Elena Letona, former executive director of Centro Presente, Inc., spoke at Third Sector New England’s 11th Nonprofit Workout Luncheon Plenary (November 17, 2007) about non-profit organizational leaders’ need to derive their “power” from constituent leadership.
Thank you. Buenas tardes y buen provecho.
I think I want to start [my presentation] by putting out there very honestly that the concept of leadership can be somewhat paradoxical in the concept of community, especially when the opening principle behind an organizing process is the dignity of every single human being and the importance of hearing the voices of every single person. In other words, democracy.
Leadership conjures up images of powerful, charismatic individuals: the chief, the president, the board president, the executive director. And this can often be antithetical to the concept of community – of building community, of organizing a community. Yet, the community is made up of people. A vibrant healthy community is made up of conscious, active, engaged people.
Routed in the Community
So what does leadership in the context of community look like? In the case of Centro Presente, the organization I so proudly direct, we have been around for over 26 years. And over that time, we have managed to keep a sense of being rooted in the community.
We have had ups and downs, ups and lows, different levels of being rooted in that community. But about six years ago, we began a process that we call our transformational process to become an organization of the Latino immigrant community. Literally, to become an organization that belongs to the community to whom we are accountable. One of the most important concepts in that transformational process is asking ourselves a series of questions. What is our view? What is our opinion? What are our feelings about the community in which we work?
Structure Makes a Difference
We realized that it was incredibly important, very fundamental that we started from a place that believed in our people, that had faith in our people’s abilities to act on their own behalf. So we realized quite quickly that the structure under which we were operating was not going to yield the desired outcomes. So, one of the very first things that we did was to change, literally, the way that we related to our community.
We established a membership program, and what the membership program does is that it literally tries to change the relationship that we have with our people from a vertical relationship to a more horizontal relationship. So that no longer are they clients or constituents (in our case, clients of the legal department) or students of adult education classes. [In that framework], I continue to keep authority and power over you, because I am the expert: the paralegal, the lawyer, the teacher. So we needed to break away from that way of relating to our community, and we felt that the membership program would help us do that.
Making Decisions Together
So what does it take to become a member at Centro Presente?
Those that come to us are given the opportunity to be an active engaged partner in the construction of the organization. In deciding the strategic direction of the organization and in deciding the political priorities of the organization.
So, people have to make a conscious choice. Not everyone that comes to us for services says “yes” to the membership. But those that do, have the space within our organization to be partner that can be from fairly passive participation of “here are my member dues, keep me informed” all the way to being very active, or “I will be a member of one of the teams that carries out the community work.”
So, the membership is not only organized or structured around the teams that carry out the communal work. But, we also bring together the membership in assemblies twice a year to make decisions together and to elect our board of directors. So, next weekend, next Saturday, we are going to have our member assembly at which we will be making decisions regarding what should be our next steps in our immigrant rights campaign work. And we are going to be electing our next board of directors. The people that are eligible to be nominated and elected to our board are members who are very active in these teams.
Decisions Based on the Collective Good
So, in this context, what does community leadership mean to us? First, it’s important to add that qualifier, community leadership. We want to foster in ourselves that we are not looking for those traditional leaders - the chief, the president, the executive director. That is not what we want to foster.
What we want to foster are people that are willing and able to see beyond their own self interests. That’s the number one characteristic. Number two, people that are able and willing to take action for the collective good and then, finally, people that are able and willing to share power and that to us is the most important concept behind this transformational process.
That is, if we are serious about building a democratic organization. If we are serious about being part of a movement that is seeking more active democracy, we need to talk beyond ourselves and we need to start by sharing power. Power as defined as decision making. Who is responsible? Who is making decisions for what and for whom?