Last May, Tufts undergrad David Ferrándiz was suddenly thrust into the spotlight.
Then a sophomore, Ferrándiz was a member of the Tufts Labor Coalition, a group of student and staff activists which banded together to protest the university’s plan to cut up to 35 janitorial jobs. He found himself speaking with local media—the Globe, the Somerville Journal, NECN—on behalf of the coalition.
“The ability to leverage our privilege as students … and denounce what we consider to be highly corporative policies that expand violence on our own community members was really important to us,” he recalls.
Conveniently, Ferrándiz had just weeks before taken part in a unique initiative from the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC): the Leadership Development Institute (LDI). The institute is designed to give emerging leaders the skills they need to become effective community organizers—skills Ferrándiz says he was able to directly apply through his involvement with the Tufts Labor Coalition. “I think LDI definitely instilled in me the confidence that I can, and I do, have an important role to play,” he says.
The SCC was founded in 1969 to address the issues of sustainability and livability for recent immigrants, low-income families and other vulnerable populations in Somerville. The LDI program kicked off in 2008, and each year since has helped more than 20 leaders develop the tools they’ll need to address these topics on a local level with four half-day training intensives.
“I think the organization realized that mobilizing the community being affected by the issues was very important,” says SCC Lead Organizer Rene Mardones. “The idea was to identify people … who potentially can become leaders in their community—in their neighborhood, church, school.”
The first LDI session deals in broad strokes—what does it mean to be a leader, and why is it important? Subsequent classes delve into relationship building (students are asked to go out and identify a leader in the community) and power (after which students are asked to attend a public city meeting and observe who influences and who makes the decisions). In the final meeting, attendees learn about the practical, local applications of these lessons here in the city. Alumni of the program, as well as elected officials, are on hand to discuss their experiences and explain how graduates can contribute moving forward.
According to Mardones, the goal of the program is to empower people to take on any issues that affect them or their community, whether that’s a complex, systemic problem like rising rents or a personal, small-scale scenario like a dispute with a landlord or a manager at work. Participants work with other SCC committees to hone a set of tools to make these problems more manageable. And often, it’s not that participants don’t have leadership experience, but that they don’t have leadership experience here. Immigrant participants—many of whom come to the program from the Welcome Project, from Union United or from other SCC groups like Jobs for Somerville—were often leaders in their home countries but need a framework for putting that into practice here in Somerville. (Ferrándiz recalls that English, Spanish, Portuegese, French-Creole and Russian were all spoken during his sessions—not bad for a class of just about two-dozen people.)
According to Ferrándiz, there was a lot to be gleaned from the LDI. Perhaps counterintuitively, one of the skills he says was most important is the ability to listen to others. “A good leader doesn’t just command a presence,” he says, “it’s also knowing when to talk and when to shut up and listen.” The LDI also introduced him to the extent of tools that are available—how easy it is to connect with the Board of Aldermen, or to meet with a local neighborhood or tenant association—and was especially valuable because its message isn’t abstract but rather rooted in the experiences of those taking the class.
“I think what I got most out of LDI was how to tell a story—how to tell my story—in a way that does it justice and conveys what I need to convey to a specific audience,” Ferrándiz explains. “That’s been foundational to gaining support and solidarity.”
For Mardones, one of the benefits of the initiative is simply that it shows people that they can take steps to become leaders, no matter who they are. In the first session, when he asks the class to identify a leader, attendees often respond with identifiable figures like President Obama. “We try to go from that vision to something more local, tangible,” Mardones explains, like a family member who guides the group with their strong vision and personality.
“Anyone can be a leader,” he adds.