethical practices.
  2. Sustainability and philanthropy are more than just buzzwords. During our cohort’s visit to Limoneira, John Chamberlain spoke about his company’s calculated risks and efforts toward achieving greater sustainability. The way that they built their infrastructure, working throughout Ventura County, and in different regions around the world – it’s an effective blueprint for growth. I was impressed how Limoneira provides so much for the community, and the commitment it takes to sustain this level of support.
  3. Health care is vital to our communities, but can be very difficult to access. I grew up “in the system.” A child thrust into foster care like this can develop certain personality traits that result from the psychological trauma we suffer, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Things that were not spoken about during my childhood are more openly addressed now. Mental health does not deserve the stigma it receives; I can see that some of my insecurities and defense mechanisms have arisen from the upbringing I had. It’s too bad that I had to struggle so much as a kid and a young person, and that I only had these revelations as an adult – kids should not have to experience that. Nevertheless, the open conversation we had in the health care session put me on a path to understanding. It also got me more fired up than ever to help the kids now growing up in the same system I grew up in.

These lessons have helped to shape who I am and how I approach my work in Ventura County. Since my participation in Cohort XX, I have built the Reel Guppy program from concept to action. I am proud to say that my leadership has brought in more volunteers, supporters, and media attention than ever. And it’s only the beginning! We are providing healthy, exciting, hands-on opportunities for kids – most of them low-income and at-risk. VCLA helped to give me some tools that I use every day in making Ventura County an even better place to live. I’d like to invite all of you to come out to see what we are doing and to get involved. Visit http://reelguppyoutdoors.com/ for more information, and please contact me to visit, volunteer for, and participate in this life-changing program.

VCLA is very near and dear to my heart. The lessons I learned have helped to propel me to greater things than I had ever imagined. I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve Ventura County, and to put my leadership skills into action.

Kevin Brannon, Cohort XX (“Dos Equis”), AKA the Best Cohort Ever

Founder, Reel Guppy Outdoor, a nonprofit corporation

On Leadership and Exploring the Deep Sea

By Melissa Baffa, Cohort XVII, President, VCLA Board of Directors

Seven years ago, I was a member of Cohort XVII. It was during our session on education that our director asked for volunteers for the position of cohort representative. It sounded like a fantastic opportunity, but I was afraid to raise my hand. I would need to be elected by these fellow cohort members I was just getting to know. The last time I had run for anything was in high school, and I lost that election pretty badly. Being the cohort rep would mean attending the organization’s monthly board meetings, reporting out on our progress, and offering feedback. It would meanContinue reading