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Leaders Listen: The Value of Community-Engaged Leadership

By Ava Sanchez

Growing up, I noticed that decision makers told me what I needed. I needed to jump more rope. I needed to be really good at word problems. I needed to drink less strawberry milk. A lot of the time, these decisions hit on a real need. A lot of the time, they didn’t. 

When I started working in politics, I noticed that the decision makers had changed, but the impact of their decisions stayed static: they were still only sometimes calling for changes that accurately identified the needs of those they served. I was immediately reminded of my experience having lawmakers prescribe solutions to problems that didn’t really exist. In that moment, I embarked on a journey to learn how to allocate resources where they would be most valuable to the populations they were meant to serve.

With this in mind, I observed the leaders around me in every role I held. They were excellent listeners, incredibly connected to their communities. They weren’t prescriptive, they were responsive. They stayed involved in community affairs and always asked community members questions  to ensure that their projects were truly impactful. If they found that wasn’t the case, they changed course. 

Although I’d made these observations, I didn’t entirely understand the value of this responsive leadership until I did the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs*. As a Coro Fellow, I studied great leaders across the nonprofit, business, government, labor and philanthropy worlds to understand how they thought through real-world challenges. This was a formative experience, in part because of high-access job placements that allowed me to learn how different sectors– and leaders– function.

In my first month of the program, I had the privilege of working with Stepping Forward LA (SFLA), a local nonprofit providing young adults aging out of foster care with resources to support them in leading independent, empowered adult lives. Their founder and Executive Director, Beth Ryan, has built an incredible, dedicated team. Over 70% of the staff has experience in foster care, which ensures that SFLA operations are informed by lived experience.

For four weeks, I supported the team in developing the Stepping Forward LA Housing Initiative from the ground up. Every step of the way, we paused to consider how our proposal could be more impactful. We asked more questions. We changed course when necessary. A lot of the time, our plan became more complex. It was harder to execute, but it was actually going to serve an existing need. 

Today, 42% of Stepping Forward LA housing candidates get housed within 2 months, but the Housing Initiative offers so much more than housing alone. The program also provides life skills development, education about existing housing resources, adult co-mentorship, peer coaching and true community– all program elements that were incorporated in direct response to needs voiced by their community. 

The unique impact of this project points to something greater: when we take the time to ask questions, engage our community and change course based on our learning, we unlock nuanced solutions that have the capacity to be far more effective than a short-term quick fix. 


*The Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs, hosted by Coro Southern California, is a 9-month, full-time program that includes professional development training, cross-sector job placements, Focus Weeks exploring key issues in Los Angeles and Leadership Journey interviews with cross-sector leaders.


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