President's Corner

Movement Building & Leadership Development

August 4, 2013

Luz Vega-Marquis
By Luz Vega-Marquis
President and CEO

Leadership development is central to the Foundation’s logic model and how we define movement building.

At the August board meeting, the Foundation will welcome the second cohort of Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty. These young people, nominated by our grantees, represent seven states in which the Foundation makes grants. The opportunity to honor these young leaders prompted the following reflections about the role leadership development plays in advancing movement building and achieving policy change that benefits families and their communities.

Leadership for Policy Change

We measure our grantees’ impact across five categories of progress and outcomes related to movement building: organizational capacity, leadership development, network development, policy impact and family engagement. Leadership development is clearly central to the Foundation’s logic model and how we define movement building: We support cultivation of local leadership, with the goal of families and their communities developing the capacity to advocate policy change on their own behalf.

Our grantees and their constituents are leading policy change at all levels of decision-making — school boards, city councils, state and national legislatures, and the private sector — and across all of the issue areas in the national family platform, from housing to health care and from criminal to environmental justice. The Foundation has invested in leadership awards to enhance what is not currently covered by our grantmaking.

Achieving policy change necessitates that families and communities have the power and agency to bring their voices to the policy table and goes well beyond informing public debate on the issues. The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin is a tragic reminder of the importance of increasing communities’ power to change policy and law, not just public opinion. Zimmerman cited Florida’s “stand your ground” law, a policy advocated by the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, when he explained to police why he shot Trayvon Martin; the police referred to the law when they originally chose not to arrest Zimmerman; and Juror 837 referenced the policy when she told the national news media why she thought the shooting was “justified.”

Chicago resident Laureano Rivera — a 2012 Shriver Award winner — took a different approach to the violence that led to the death of his mother when he was a sophomore in high school. “We lived in a lot of bad neighborhoods, and that’s what I saw everywhere: violence. There were no programs to involve kids except gangs.” Rivera decided lack of opportunity was the primary problem in his community. He joined the youth-led Leaders Investing for Equality (LIFE) campaign and organized youth to urge Chicago’s elected officials to increase investments in youth programs and a youth summer jobs program. Now a university student, Rivera continues to organize youth in support of youth job programs.

Strengthening Communities of Color Through Leadership Development

The report Leadership for Policy Change: Strengthening Communities of Color Through Leadership Development by National grantee Policylink has informed my thinking about how leadership development and policy change are mutually reinforcing and why they are at the center of how we assess our grantees’ impact and, by extension, how we evaluate our success as a Foundation.

Policylink’s findings fit with what we know to be true from assessing our grantees’ work and by listening to our grantees, especially at our national and regional Equal Voice convenings over the years: Community leadership is essential “to advance a new generation of policies that address the economic and social inequities confronting children, families and their communities.”

The report’s conclusion that “leadership development efforts that are place-based have significant potential for long-term policy impact” reflects the strategic priorities and operating framework of the Foundation. The report also suggests: “The full and effective participation of leaders of color can be achieved by specific intervention strategies that address existing barriers.”

As a Foundation, we are not explicitly exploring at this time which intervention strategies are most needed to develop leaders in communities of color. However, we know that our grantees are using strategies such as the following suggested by Policylink:

  • Be intentional about developing diversity in community leaders.
  • Recruit leaders who are grounded in and accountable to their communities.
  • Link leadership to actual policy goals in the community.
  • Use mentoring to provide community leaders with access, guidance and support.
  • Provide strong curricula that offer participants skills, training, visibility and exposure.

Leadership and Movement Building

We have seen over the years that the ability to influence power- to have a voice in the issues that affect your life — is transformative. Policy change that benefits families provides movement builders with a lasting impression of the power of family-led organizing -that is, they see they are not only struggling against oppressive forces but working for solutions that are imminently achievable. And developing new leadership, especially among young community members, ensures that a movement is sustainable and that political officeholders are representative of the demographic groups that elect them.

We need look no further than our own grantees, whose constituents are challenging local politicians’ use of tax dollars, or to the recipients of the Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty awards.

2012 Poverty Warrior Pedro Lopez is a good example. At age 20, he became one of Arizona’s youngest elected officials and the youngest person ever to serve on a school board in the state.

Lopez was propelled into the political arena when the Arizona Legislature passed anti-immigrant SB 1070 in 2010. Nearly everyone in his family is an undocumented immigrant, so he rallied with other students against the bill at the state Capitol.

Lopez then put off starting college to become a field organizer with the immigration advocacy group and Foundation grantee Promise Arizona, honing his leadership skills through Promise Arizona’s New American Leader Project. The project has trained hundreds of grassroots leaders who are first- and second-generation immigrants on how to run for elected office, providing them with a toolbox of skills including how to run an effective campaign, how to educate and engage with voters and how to analyze policies, including — but not limited to — immigration reform.

In 2012, concerned about the lack of youth leadership in his community, Lopez successfully ran for a seat on the Cartwright school board in West Phoenix. He sees his role on the school board as making sure that all students have equal access to education and equal access to opportunity in the local economy.

Leadership and Strategic Organizing

One of Policylink’s suggestions to strengthen communities of color is to link leadership to actual policy goals in the community. In Chicago, Midwest grantee Action Now Institute has organized an effective response to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s misguided plan to demolish vacant buildings in the name of curbing gang violence. Action Now’s “Rebuild Chicago” initiative calls for transforming vacant buildings back into homes for Chicago families.

As Action Now Institute Director Katelyn Johnson explains: “We have created a Rebuild Chicago plan for the [city’s] Infrastructure Trust that would use public and private investment to rehab vacant buildings and turn them into affordable rental properties. Taxpayer money should not be used to demolish. It should be used to rebuild Chicago’s neighborhoods into the vibrant centers they once were.”

Like Action Now in Illinois, Alabama Organizing Project (AOP) is contesting how elected officials use tax dollars. A statewide collaboration among six local organizations — and an Equal Voice network grantee — AOP is developing grassroots leadership to push for reform of the state’s tax structure and a rewriting of the state Constitution.

AOP cultivates and prepares community leaders to achieve policy goals through its Grassroots Leadership Development training program. During the five-month training program, diverse participants from across Alabama enhance their existing skills, learn new skills, practice what they’ve learned through applied tasks and build a portfolio of their work in order to facilitate constructive social change.

Policy Change Through Networks and Collaboration

Cesar Chavez said, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community … Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.” We recognize that elevating the leadership of communities of color involves creating opportunities for them to come together and put to rest any lines of division.

One such opportunity is the South by Southwest Experiment, which won the 2012 Patino Moore Legacy Award in recognition of its work to unite Black and Brown communities in a shared vision of economic security and social well-being. lntergenerational and youth leadership are central to the work of each of the South by Southwest Experiment’s three partner organizations, and policy change goals are at the core of how this network defines its purpose and vision.

The mission statement of the South by Southwest Experiment aptly explains the importance of policy change and why it is essential to develop the leadership of community leaders in order to achieve it: “In order to overcome historic structures of domination and control, our communities must become architects of public and private policy, rather than being the objects of policy set by those who have historically exercised power.”


  • How can leadership development support a national Equal Voice membership organization?
  • How could a national membership organization facilitate policy change and at what levels of decision-making?
  • In what ways can the Equal Voice framework help change policy?

Movement Building & Leadership Development