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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.
VCLA Cohort XXVI
Regional Director of Operations for American Medical Response
On September 11th, 2020 the 26th cohort of the Ventura County Leadership Academy met for their first of ten sessions. The date was not lost on me nor was it on the rest of my fellow leaders. As a veteran and as a first responder, I would be remised if I did not acknowledge the tragedy of 9/11 and the sacrifices made that day by hundreds of fire fighters, polices officers and EMS professionals.
I am sure that this day was not what VCLA had envisioned but VCLA Director Pattie Braga and her team were able to come up with a COVID friendly version of the community exploration exercise. The Cohort was split into 10 groups of 3-4. Each group assigned to explore an assigned city. No rules, no specific guidance on what to do or how to do it. We were told that we “must visit your city together on Friday, wherever you want, doing whatever you want”. We were encouraged to reach out and use our network to schedule meetings or gain insight.
From socially distanced coffee with Mayor Flynn of Oxnard to a walking tour of downtown Ojai, to an extended trip to the Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks. Each team took a different approach and focused on different aspects of their assigned city. We learned about Port Hueneme which means “Resting Place” and all took pride in the fact that we can pronounce it correctly. We learned about the efforts Santa Paula has taken to ensure the small businesses in their city are able to survive through COVID. We learned about all levels of the education system, sales taxes, and the effects of sugar free candy on your digestive system.
Normally, when the world is not experiencing a pandemic, the entire cohort would come together at the end of the day to share what they learned. This year, as you know, is different. We came together virtually which I am certain will be a theme for cohort 26 at least for the foreseeable future. Pattie and the curriculum committee came up with a brilliant way for us to learn even more about the County with a friendly game of Jeopardy based on the most recent State of the County report released by the Ventura County Civic Alliance. A game, I might also add, that I ALMOST won.
Session 1 was an exciting and fun way to start off what will be an incredible year. I am honored to have been selected to participate in VCLA and I cannot wait to see what the coming months have in store. I joined VCLA because I wanted to learn more about the County that I call home. I wanted to learn more about the issues the County is facing and what others are doing to address those issues. I wanted to learn more about what I could do to contribute to those efforts. Last weeks session taught me that there are countless people who are making a difference for others every day. I felt inspired and motivated to continue learning and I cannot wait for next months session!
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
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.
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://
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
By Alejandra Tellez
I had no idea what to expect for this session. I enjoy not getting the agenda until days before, the fact that I just show up, get awesome speakers I learn so much all while getting snacks and food throughout the day; makes me feel so fortunate and will suffer when I attend any other long day event. I was still in holiday mode and was having a hard time getting aaallll the way to Simi by 8 am. But the day turned out to be one of the coolest sessions yet.
Morning started off easy topics that I am familiar with; energy and water. I enjoy hearing people talk about topics I work on, I always learn something new. The history, politics and evolving landscape of water in our County is ever flowing; energy is a resource standing behind the fork on the road, ready to make a turn, make changes, be innovative and evolve with the climate change. We got a cool tour of Calleguas facilities sprinkled with facts about water chemistry and engineering.
Then we all caravanned to the Simi Landfill, as we made our way and started to be surrounded by trash trucks it all became real. Everything was so structured, clean, and organized starting with the specific lanes to drive on as we made our way up and into the middle or the organized chaos. We all got on a bus and experienced stops full of information and but most important of all behavior altering evidence “I need to produce less trash” “wow all that comes here” “oh wow” were phrase heard throughout the bus. Guides were full of great on the job experiences and effortlessly answered all our questions, and there was a lot of questions. I think none of us expected to be so intrigued by trash. From the sorting, layering, gas production, pest control, falcons and what and how to recycle. Walking out with a miniature trash can was a gold stamp at then end. Now if we all just produced that small amount of trash in a day, I’d call that a win.
The caravan once again made its way up to the next hill, the Reagan library, we all circled the parking lot, trying to find a spot. We finally all parked and took in the views as we rushed to our next stop, got a quick peak of Air Force one and got to enjoy a quick bite refill our water bottles and headed to what became an activity full of stress, fun and laughs. As we all got our roles assigned and acted out through a situation room scenario with constant direction of who are your allies or foes and decisions you had to make everyone seemed to embrace being pushed out of our comfort zone. It was great to see everyone in the cohort step up to the challenge. The county it’s in good hands with this 25th best cohort ever.
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.
JOURNEY TO LEADERSHIP, the Annual Awards Luncheon of Ventura County Leadership Academy (VCLA), recognizes outstanding community leaders for their contributions to Ventura County.
Please join us as we honor:
Alumni of the Year: Pattie Braga, Cohort XVII
Business Leader of the Year: Montecito Bank & Trust
Educational Leader of the Year: Dr. Jacob Jenkins & Dr. Jaime Hannans, CSUCI
Non-Profit Leader of the Year: Vanessa Bechtel, VCCF
Public Sector Leader of the Year: Jim Friedl, Conejo Recreation and Park District
Founder’s Award: Rudy Gonzales, Class 2 & Cohort XXIV
Ductus Exemplo Award: Geoff Dean, (Ret.) VC Sheriff
Ventura County Leadership Academy recognizes that leadership is a relational process and that leading at any level within any organization is a choice we must intentionally make.
This event honors community leaders who exemplify these principles in action.
Can’t make it to the lunch? Consider a donation to the Dr. Priscilla Partridge de Garcia Scholarship Fund in honor of VCLA’s beloved Founder. Click on the link for tickets and choose the Scholarship Fund.