On Leadership: Passing the Torch

At his inauguration, President John F. Kennedy said, “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” He went on to say that his generation came of age during a different time and had different experiences. His contemporaries, born in the 20th century, endured the struggles of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II. The events that shaped their world would lay the foundation for the future of American leadership. Today, on the heels of a proud and illustrious past, Latino civic leadership in Silicon Valley has experienced its own passing of the torch.

Latino community leadership in Santa Clara Valley was developed during the 1950s with neighborhood organizing efforts spearheaded by Cesar Chavez and the Community Services Organization. The United Farm Workers of America movement was created in the neighborhoods and churches of east San Jose during those early years. The 1960s saw a growing Chicano community demanding that its voice be heard at city hall and in our school systems. By the late 1970s, the opportunity for Latino political empowerment became a reality when voters changed the City of San Jose charter allowing the election of city council members by district.

In 1980, Blanca Alvarado won a seat on the city council in the newly created District 5, the predominately Latino eastside. She was the first Mexican-American elected to the San Jose City council in over a century. Her 28 years in public office were distinguished by her commitment to Latino issues and the growth of Latino community leadership.  Blanca led the city council to approve funding for the construction of the Mexican Heritage Plaza and to name the Plaza de Cesar Chavez. These accomplishments stand as testaments to her legacy as the doña of Latino leadership in the valley.

A decade after Blanca’s first election, San Jose Councilman George Shirakawa, Sr., City Councilman and State Assemblyman Manny Diaz, San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales and Vice Mayor Cindy Chavez, Assemblyman Joe Coto, and scores of school board trustees followed.  Each put a unique stamp on community life while also playing the roles of Latino leaders. They’re still active in civic life today, highlighted by Joe Coto’s bid for the California Senate in 2012.

In 2008, George Shirakawa, Jr. was elected to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors after serving as Vice Mayor of San Jose. Two years later, former San Jose Councilwoman Nora Campos was elected to the California State Assembly, and former San Jose Planning Commissioner Xavier Campos and former City Council Chief of Staff Donald Rocha were elected to the San Jose City Council. Just like JFK’s generation fifty years earlier, this generation of leaders was born in a different era and were shaped by events of their times.

They were born during the turbulent 1960s when the nation grappled with the Vietnam War, race riots, and assassinations, and the valley’s Chicano community fought against police brutality and marched for equal access at San Jose State, Santa Clara, and Stanford. They were educated at San Jose public schools where they began understanding, first-hand, the challenges facing Latino students and neighborhoods.  They developed their leadership skills on the front lines of civic activism and in the halls of local government. These experiences broadened their understanding of the issues that impact the entire region. Together they represent over a half million people.  The torch has now been passed to not only a new generation of Latino leaders, but a generation of Latinos who are Silicon Valley leaders.

By mid-century, demographic experts project that Latinos will make up 50% of the population in Santa Clara County. About 10 years ago, a small group of eight young Latino leaders that included Nora Campos, George Shirakawa, Jr., and Xavier Campos, began meeting around kitchen tables and living rooms to develop a plan to address this dramatic shift in demographics. The result of those conversations was the establishment of the Latino Leadership Alliance (LLA) in 2006. The LLA was founded in part to identify, develop and support Latino leaders who have the skills and experiences to lead our valley well into the 21st century.

As we began the second decade of this century, the LLA realized that Latinos needed to renew our commitment to building community leadership. With that in mind, the LLA created the LLA Leadership Academy in collaboration with the Stanford University Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity in 2010. The academy is based on a leadership model that emphasizes multi-dimensional collaboration among the education, political, non-profit, and business sectors in our community.

The six-month program develops leadership skills in team building, public advocacy, fund-raising, relationship-building, and personal professional growth. The academy culminates at Stanford University’s Center for the Comparative Studies of Race and Ethnicity for the intensive three-day Stanford/LLA Leadership Institute developed and presented by world and national renowned Latino and Latina scholars who research the four the sectors of community leadership.  To date, three cohorts totaling thirty-eight women and men have participated in the academy to sharpen their skills to meet the leadership demands of the future.

The academy cohorts are young professionals who serve today as school principals, corporate, public, and non-profit managers, labor leaders, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and elected officials.  These emerging leaders form a vast network of young Latinos and Latinas who have the Silicon Valley smarts and ambition to lead not only the Latino community, but the entire valley.  Tomorrow, they will be the valley’s business and education leaders, non-profit executives, and elected and public officials.

Grounded in the values of honesty, integrity, and self-determination, the LLA understands that the continued prosperity of our region will hinge on the success of the Latino community. As this generation of Latinos is laying down the foundation for future leadership, we are also preparing to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders.

During the past half century, Latinos have been supporting players at the table of community decision-making. The time has come for Latinos to be full partners in setting the path for the valley’s continued success. With the torch firmly in our hands, and with the might of a growing and talented Latino leadership community, the Latino Leadership Alliance is moving forward to provide our valley with experienced and thoughtful leaders today and well into the future.

On Leadership is a Column by  Eddie Garcia, LLA Co-Founder and President