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Ernesto Nieto

From the President’s Desk: Thirty-Six Years of Investment In Leadership

Posted: February 19, 2016 at 2:30 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Leadership training is undoubtedly crucial in the development of young people, and it’s particularly important in high school. And yet, this aspect of student development is often neglected. Schools focus attention on test scores and college readiness, leaving what little leadership training they might invest in to motivational speakers who associate personal success with how much recognition one receives and how much influence one wields.

The National Hispanic Institute is different. It has always been focused on leadership training, because we have believed that, from our inception, to be crucial. In the years just prior to NHI’s foundation in 1979, a number of key Latino-focused non-profit organizations saw cutbacks in their federal funding, coinciding with Latino fewer and fewer Latinos attending city councils, school board meetings, and even church, leading to an overall dwindling of community engagement. Furthermore, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s drained the Latino leadership ranks of energy and numbers.

We knew that the Latino population in the United States would continue to grow, we knew that Latino communities needed leaders, and so we looked to the most talented high school students in our communities to become the leaders we needed. We knew NHI couldn’t merely replicate traditional education models. We needed much more powerful learning experiences to help high school students evolve their views on leadership, to evaluate their life ambitions and decisions based on more than just personal aspirations, and to think differently about how we should envision and thereby lead the U.S. Latino community – in other words, to question the long-held views that we were a community comprised of problems that needed solving.

Since 1979, we’ve overseen the investment of more than 25 million dollars into leadership training for several generations of Latino community leaders. It’s important to note that the majority of money came from working families – namely, the parents of the 90,000 alumni who have graduated from NHI programs to make their communities better in a variety of traditional and non-traditional leadership roles. College partners and community volunteers, recognizing the importance of what we’ve sought to do, have contributed additional in-kind support, time, and energy to allow NHI to develop leaders.

Over the course of more than three decades, we’ve directed our energies toward creating, testing, and forming learning processes with the potential to equip young people with the skills and competencies they needed to:

critically assess their operating beliefs and outlooks;

make strategic changes in the mental models they use to guide their decision making; and

strengthen their capacities for self-change through self-informed learning.

These became the fundamental building blocks that NHI determined necessary for our students to grow, to ready themselves to lead healthy social and economic lives, and positively transform the places they would eventually call home.

The underlying premise of our work is driven by the view that neither a high school nor a college degree are sufficient in a modern-day world of constant change and fierce competition for resources. It is based on the view that leadership as a critical learning experience must be made in order to have a deep and enduring impact on the lives young people, especially on their social-psychological and emotional makeup, their cultural identity and confidence, and their willingness to broaden their experiences outside their immediate comfort zones.

Our programs function as interventions, allowing young people to truly, critically examine the underlying beliefs and social narratives that direct their everyday lives. They’re not rooted in lectures or motivational speeches; they begin with an asset-based view, helping them realize what they have to offer their communities, and what their communities have to offer the world, which results in great enthusiasm, energy, and expectation that they alone have full control over the outcomes they most desire.

Today, the National Hispanic Institute provides young people with three pre-collegiate learning experiences, aligned in accordance with their personal maturity and readiness. Each learning experience is uniquely designed to target specific skills, competencies, and levels of knowledge that students rarely receive in their overall development. These learning processes are not only experiential in their makeup, but are also informed by constructivist, action learning, and inquiry-based principles. However, the overall uniqueness of the organization’s work is guided by NHI’s own internally developed concept and methods of working with youth, called immersive-disruptive learning.

Immersive-disruptive learning’s impact on the mindsets, outlooks, and perspectives of young people is well-documented in two doctoral dissertations, one by the late Dr. Michael Gibbs of DePaul University, and the other by Dr. Nora Perez of Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

Gibbs based his research on the work of James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the nationally-recognized book Leadership Challenge.   In their work, Kouzes and Posner based their leadership research on what they term the “Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership.” These included modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act, and encouraging the heart. Gibbs used these five measures in examining the impact of the Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session, the second in the series of NHI’s three programs (designed for students between their sophomore and junior years of high school). In his findings, Gibbs reported that LDZ students either met or exceeded these measures and, therefore, caused significant change in the leadership behaviors and outlooks of the participants.

Perez focused on female high school students who participated in NHI’s Great Debate programs (for students between their freshman and sophomore years of high school). In her doctoral dissertation, Factors Associated with the College Success of Hispanic Women, she measured the success of NHI students enrolled in college as compared to the successes of other female groups either similar in ethnicity or different in their make-up. She found that the top three factors associated with the success of NHI women were their intellectual growth, the influence of mothers and/or maternal guardians, and NHI leadership development.

These two independently-conducted research studies go beyond the anecdotal evidence we’ve gathered over the years to illustrate the importance and impact of immersive-disruptive learning for our students – the type of learning that inspires our students to call our programs life-changing, and the type of focus-shifting, attitude-changing transformation that inspired one parent to ask us, following our very first high school program in 1983, “What’s the magic?”

The magic doesn’t just happen. Even today, we review our curriculum, making sure that the curriculum is fresh, applicable to our modern age, and able to be truly and resonantly disruptive.

And, now more than ever, we need to convey to school leaders, families, and community groups that leadership development is not something we cannot afford to do causally, infrequently, or as an afterthought. If we expect Latino youth to take significant steps forward in their development, and grow to fill the voids in community leadership that currently exist, we must make significant investments in them. We at the National Hispanic Institute believe that the school system can best develop the future leaders that we all need by partnering with us.

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