Here’s a story about a long-standing program in Omaha that exposes Latinos to leadership development opportunities. The several week Grassroots Leadership Development Program designed by the United States Leadership Institute based in Chicago is implemented by organizations across the nation. In Omaha’s it was offered for many years by a local entrepreneur and philanthropist, Robert Campos, who more or less paid for it out of his own pocket. More recently it’s been offered under the auspices of the Omaha Public Schools, though funding comes from grants and donations. Where the program in Omaha used to serve people of all ages it’s now focused on seniors from the district’s seven high schools. Students who display leadership potential are recommended for the program by educators. Participants who successfully complete the nine-week program, which introduces them to local, county, and school district government leaders, attend a recognition dinner in their honor and go to Chicago for the USHLI Conference, where they get to meet program graduates from around the country and listen to inspirational stories by presenters. Program facilitators encourage students to go onto college and most do. Co-faciliator Sagrario “Charo” Rangel is held in high regard by the students. Look for a profile I did on her to be posted here soon.
Grassroots Leadership Development Program Provides Opportunities for Students
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in El Perico
Students completing the Grassroots Leadership Development Program through the Omaha Public Schools were rewarded with an all expense paid trip to Chicago to attend the Feb. 16-19 United States Hispanic Leadership Institute Conference.
Seventy seven senior graduates from all seven OPS high schools attended the conference at the downtown Sheraton. Adult chaperones accompanied the students, who represented South (31), Bryan (21) Burke (15), Central (7). Benson (1), North (1) and Northwest (1).
At the conference students met peer graduates from other states and heard motivational speakers share personal stories about overcoming obstacles.
Sagrario “Charo” Rangle, an OPS Educational Accountability Office administrator and co-facilitator of the program with Toni Hernandez, says Omaha had, as usual, one of the larger contingents at the annual event.
The USHLI program got its start in Omaha in 1986 under local entrepreneur Robert Campos, who ran it for two decades before turning it over to OPS four years ago. Rangel says OPS does not sponsor the program. Instead, its support comes from Futuro Latino Fund grants and various corporate and civic donations.
Several local Latino leaders are graduates, including Cristina Castro-Matukewicz (Wells Fargo), Maria Vazquez (Metropolitan Community College) and Paco Fuentes (South Omaha Boys & Girls Club). Rangel is herself a graduate. Some of the earliest graduates are parents of today’s students.
Rangel says some 320 students have graduated the program since 2009. Participants are shown the inner workings of city, county and school government in the hope they will pursue higher education and community service. Participants attend nine three-hour fall sessions that introduce them to elected and appointed officials, such as Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and OPS Superintendent John Mackiel. Students ask leaders about their roles. Leaders hear youth concerns.
Rangel says, “The Grassroots Leadership Development Program is specifically for seniors that want to learn more about civic engagement and city-county-school government.” She says students come away empowered they have “a voice” in the system. She says some students use the program as a networking resource and arrange to shadow local leaders or invite officials to speak to their class or community group. Others make presentations at elementary and middle schools to encourage children to excel in the classroom. Many volunteer at local agencies.
The goal, she says, is to let students know they can be leaders in their school, neighborhood, community or workplace.
Students who demonstrate leadership potential are nominated for the program. To participate, students must be in good academic standing but they don’t necessarily need a high GPA. In fact, Rangel says,”it’s those students on the margins I think we’re most surprised by because they are leaders in their own right. It’s just that maybe one time along the way they may have gotten off the path, and so this is great way to get them back on track. We’ve had several students like that who said, ‘This is the shot in the arm I needed.’”
The program is also a resource for students and families in preparing for college.
Rangel says, “We visit with students about the importance of going on to college, we work with parents on financial aid, we give the students all kinds of information about scholarship opportunities and we have workshops to help them complete the forms. We also monitor students’ grades, attendance, behavior. We want to make sure these are students that recognize the importance of this wonderful opportunity.
“We do whatever we can to give them a leg up.”
A January recognition dinner is followed by the February conference, which Rangel says energizes students.
“They come back extremely inspired and motivated to do more in their education and to help others. The conference itself is all about servant leadership, and so they get to know it’s not just about them – it’s about service to others.”
Rafael Guiterrez, a 2012 legacy graduate whose older brother Gabriel preceded him in the program, says the experience “inspired me to take my education to the next level.” The South High senior plans studying criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He doesn’t want to stop at a bachelor’s degree but is eying a masters and a doctorate. A volunteer at the Intercultural Senior Center and a mentor at South, he says he’s learned that when it comes to doing things in his community he can “take the lead” rather than waiting for someone else to.
Alejandra Aguilar, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, graduated in 2010 but remains active as a Grassroots volunteer. “That’s just a way of us giving back to our community,” says Aguilar. “We’re the future and as Latinos we need to have our voice be heard, and to do that we need to go to college and be successful.” The dual political science-Latin American Studies major and Next Generation Leadership scholarship awardee has her sights set on a career in law. “One of the major things I learned is to never give up. Sometimes we don’t want to but we settle for less. I learned there’s nothing you can’t do if you want to do it.”
For Rangel, the satisfaction comes in seeing graduates like these paying it forward.
“We have a good following of students who come back year to year to help us. Not only are they learning these skills but they are putting them into place when they go onto college. They become mentors, they get involved in student organizations. That’s pretty cool to see. That makes it all worth it.”
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