Why is the Irvine Foundation investing in us?

Members of the Irvine New Leadership Network get together to identify problems and talk through solutions.
Members of the Irvine New Leadership Network get together to identify problems and talk through solutions. Submitted

We’re at a crossroads. Technological advances make life easier, yet these same advances are shutting down Main Street stores and leaving vast numbers behind economically. The economy booms in many places, yet we have an affordable housing and homelessness crisis.

For such issues, there are no easy solutions. But there are solutions, and the answers often require patience, humility and leadership that seeks common ground as a starting point.

As we face increasingly divided narratives regarding our future, real leadership is needed in communities across our country. We need leaders who can stand in the middle and engage in dialogue rooted in shared values, not divisive politics.

At Stanislaus Community Foundation, we’ve been supporting and investing in developing such authentic leadership. Two years ago, 14 young leaders headed to the foothills to train as the inaugural cohort of the Irvine New Leadership Network, a program supported by the James Irvine Foundation and the Stanislaus Community Foundation.

Now, some 18 months later, 42 local leaders have gone through three cohorts to emerge as ever-more engaged intersectional leaders, equipped to build on their already strong individual efforts while committing to working as a collective. A fourth and final cohort launched this September, giving out Network 60 exceptional leaders.

As a group, they face connected issues related to education, economy, equity and entrenched poverty. Often, addressing these challenges requires using new tools while relying on trusted relationships.

The New Leadership Network offers both through an intensive six-month learning experience followed by extensive network-building. It’s rooted in social innovation strategies such as human-centered design and systems thinking. These are concepts local leaders rarely see, especially as part of a co-learning environment. While the network is small, and our work together is still emerging, we want to share what we are learning and doing.

First, why invest here?

The billion-dollar James Irvine Foundation could have chosen any region in California to make their $1.4 million investment. But they chose Stanislaus County both because of the challenges we face and because our community was at a tipping point as we came out of the recession. Three key determinations drove this investment:

Creating connective tissue Stanislaus has many principled leaders doing exceptional work, but often these leaders are not well connected or aligned in doing their work.

Bridging barriers – There were both “vertical” as well as “horizontal” divides in Stanislaus. Emerging and more established leaders were not well connected to each other. Newer leaders, especially those outside the existing power base, faced serious roadblocks to advancement.

Driving change through optimism People inside and outside the Central Valley sense that it is poised for change, and might now be at a historic tipping point. Important region-wide initiatives such as Focus on Prevention and Stanislaus READS! were already under way before the NLN launched. Significant government and private resources are converging.

As the network grows, some clear themes are arising across cohorts:

We need to shift how we talk about this county. We are our own worst enemies; we need to tell a different story about what it means to be a part of this community.

We need to invest in local assets and keep them here. Downtown should be vibrant, reflecting our diversity. We need to celebrate and grow our cultural economy.

Food is our future, not just our past. We need students to see the potential of a future in food and explore the intersection of technology and ag.

How we do our work is as important as what we do. Empathy is our superpower. We need to take the time to understand those around us, especially those with differing views. We want to improve dialogue with law enforcement, between cultures and between generations.

These themes are being tackled in multiple design projects spearheaded by Network members and supported by Stanislaus Community Foundation. You can learn more about this work and read about those doing it at IrvineNewLeadershipNetwork.org.

Marian Kaanon is President/CEO of the Stanislaus Community Foundation.