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Jennifer Duston, VCLA Cohort XXVI
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!
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 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 day started off a little unnerving. With the fires burning, we all had to rearrange our personal schedules a bit, whether that was traveling, daycare, work or even freeway access – they were small issues, but affecting us all. I was checking my email constantly that morning. Coming from West County, I wasn’t sure if we would cancel, move the location or have to jump yet again to another freeway to make sure I was on time-
Being late for the 2nd day of school is just as bad as being late for the first day.
Jump forward a few hours, and in spite of a few detours, Focus Session #2 was on course, barreling straight down the tracks to Local Government, and personal reflection, with #25toLife on board. Settling in to my seat at the Human Services Agency, I was excited and nervous to see what the day held.
Dr. Herb Gooch was wonderful and insightful with explaining (in the most easy to understand terms) how government works alongside politics, and even had helpful stories and (!!!) a PowerPoint to assist my visual learning brain.
He then introduced and moderated a discussion with County of Ventura Supervisor, Kelly Long, and City of Moorpark Council Member, David Pollock, beautifully icing and adding personal sprinkles to my government comprehension cake.
Moving forward, the day was a swirl of Simi Valley learning. From City Hall, to the Library and on to the Sheriff Department, learning the history, culture, and personality of the City helped me to understand the community and how each sector and neighborhood works together to build a strong and vital municipality. When Fred Bauermeister, the Executive Director of the Free Clinic of Simi Valley spoke about his work and place of business, I could grasp how non-profits were able to fill in the gaps in cities, and how those in Public work could still help while fulfilling their passions by volunteering at Private and Non-Profit organizations, further helping and strengthening their community.
Mixed in to the activities were two more personal leadership growth discussions and exercises. I enjoy learning more about myself, as well as my fellow Cohort partners through the guidance and expertise of previous Cohort members and mentors. Banks Pecht helped to grow us individually in a Leadership as Applied lesson, while as a group, we all collectively grew together in Genevieve Evans Taylor, Ed.D.’s Authentic Leadership exercise.
By the end of the day, I wholeheartedly believe I can speak for just about everyone, in that we all had a full, eventful, educating, enriching and fun day that left us all a little tired, mostly at maximum mental capacity, full in personal connections and experiences, more connected with our local communities and government, and definitely overly excited for what next month’s Focus Session will bring.
Driving home from work on Thursday September 12, 2019, the night before VCLA Day One, I was giddy with excitement and gratitude thinking about VCLA starting the next day. I have worked continuously, one way or another since I was 12 years old when I first starting delivering magazines on my bike. However, I have not previously had an opportunity for formal personal development. Therefore, I view my time in VCLA as a gift.
I have not ever really thought about my personal strengths or picking a career that built upon them. I have always loved solving puzzles. Aside from the summer after my junior year at CSUN, when I briefly thought about getting a teaching credential (which was an acceptable career for women in 1981), I thought I wanted to be an attorney-advocate since childhood.
As part of VCLA, all new cohort members are required to take the Clifton Strength Finder. On Day One, Hilary Howard shared her expertise in this area with us. She taught us that we can only build on our strengths, and that we cannot build performance on weakness. This message really resonated with me, especially after running for VUSD School Board last year, and losing. I have spent some time, wasted it seems, over the last year trying to figure out how to identify and improve my weaknesses. However, Ms. Howard’s message taught me that my worldview was backwards, I should be working on maximizing my strengths.
Ms. Howard taught us there are thirty-four prevalent talents, out of which there are thirty-three million combinations. These talents can also be arranged around four main themes: executing, influencing, relationship building and strategic thinking. If you had asked me before I took the Strength Finder which two themes best described me I would have said strategic thinking and executing. However, my top five strengths did not include one strength in executing. My top five strengths include two each in strategic thinking and relationship building, with one in influencing.
Over the last week, I have really thought about this assessment, and my lack of executing strengths. Maybe this explains some things in my life I had attributed to other causes. Clearly, (no pun intended), my strength colored glasses are foggy. However, rather than continue to dwell on improving my weaknesses, I am going to take reassurance in my strengths and use the Cohort 25 to Life community journey to become a more effective leader and change-maker.
Thirty-two individuals took the first steps to becoming a team months before the first session this past Friday. In preparation for applying to become a part of Cohort XXV, I visited the VCLA website and read thru the curriculum. When submitting my application, then again as I prepared for my panel interview, I looked at the website and re-read the expectations. Some weeks later, I received a welcome aboard email. The email was both a welcome and a comprehensive guide to the next steps. Step number one, read, sign, and return an agreement to fulfill the responsibilities and expectations for all cohort members; fourth look at expectations of future cohorts.
September, Friday the 13th I arrived at a remote building in the hills of Ojai. Men and women were in the process of taking seats. I had the agenda, my report, and note-taking materials. The day went mostly as expected. We presented reports, participated in icebreakers, and explored known and unknown information and topics. I had understood that diversity was an important goal for VCLA and I was mildly and pleasantly surprised to meet a couple of folks who I would not readily single out as “leaders” and many who embodied several traits of leadership. Great news, I was prepared to learn and grow with new people over the next year.
Six hours later, I found myself unprepared. My profession is as organizational communicator. “Public” is in my job title. As I looked around the circle of my fellow cohorts from all different backgrounds, motivations, organizations, and communities, and as the “call and response” of the drum circle made its way to me, I could feel my face getting warm and my heart rate pick up. I actually recalled to myself the agreement I had signed: be engaged, be present, communicate, and participate. This couldn’t be part of that requirement. I reassured myself that nobody was expecting a professional performance. I even assured myself that it would take 30 seconds and no one would remember a thing I had done. My turn came and I beat that drum with no expectation of making music or anything pleasant to hear. My 15 seconds (not minutes) of fame passed. I sat there feeling spent and allowing my face to cool.
In my mind, I will rename Focus Session #1, “Reorientation” instead of “Orientation.” I came in with my own expectations beyond the expectations provided to us. I am not shy and like many of Cohort XXV, I signed up to challenge myself. I can’t explain why this particular task was such a challenge to me and I guess that is the point. We are different and we will find things hard while others find them easy. Leadership means a lot of things. We may like, dislike, disagree with, and/or heartily endorse the topics, activities, and speakers over the next few months. For me, on session day one, I faced a challenge because a public drum solo is NOT my thing. Every moment was uncomfortable, and honestly, for me it was embarrassing. I did it. All discordant, disjointed, non-musical, and non-rhythmic all of it. I’m certain it was not as painful for all, maybe not for anyone else. We each will face the next months with our strengths and weaknesses. I will reorient myself. My drum solo is over. We somewhat know what’s coming and we’ll be mostly prepared.
Shortly after our January 11 VCLA session, I took a trip to Pittsburgh for work. As I write this, I am on Southwest Airlines, flying to Denver on my way back home via Burbank.
In the morning portion of the Local Government focus session, the subjects we covered about city government, county government and special districts may not have a greater available organizational and cultural juxtaposition in America than Continue reading
After a morning focusing on local government in Thousand Oaks, I drove the back way through the agricultural fields of Camarillo, a part of the city unfamiliar to me, and met the rest of the cohort at the Port of Hueneme. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Continue reading