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Leadership Contra Costa

04 March 2014 Written by  By Don Huntington
Published in March 2014 Articles

An essential challenge for any municipality or political unit is equipping

residents to participate in government at the highest levels and especially to prepare the next generation of leaders to carry society into the future.

In response to this challenge, the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau created an annual program, called Leadership Walnut Creek which later was expanded to Leadership Contra Costa (LCC). The first program was conducted 27 years ago. From the beginning LCC was designed to acquaint potential change agents with the inner operations of county agencies and departments. It is also a means of identifying future leaders and equipping them for leadership roles. Each area of focus is covered as comprehensivly as possible. Topics include such things as Health and Aging, The Price of Justice, Environment, Education, Government and Politics. Each study is intensive and in-depth, involving presentations by speakers and organizations that are at the core of the particular segment being focused on at that time.

From the very first year the LCC curriculum has consisted of nine full-day immersive events, one each month. Membership in LCC requires commitment. Attendees must be able to take an entire day off work each month to attend each session. Each session focuses upon a particular part of the East Bay society. The program was initially called Leadership Walnut Creek and had 16 attendees. During those first sessions, however, Marcie Hochhauser, Senior Vice President of the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau and Program Coordinator and the other steering committee members realized that the true domain of each topic extended beyond the boarders of Walnut Creek because the search for real world solutions, of the sort that each of the classes was engaged in, could never be restricted to a single geographical unit. Forging a comprehensive understanding about such issues as effective Transportation, for example, or Aging, or Politics require resources that lie beyond the confines of any local municipality. So beginning with the second year the name was changed to Leadership Contra Costa, and membership was opened up to anyone living or working in Contra Costa County.

LCC core topics have remained constant from year-to-year, but actual course content is modified to reflect current changes that are taking place. For example, last October the session covered Health Care and the ACA: Where Are We Going? And in December the topic was Business & the Economy: Can We Stay Competitive?

Other area chambers have sponsored similar programs, but Leadership Contra Costasm has gained a reputation as representing the needs, concerns, and issues of the entire county. The program has demonstrated its effectiveness because many of the graduates have gone on to leadership positions, becoming mayors, managers, and members of city councils in various area municipalities. Not all attendees are political aspirants, however. Some are business executives or volunteer on the boards of directors of nonprofit organizations. Others enroll in the program simply because they want to know how things work so they can make better decisions in both their professions and their home life.

More than 600 people have now graduated from the program. Each participant must pay a tuition of $975 and go through an interviewing process. One of the reasons for the interview is to give the program coordinators informa­tion about the applicant’s needs, desires, and experience in order to tweak the learning process to make it as effective as possible. The main reason for the interview is to guarantee that the sessions will be composed of people who are truly interested in learning and in making a genuine contribution to the health and progress of the region. Marcie and the other organizers emphasize that Leadership Contra Costa is not a networking opportunity. The classes, of course, provide connections with some exceptional people. Social bonds are forged and friendships formed, some of which last for years, or for a lifetime. Nevertheless, such networking is not the goal. LCC is for people who want to make a difference and not simply for people who are trying to get ahead of their competition.

Participants come away from each of the sessions with insights and informa­tion that change the way they think about that particular part of the county, or at least come to grasp at a deeper level than ever before how that part works. For example, the Price of Justice session is held in Martinez and attendees are given a tour of the jail facility. They also engage in personal discussions with a judge, a district attorney, and with people lobbying for change. Participants learn of the public safety challenges facing the county as well as the issues having to do with crime and incarcera­tion. One of the teams in the Danville K-9 Corps often gives a demonstration and attendees come to realize that the animal is not a creature they would like to engage with in a hostile confronta­tion. Participants are granted opportuni­ties that they would never have had in the course of their daily lives, and are provided with information that is not readily available to the public. The experience changes the way they think about issues of justice and public safety forever. Each session has that potential for fundamental change and growth.

LCC participants and alumni sometimes travel to Washington DC where they participate in interviews and sessions with important insiders, and are given private tours of the Library of Congress, the Capital Building, and the White House. In each place they are usually granted access to areas that are closed to the general public.

The LCC remains continually fresh and vibrant because each of the class outlines are designed by graduates from the previous year’s session. The graduates are responsible for contributing to the program, putting together the agenda, and securing the speakers. The curriculum is constantly under review.

Each year the LCC session begins with a kick-off reception for the new class members and alumni. Following the final class, participants attend a graduation program where they receive a certificate from important political figures as well as a plaque to display on the wall of their study. A yearbook is also compiled for each graduating class containing photos and contact information for each class member. Copies of the yearbook are sent to businesses and non-profit associations who might be in search of board members. Graduates of the program are a wonderful resource for groups like this. Leadership Contra Costa is a great line on their résumés.

In order to utilize the insights and learning gained in LCC sessions over the years, in 2011 two graduates of the program, Shiva Berman and Linda Rimac Colberg, developed an alumni association, which had been a long-time dream of the Chamber’s. The two women spent a couple years building the foundation of the alumni association, and getting solid answers to the questions “What is it?” “How would it work?” And “What is it for?” They interviewed a number of people to serve as board members. Morgan Becker, a graduate of the program, was the first to be selected. He was appointed chairman of the board, which is a post he holds today. The first alumni board meeting was summer 2011. Their first order of business was to complete the organization that Sheila and Linda had begun and then to plan activities and programs geared to enhancing the quality of life throughout the county. A series of organizational events were planned, including breakfasts and lunches, each of which would be devoted to a topic of current interest. Key issues would be presented, with balanced responses from both sides so that attendees could gain the broadest possible understanding of each particular issue.

The alumni association has now hosted a half dozen of these events, and has organized other occasions for the larger community. The association reaches out to all the 680 graduates in the database, which they maintain and keep up-to-date.

Members participate in community outreach projects, such as the Food Bank, the Bay Area Nursery’s holiday gift-wrapping project, and Walnut Creek Community Day. The current class along with Alumni members have had the opportunity to go on unique tours. They toured the Caldecott Tunnels on two occasions and were given a tour of the Bay Bridge construction from a boat that took them right beneath the structure where they learned details about materials and construction that they otherwise never would have imagined. The alumni group is planning a preview of the new BART trains.

Leadership Contra Costa runs September through May. Each of the nine sessions are delivered on the first Thursday of the month. Recruitment begins in June. The program is a popular event and since the cap is set at about 30 attendees, there is always a waiting list.

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