Fostering Leaders – Changing a Community

What if there were a leadership program that transformed leaders and the community? What would that look like? Join us as we hear about the Community Leadership Program in New Haven, Connecticut and how they are fostering a community of leaders changing the landscape.


Cynthia Rojas 0:02
Hi, everyone. Today we are talking about my favorite topic. In fact, we’ve been talking about leadership for a couple of weeks now. But today’s show is going to be really interesting because this leadership program is having a dual impact. Yes, they are growing and fostering leaders and emerging leaders, and they’re also changing the non-profit landscape in New Haven Connecticut. Today, we get to hear how they’re doing that, join us.

CTMM Jingle 0:40

Cynthia Rojas 1:05
Welcome everyone to coffee time with Masterminds. We are a 30-minute conversation for and with leaders of mission-based organizations. We want to welcome all of our viewers, including the ones around the world and our listeners in Australia. If you are joining us live today, please put your name in the comments and let us know where you’re from we always want to hear where people are listening from. I am Cynthia Rojas and I’m being joined by my co-host Pieta Blakely.

Pieta Blakely 1:40
Good morning.

Cynthia Rojas 1:42
How are you?

Pieta Blakely 1:44
Good. How are you?

Cynthia Rojas 1:47
I’m really good. So, we are going to talk about my favorite topic, leadership. I could talk about it all day.

Pieta Blakely 1:55
And so, we’re talking today about a leadership development program. What’s unique about this program?

Cynthia Rojas 2:00
There are so many things, so many, and we’re going to hear about it. But one of the most powerful things is they are intentionally growing leaders within a region, this region is New Haven Connecticut. And by going through this program, they’re also impacting how non-profits work together. To best serve the people that they are serving so it’s having a dual impact. It’s really interesting.

Pieta Blakely 2:37
That is really interesting and I’m really excited to hear how it works. There’s so much potential, and we spend so much time on this show, talking about constructive alliances between organizations. So, I’m really excited to hear about how that is being cultivated here.

Cynthia Rojas 3:01
Yeah, so, I went through this program back in 2005. A long time ago.

Pieta Blakely 3:14
It was in a cave. We were on the walls with our hands.

Cynthia Rojas 3:29
Anyway, I can’t do the math fast enough, but we’re also going to get to here. This is interesting, what’s changed in the 20 years that they’ve been around, and what has not changed. It’s going to be a good show. Let’s bring on Fahd Vahidy. Hi, Fahd. How are you?

Fahd Vahidy 3:51
I’m doing well. I’m glad to be here. Good morning.

Cynthia Rojas 3:55
Yeah, good morning. So, you are the senior advisor to the program we’re talking about, which is the Community Leadership Program known as CLP; most people know it. It’s funny because in New Haven, if you name it by its full name, people might look at you. But if you see CLP, everyone knows what that means. So, we are so excited to have you here for a couple of reasons. We’ve been talking about leadership for a couple of weeks last week or two weeks ago.

We had a conversation with the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, who is doing a leadership program specifically for emerging bi-part leaders. And so, that was a great conversation because it talked about why that’s even needed and what are the uniqueness about those types of leadership programs. But CLP is unique in and of itself, and so before we get started with all the interesting things about it. Tell us a little bit about how it began. What’s his origin story, 20 years ago, long time ago.

Fahd Vahidy 5:05
Yeah, it’s a long time in the making. Honestly, again, we’ll just give you just a small tidbit of that information. It started with Bill Graustein, who is a philanthropist and also a New Havener, and was interested in thinking a little bit more deeply about this idea that he had. What if there was a supportive generative container where people could show up as more themselves as opposed to rules and titles. And what if they were able to have the conversations that they really wanted to have, that mattered, that had an impact.

So, the process really started with this curiosity that Bill had. That people in a space together, being themselves, are able to do something different and in a way that allows them to be learning from each other, working and understanding each other, having a sense of perspective and context. That’s really the origin, and that hunch has led us into 20 years of convening cohorts. We’ve done 31 cohorts, as of today, with about 650 people who’ve gone through this program.

Pieta Blakely 6:38
Who participates in the in the program?

Fahd Vahidy 6:40
Yeah, initially when then Bill started off with the folks that were in the non-profit sector and he had an understanding of the folks that were in New Haven. Whether they’re playing the role in organizational life or in public life and brought them together. Obviously, all of this is created with the community of folks. So, he wasn’t the only architect behind this design, and over the years it’s been changing. It’s changed every year since because more people have been influenced. I went through the program myself in 2008 and found it to be a remarkable experience for myself. Now, we get folks from public life, organizational life, civic life.

Folks that are living in New Haven. We have interests in Hartford. We have an interest in Bridgeport. We have interests in various parts of Connecticut. But we are continuing to be hyper-local in this sense that we’re most interested in working with folks that have a stake in New Haven and are working towards things that they want to see happening. Which is why it’s having such a huge impact is its focus on geographic location. I want to go back to what you said in the beginning where Bill brought together or talked to a lot of leaders before the program was designed.

So, it’s not the mastermind of one person, but really the idea of listening, and we’re doing some deep listening about a need. And he’s achievable. CLP has achieved that goal really well, so leaders were yearning for partnership and getting to know each other and developing relationships so that they could do their work better. Has that goal been achieved because what happens in the non-profit world is that funders can become Gods. Non-profits can also be hierarchical. You have your big ones, your small ones. And what CLP did in New Haven was that it leveled the playing field. You can end up in a cohort with a neighborhood leader. Someone who’s doing a community garden. You can end up with a VP at a foundation. And you can end up with an investor who invests in the profit organization so it really levels the playing field.

Fahd Vahidy 9:18
I think convening folks from different perspectives and lived experiences who carry capacities from, you know, their personal journey to their education training to be in the same room, to have conversations about things that matter. It’s a unique offering and it’s not particularly skills-based. Our approach is not really around skill development. While I said you know, when I say this, there are skills that are being developed. I think listening is a big part of it and the same thing Cynthia, you know this really. We pay a lot of touch and story.

The value and perspective story because it’s one of those practices that allows us as humans to connect deeply to each other, by listening, by understanding, by asking questions. It’s also one of those practices that allows us to imagine. I think leadership is in need of imagining like, we need more imaginations about what’s possible. Bill, I believe that he’s chiefly responsible for having story be part of this leadership experience because he just brings a different type of curiosity and to lead with possibilities imagination and story is a vehicle for that.

Cynthia Rojas 10:53
Yeah, the story has been a really powerful part of the work and I remember when I was in my cohort Bill was starting to dabble in story and he had shared a couple of stories. You know, he was teaching us that it’s harder to hate when you know somebody’s story, and it’s so much easier to love. I think my personal love for people and humanity has grown because of the story. I can’t imagine a program without a story, so that’s been an important element in it. A couple of days ago, Fahd, we were also talking about what has changed. Let’s highlight briefly the big things that have happened in the past 20 years. So, when I came on board in 2005, we had Katrina happen. So, the cohort starts in September and Katrina happened four days or five days prior. The then president of the United States had not visited Katrina, yet, or New Orleans. And so, that was painful. There have been other things that have happened.

Fahd Vahidy 12:32
So much just happened in 20 years. Look, we’ve had significant things happen in the world, in Connecticut. We have elections. We have the first African-American president voted in between. We had the invention of the iphone in between. There is so much of this happening that we can talk about. And so, as the times have changed, some of the things have remained the same. One of those things is, humans are still complex beings, and we’re leading in complex times, that’s been consistent. In order for us to lead we need to be a resource and to being a community to learn from, and that’s been similar, so we continue to bring cohorts in. You know, for the longest time a cohort’s meant to get a group of folks, about 20 individuals who spend a time from September to May with overnight retreats and monthly conversations. To learn about each other, to learn about ourselves, to tell some stories, to talk about issues that are really up for us. And that continues to be resident room folks, and this is why they raise their hands. They want to be part of something that is different and meets them where they are.

Cynthia Rojas 13:59
Yeah, so in that sense, it hasn’t changed.

Fahd Vahidy 14:02
It hasn’t, and that’s it. It hasn’t changed.

Cynthia Rojas 14:11
So, how has it changed. I knew this in 2005 when I was in my cohort. It was mostly older leaders, white leaders. People who were seasoned in their leadership. I was new to my non-profit leadership. I was just coming into the non-profit sector and what was interesting to me was in the private sector, we don’t talk a lot about values. We talk a lot about profit margins and money. In this program, being asked about my personal values and really struggled with that. What has changed in the last 20 years?

Fahd Vahidy 14:55
Yeah, you know, every year, there’s something new that’s been learned. If you’re open to the possibilities of being impacted by other folks, and if you’re open to being influenced and you’re intentional about being in learning spaces. Then you’ll know that there are things to change. Every year, we’ve had people give us some feedback around here’s a content area that worked. Here’s a process that didn’t work. Here’s some more time that we need to stand on. You know, the beauty about CLP has been that since after the first two years, it really has been influenced by people who’ve gone through the program. For the last 20 years, it has been influenced by alums who’ve actually participated in it. I joined in 2008 as a participant and since then I’ve been involved in all the cohorts that we have convened, have been led by folks that have been in CLP.

So, there are alums of CLP, and it’s distributed in a way that we believe leadership can exist everywhere, right. This idea of leadership has been really a myth that we have a charismatic leader. That has the power, the skills, the capacity, inspiration, and often comes with the ego. You know, enormous power to influence people’s lives and we know that that is a myth. That leadership exists in a lot of different spaces, and in fact, we have a definition that I personally like about leadership. It is, it’s influenced by an organizer historian named Marshall Dance. He talks about leadership as accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve a shared purpose in the face of uncertainty. Which is a lot, but that reframes our idea of leadership that can happen anywhere. It can happen in our families. It can happen in our communities. It can happen in our neighborhoods because uncertainty is there.

Pieta Blakely 17:00
We have talked so much on this show about the role of a leader during a time like, covid. During a very uncertain time, and one of the things that we found consistently is effective leaders make a decision, are decisive in their direction. Even if it turns out later that they need to change direction. It is way more effective to pick a direction and then change later than to delay or not take responsibility.

Fahd Vahidy 17:40
I think that’s so true, and this is where we know that leadership is missing, right. In the face of taking responsibility, people often don’t act in their responsibility. They’re not prepared for it; they’re waiting much too long. I think that’s really true and it’s not about right or wrong. It’s actually just taking action based on the best of you.

Pieta Blakely 18:06
Right. Yeah, it’s just taking action. One of the things that I really want to dig into some more is, what is happening as a result of all of these leaders forming these relationships. So, some of these people know each other now for 20 years and have these deep relationships. What is going on in the community, as a result of that?

Fahd Vahidy 18:31
It’s a great question because some of it we know the answers to, and some of it we don’t.
One of the things that we’ve picked up over time is that we’re very intentional about convening cohorts and we were less intentional. Perhaps, missed the opportunity to connect cohorts across people. And so, what we do know is that New Haven feels like a smaller place for many because they know each other. They know folks and they recognize folks and there’s a particular practice that is developed around this idea.

This is a statement that people say, that’s so CLP. Which is basically saying that you’re talking about yourself. You’re talking about your values. You’re talking about your aspirations. But I do feel that to answer your question that there has been some real action around people who come together, around shared purpose. People have worked together on projects. People have collaborated around projects. They’ve shared up for each other in solidarity for what folks are doing.

They’ve supported each other in their personal lives and their professional lives, and they stay connected to each other. Now, I have to say, not everyone who goes through CLP would vouch for this to be an experience that they would recommend. Because people are coming in with different sorts of mindsets. Some people want more particular skill sets and such. Unfortunately, that’s not the experience that we offer, and a lot of it depends on the cohort that’s composed. And for those that have enjoyed this and felt like myself. This was a transformative experience for me, continue to be involved.

Cynthia Rojas 20:27
Yeah, you said something interesting. This idea of, it’s not a skill-based program, yet there are some people who do yearn for that. Do you think this is a program best suited for the seasoned leader, or for the emerging leader, or is it a mix of both?

Fahd Vahidy 20:52
I think it’s for everyone who is interested in learning about themselves, a little bit in a deeper way. Who’s in who is able to really lean into vulnerability and talk about what’s really core to their purpose, and what values drive their work. It’s an invitation in that way, so it doesn’t matter if you’re a retired leader, or if you’re coming in right out of college. If you will, or that you’ve been a neighborhood leader for years but if you want to be in a conversation with yourself and people that are interested in learning, then this is the right sort of experience for that person.

Cynthia Rojas 21:47
Through the years, you’ve had different presenters or different facilitators. So now, you say that everybody that works in or with CLP has gone through the program. But why the changes. Was it environmental, was it what we were going through, or was that intentional.

Fahd Vahidy 22:12
I think it was at some point intentional and in a large part influenced by the very people who went through something. My guess is that people were cured enough about this experience that they wanted to influence it, and they wanted to be part of it to help grow it. I think that’s a sign of an important, you know, people are engaged enough to put their time and energy into this. So, that’s one of the metrics that we use in terms of like who wants to raise their hand in being part of this experience or leading this, and facilitating this for other folks. Because we’re mostly interested in the development of leaders who are also interested in developing others. Because we want it to be an experience where people can walk away and say, okay, I’m not prepared to act and practice a certain way. That allows for others to flourish, as well.

Cynthia Rojas 23:10
Yeah, nice. I have two questions I want to ask them because I want to forget them. But you could take them on one at a time. The first is, there is intentionality; it feels like taking care of the leader. There’s a lot of care and detail that goes into this program and things we may or may not even realize, but including the food and the retreats and where we stay. It’s almost like you never have to think about anything when you’re in session at CLP.

So, that’s one question, is what’s the intentionality around that. The second question is, when covid happened, leaders really had to step up in a way that many of them still are trying to reconcile two and a half years later. Like, what have we all been through and some I’m learning are just starting to take some time off. And there’s a lot of worry about those leaders who had to take care of others while they were also being impacted. I just wondered during covid, did you see a difference in those cohorts, in terms of the mental exhaustion that leaders were facing during that time. So two-part question, answer them the way you want.

Fahd Vahidy 24:36
Well, the first one is easy to answer because I attribute the radical hospitality that’s associated with CLP to my colleague, Gail. Gail Torres Quintero, who’s been a part of this experience from the very beginning. And I think that it takes a special person like Gail to be able to curate an experience for cohorts and to have them experience the type of hospitality they do. Two overnight retreats, fabulous food.

We want to nourish, fortify, and create the conditions where there is authentic, deep, conversations can exist. I think that’s one of the real reasons behind the type of hospitality that we offer. The second part of the question is a tough one, Cynthia, just because I think we’re still pretty early in the stage of recognizing and figuring out what has happened and how have we managed through this crisis starting in 2020. I think in march of 2020, we were faced with a real complexity and I think people led in the ways that they could. Some people experiment and amplify those experiments.

Some people made some decisions and decided to really dampen those decisions because they weren’t yielding the results. For us, we’re finding that this is a time for us to gather to, actually do some sensing around how people are. I can tell you that people are fatigued, particularly, in the non-profit sector and particularly in philanthropy as well. We know that rest, restoration, spaciousness and conversations are really important. This idea of spaciousness, I need to underscore it because, you know, our lives narrowed pretty quickly and for this environmental threat that we had. And so, the isolation working from home and working in these tiles and zoom and various other things, it’s a narrow existence. I think now, we’re beginning to sort of reconnect, and it’s going to take some time for us to sense how people have managed. We’re going to be in a learning space and I think that’s the invitation here for us.

Pieta Blakely 27:05
I think your point about radical hospitality is so interesting. We have another thing that we’ve talked about on this show a lot is the theme of self-care, which we don’t like, and structural care, which we do. One of the themes that we have talked about a lot is people can’t get from empty wells. When you talk about like let’s take care of people so they can do this important work. Let’s treat people with, not just basic dignity but like, let’s really celebrate their presence here, right. That’s a really different way of thinking about how people do their best work.

Fahd Vahidy 27:57
Absolutely, and we think about this as a gift in a couple of ways, because it’s really a gift to be in a space where we can learn from each other and from the people in our community. And to have that time and energy is really a gift because that is not a common experience for us. We are trying to find more time for things that fulfill us. There’s something wrong with that equation.

Cynthia Rojas 28:26
Yeah, one of our most popular shows was very early on and I think it was titled, “Mad About Self-care.” It really took months to really hear and understand what Pieta was saying and this idea of when you call it self-care, you put the burden on the individual. But really the stressors and the pressures that we are facing are brought on many times by our employer. And so, we should put the burden on them to bring in structural care into the work. “Oh, my god, it was so popular.”

Fahd Vahidy 29:12
Yeah, I could see why. One of the things that we started to experiment with about four and a half years ago. We decided to do a blog for alumni and to continue to sort of engage them and also to learn from that. Just because you’ve gone through an experience doesn’t mean you’re done learning; we’re always learning. We know this from science and the research that development doesn’t stop at a certain age; it continues to happen. I would encourage folks. If you’re interested in learning more about CLP, check out the blog, the circle, and There’s a lot of information there. We’re going to go for a pause this year and to do a little bit of a deeper dive in our content programming and with some new initiatives launching, next year. I was just so excited to bring this to next year’s programming.

Cynthia Rojas 30:10
Yeah, and so what was that email, again?

Fahd Vahidy 30:14 is our landing site and the circle is the block that has created alumni reflections and experiences. There’s quite a bit of that through the last two and a half years. And it’s telling, it’s supportive, it’s nurturing, its insights, and we’re going to continue to develop that. Because I think, it’s a real testimony to what people are living and talking about.

Pieta Blakely 30:46
That sounds like a fantastic resource.

Cynthia Rojas 30:48
Yes, I’m putting it in the comments. That’s awesome. Well, Fahd, I am so excited to have you on the show. You know, I love CLP and really have still find it 20 years later to be a very unique program in many ways. I’m always happy to connect and hear what’s going on.

Fahd Vahidy 31:10
Well, thanks so much for inviting me, this has been a great conversation.

Pieta Blakely 31:12
Thank you for coming on.

Fahd Vahidy 31:13
Yeah, absolutely.

Cynthia Rojas 31:17
Thank you. All right. So, we’ll see all of you next week. Same time, same place. Thank you.

Pieta Blakely 31:30
Have a great weekend, everybody.

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.