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Community Matters

What Happens When People Start Getting Real (About Leadership)
NLP 2013 graduates

The slogan for the reality TV series the Real World makes me think about Wilder's Neighborhood Leadership Program (NLP). While our program certainly does not foster drama or poor decision-making, the two series share a common philosophy: fascinating and unpredictable things happen when people from all walks of life come together.

The Neighborhood Leadership Program is a far cry from the traditional leadership training seminar. Our participants don't gather classroom-style in a hotel auditorium to listen to motivational speakers and life coaches. There is certainly value in that kind of approach, but we believe true leadership is born out of relationships. For NLP, participants from numerous cultural groups, neighborhoods, backgrounds and experiences come together and learn from one another over the course of several months. They share their joys and struggles, their perspectives and passions. Inevitably participants develop trusting, respectful relationships with people they might otherwise never encounter. And when you have trust and respect, you have two critical elements of both relationships and leadership.

The outcome is much more sensational on the Real World, but there is a common trajectory: people from different backgrounds begin as strangers, and slowly begin to understand and respect one another over the course of the series – many times through difficult but courageous conversations. The creators of the Real World tapped into something very relevant to the human experience—that relationships bind us together. I believe NLP has been successful for nearly 20 years because fostering relationship building is core to the program.

Take for example a recent cohort. A group of Latina women joined NLP to help give voice to their community. As they talked and learned about each other, they realized they shared a common issue: their children were struggling in school, and parents did not know how to help. Language and cultural barriers had resulted in a breakdown of communication and trust between families and schools. The Neighborhood Leadership cohort spent their time organizing a community support system to help bridge the gap between school staff and families. Now, Latino families can work with a community liaison to talk with teachers and to understand how they can reinforce learning at home. The result has been a jump in family participation in schools, which in turn helps children learn.

If this group of women had simply attended a weekend retreat about how to be a community organizer, they might never have thought to come together around this common goal—they might not even have spoken to one another! NLP served as a forum through which they connected with one another and gave them the time necessary for relationships to develop, leading them to take leadership that has made a difference for their community.

I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to work with this program and see graduates go on to do amazing things in their careers and communities. Before you sign up for a leadership skill-building seminar, or attend a conference promising to share the 5 secrets of great leaders, I urge you to check out the Neighborhood Leadership Program. Who knows what you'll learn about yourself or others…but I can promise that it will be a real experience…but isn't that the fun part?

Damon Shoholm is a Senior Community Leadership Manager at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Damon is a long-time leadership facilitator and avid reality TV critic. Read more about the award-winning Neighborhood Leadership Program.




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Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, 451 Lexington Parkway North, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55104 Phone: 651-280-2000
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