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Producing Exclusive Leaders: The Center for Community Leadership

May 5, 2016

The indigenous movement in southern Mexico known as the Zapatistas has a saying about what real leadership is. Mandar Obedeciendo means to “Lead by Obeying.”

The principle behind this philosophy is that true leaders follow the will of the people, the desires of the larger community. This principle challenges authoritarianism in the communities, and representatives who are not accountable to the widespread desires of the community will be ousted from their positions.

This is not the typical form that leadership takes, especially in dominant cultures like the US. Here, leadership often exists to perpetuate itself, amassing power and making decisions for others. This is the Neo-liberal Capitalist model. Even in the non-profit world, leadership often mimics the corporate world, with a board of directors and a CEO or Executive Director.

This model of leadership development is practiced right here in Grand Rapids through the Center for Community Leadership.

The Center for Community Leadership (CCL) is a project of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. The creation of such a program was first proposed in the early 1980’s. The mission of the CCL is to, “equip talented professionals with intensive training, active networks, and meaningful resources to shape their careers, innovate within their companies, and engage in community change.”

The CCL offers a 9-month program where “community leaders” interact with participants to give them insights on how to be a leader in this community. The themes that are discussed are:

  • Essential NeedsScreen Shot 2016-05-04 at 3.31.03 PM
  • Talent Development
  • Public Safety
  • Community Health
  • Economic Prosperity
  • Quality of Life
  • Community Trusteeship
  • Philanthropy

This 9-month program invites anyone to apply, as long as you can pay $2950. Now, some employers will foot the bill for staff to apply and there are a few scholarships available, but by charging such a fee, it is clear that the program is designed to create leaders that will not challenge the hierarchical Neo-liberal model.

First, the major sponsors of the CCL program are the same businesses that benefit from Neo-liberal capitalism, such as: Meijer, Amway, Steelcase, Fifth Third Bank, Spectrum Health, Lacks Enterprises, Wolverine Worldwide, Metro Health, Blue Cross-Blue Shield, Foremost Insurance, etc.

Second, the Center for Community Leadership Council is made up of essentially people from the same companies listed above, along with Chamber of Commerce representation and a few of the local universities. Thus, the CCL perpetuates itself by developing leadership that internalizes Neo-liberal values.

Third, addition leadership development projects are offered to continue to mold people within the CCL framework, such as the Emerging Leaders Series, Leadership Advantage and Leadership: An Inside-Out Perspective. Each of these programs are also come with a fee – $750, $2750 and $1,250 respectively.

If one signed up for all four of the Center for Community Leadership programs, they could end up spending $7,700. Such cost automatically eliminate most people in the community and ends up serving those with tremendous privileges. But that is the point of the CCL programs, to foster the kind of leadership which embraces the values of an economic and political system which rewards the privileged few and marginalizes the majority of the community.zapatistas7

If one thinks about the great social movements that have arisen in the US over the past 150 years. Beginning with the abolitionist movement, what kind of leaders did these movements produce – Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Angela Grimkie, Lucy Parsons, Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, Big Bill Haywood, Dorothy Day, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, A.J. Muste, Rosa Parks, Dan Berrigan, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokley Carmichael, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and Angela Davis……just to name a few. What these leaders (and some of them bristled at the title leader) had in common was a deep commitment to their communities, the willingness to take serious risks and to fight against systems of oppression and for structural transformation. I ask you, is this what the Center for Community Leadership is all about.

By way of ending, I wanted to share another principle of leadership that guides the Zapatista movement. Todo Para Todos, Nada Para Nosotros, which means, Everything for Everyone, and Nothing for Ourselves.

This principle is predicated on the idea that Leaders are not in power to benefit themselves personally, but to fight for benefits for everyone in the community. If there is a type of leadership that we should advocate for, then this is that type of leadership, not the kind that the Center for Community Leadership produces.

Editor’s Note for transparency: When I used to work for the Community Media Center, the Center for Community Leadership used to come to the CMC. I facilitiated a critical thinking/Media Literacy workshop for 2 years, but then told my former boss I would no longer do this workshop, since it did not support the values I embraced of what I thought the CMC embraced.

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