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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.

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