How do you define a leader? For one group, it starts with potential. Add a little commitment. Toss in some new tools. Stir in hours of education. Wrap it all up with a formal send-off.
That's the recipe for success at the Emerging Leaders Academy. The cooks in this kitchen are deputies from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Their students are a combo of ex-offenders and gang members, and their friends and family, all on a new path to empowerment.
I had the honor of attending the November 2012 graduation at LA County Sheriff's Department Headquarters. The room was filled with passion and pride! The emotion was real and raw! There was camaraderie and compassion. For some it was about new tools for life, for others it was a life-saver. They cheered. They cried. They took photos. They believed. They stood tall. They hugged. They hoped. They held their heads high. They were of all races, all backgrounds, and on this day they were all one!
At the same time, all were aware, and some even joked about this unlikely union. Emerging Leaders is comprised of, not all, but many men and women who might otherwise have met in more unfortunate circumstances. Sheriff Lee Baca was there as we posed for pictures, graduates clutching their embossed certificates. A handful of uniformed deputies sat in the audience in full support of the program. They are part of the department's Education Based Incareration Bureau.
There was stand-out graduate Connie Ramirez an admitted ex-gang member who's seen enough troubles to last a life-time. She accepted top honors as her young son looked on. Connie's husband also took the eight-week course. This is a family on a mission to make life good. "I am not a gang-member!" she declared with tears streaming down her face, her voice choked with conviction and clarity.
There was Tulio Santos Jr., a second-generation participant. His father, Tulio Santos Sr., had taken the last course and tears rolled down his face as he watched his teen-age son graduate. L.A. is a city where too many young black men end up dead or in jail. It was as if this father said to that, "not my son."
There were the nine men from a Long Beach sober living facility fighting hard against the disease of drug and alcohol addiction. They came for the tools to take that next step, that next day, drug and alcohol free. This was the first time Long Beach Police Department participated in the academy. Grad Ken McClintic, an IT specialist was quick to tell me about his computer business. He also talked about going to yoga. This is a man with hope on his horizon.
Speaker Richard Kerivan said "I don't even wanna talk about the past" and thanked the team for "giving us a chance."
Emerging Leaders was founded by the L.A. County Sheriff's department under Sergeant Clyde Terry. Terry has put his heart and soul, and even his own money into making this matter. Fellow deputies Kenneth Collins, Gambino Gasataya, Lakeesha Alford are equally dedicated. They enlisted a host of volunteers and supporters. The Urban League donates the classroom in Los Angeles. Goodwill in Long Beach offers career development. SCORE (Retired Entrepreneurs) gives advice on how to build a business. Hypnotherapist Mary Sargeant works on the demons within. Executive Life Coach Margaret Pazant who coaches fortunate 500 companies and executives to excellence, is a volunteer who wanted to make a difference. The Academy is a commitment. Those who ask to attend have heard about it by word-of-mouth. No one is turned away. Some are recommended by a probation officer. The program is only three years old. It started with just three or four people. On this day, there were thirty graduates.
There were grads like Sandy Ferguson, who merely had an admitted "bad attitude" that cost her several jobs. Sandy was among the keynote speakers and emphasized an Emerging Leaders motto: "be impeccable with your word."
There were tatted ex-gang members who now look at life a little different. As Sgt. Terry said, a lot of them have good business skills that just needed to be re-directed.
Some have been in jail or even prison, and more than once. As Ramirez said "I used to run from you guys," referring to the deputies in the audience. On this day they all stood on the same side. The picture so ironic, that McClintic gave a hysterically funny speech and presented the team deputy leaders with the "first annual Hug-A-Felon award." The room roared with laughter! McClintic joked that he'd been tempted to miss meetings (albeit, for yoga) but joked that he saw Sgt. Terry in his mind, looking over his shoulder saying "do the right thing."
One goal is to break the bond that leads ex-offenders to jail over and over again. Sheriff Baca says "the rate of recidivism is crushing our jail system and costing taxpayers. While Emerging Leaders is still in its infancy, of the 241 graduates in three years only 16 have been re-arrested. Ramirez cried, "I never wanna be in handcuffs ever again."
The Academy teaches job skills and holds a job fair with deputies vouching for these men and women. Six have already found employment. I asked Sheriff Baca about the reality of finding a job given a tough job market.
He said "it's about more than that. It's about the core of who you are as a person." SCORE helps these hungry minds with the tools to become good employees and EMPLOYERS. Gregg Johnson for example, was honored for his entrepreneurial acumen. At 19 years old he has a two-year business plan and an idea for his new company.
Perhaps it was Cornel Carnegie who summed it up best. Handsome and dressed to impress he thanked the Academy team with something like this. "At the beginning Sgt. Terry said he'd be glad if one of us got it." He paused. All eyes were on Cornel. He spoke slowly and powerfully. "We ALL heard you." All thirty Emerging Leaders posed for a group photo capturing a moment in time they won't soon forget.