Leadership SAISD Gets Member Fired Up

Barbie Leal-Hallam

Today marked the first session of Leadership SAISD’s 2014-2015 class. Eager to be on time, meet my new classmates and settle into the historic Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center where we were to kick it all off, I rushed to the city’s west side at 9 am. The topic of noble leadership had intrigued me since last week when the agenda was released and judging by the email addresses included in the chain, I knew I would be in good company to engage in meaningful conversation over exactly what that meant to each participant.  

Our opening speaker and Leadership SAISD’s Executive Director, Durquia Guillen, shared her family’s Latin migration history with the group, the source of her drive to push for quality education for all students in the San Antonio community. She spoke with passion and the experiences she’d gone through from working in Washington D.C. to our state’s capitol illustrated that she had formal training in the area of policy reform. Her drive was evident: she cares about her kids but in her eyes all kids were hers. I was immediately fixated on gaining insight and capitalizing on her wisdom which I would be sure to encounter throughout the upcoming months.

SAISD School Board Member, Patti Radle, followed with a discussion on integrity. There’s a reason a woman who looks like Patti with her radiant white hair and fair complexion is embraced by people of Spanish-speaking tongues and caramel shades of skin on the south side of San Antonio. The way she views the issues facing Latino communities as basic human rights makes her relatable and endearing. She spoke of the programs and victories SAISD has had as though the district should be proud rather than ashamed (as they are so often made to feel). She spoke out against politicians losing their moral compass and going corrupt. The rolling of her “R’s” was so natural as she boasted the cultural infusion of electives like mariachi groups at the middle and high schools. I quickly labeled her a servant leader, a model she inherently encompassed though she’d never call herself one.

As if my spirits couldn’t get much higher, I was blown away by Lupita Gonzalez, who presented on reframing leadership to address complex issues. We broke out into pairs and participated in exercises to identify our values, purpose in the big picture of social change and how to leverage our resources to enact substantial political movement to achieve justice. Lupita was at the center of a public Texas Tech University racially-charged snafu which led to the requirement of cultural competence courses for all incoming freshmen at the school. Young and progressive in her views, she encompassed all that appeals to me as a Latina activist fighting for equality and platform in an environment which caters to the exact opposite. Her experience challenged us to think about the strategies we might employ to accomplish our own personal agendas for social justice.

John Norman, Director of Policies & Public Information at SAISD, gave the class an overview of the district’s structure. Taking us through the official flow chart, we learned about the different departments and who was responsible for initiatives should a citizen want to start a new program or bring to light an issue, which may need attention. Giving tips to the group on how to enlist the help of a district staffer, John explained that doing our research was advantageous prior to calling on the district’s point people in order to capitalize on their limited time and resources. He answered questions regarding HB5, open records requests and pinpointed the appropriate contacts for specific issues like in-district charter or magnet program open enrollment processes. Mr. Norman shared his personal journey from lawyer with a local firm to SAISD, where he is finding fulfillment in giving back to the community. He, like the other speakers, is called to service and is among leaders who want to do what is best for the kids in our city. I think the group found the presentation helpful and I commend John for making himself accessible for future questions and as a resource for the class.

To round out the afternoon, we learned about the community class project we’ll be heading up this year. Last year’s LSAISD class chose to support and mentor a group of SAISD students from Twain MS, Longfellow MS and Jefferson HS who will be participating in a Youth & Government project through the YMCA. They will research, study and debate public issues which will expose them to local, state, national and international concerns. They will also have interaction with public decision-making leaders whom will model political system navigation and demonstrate citizenship responsibilities. As LSAISD members, we will help these students in various aspects of the project. Some of us will help with fundraising to provide travel expenses, while others will train students in the area of public speaking. Others will help to acquire professional attire and still more will assist with research. We spent time organizing our small teams to begin outreach to the school contacts and plan to meet with the students in the upcoming weeks.

I left the theater deep in the west side with a renewed sense of pride, hope and urgency. As a non-profit professional dedicated to raising the standards of living for our residents in San Antonio, I know the story of the millions of starfish washed up on the beach. While I’m a realist and acknowledge we should be satisfied with changing lives individually as we should feel accomplished by saving one starfish at a time, I felt challenged by this group of individuals who dare to dream big. Surrounded by leaders not afraid to speak freely what their minds were generating, I too was catapulted into the world of possibility. One by one we may not bring solutions to scale but there’s strength in numbers and Leadership SAISD is growing. Put it on your radar San Antonio, big things are sure to come from this group!