The Civic Leadership Minor offered through PSU’s College of Urban and Public Affairs is an interdisciplinary, immersive track that cultivates theoretical and practical understanding of the history and praxis of leadership. Its curriculum is also rich with Community Based Learning (CBL): hands-on experience that develops responsive and informed leadership skills. In its final integrative seminar, students reflect on what they’ve learned throughout the minor, develop a personal portfolio of their leadership work, and are provided the opportunity to pair-up in teams to interview two influential local leaders about their own civic journeys. This year, our interview work was guided by a helpful heuristic developed by Dr. Masami Nishishiba, Associate Director of the Center for Public Service (CPS) in the Hatfield School of Government, and her colleague Dan Vizzini, a Senior Fellow also at CPS.
The diagram (above) reflects their keen observations of civic engagement in action over the years. While it’s laid out in a planar fashion visually, conceptually the quadrants are meant to be multidimensional, telling the story of leaders at the most commonly-shared stages of their development and practice. Dr. Nishishiba explained to our class that, while every leader experiences their development differently, most of the leaders that they observed began their journeys as a reaction to a singular interest, with low-level skillsets in and a less-than-nuanced understanding of the interdependent issues that related to their cause. As they grew and developed as leaders, though, most that could have been plotted in sections A or D originally, were observed to acquire the skill sets and knowledge to traverse towards the other ends of the spectrum, not only in terms of interests and understanding, but also in cultivating the leadership skills that are required to organize across a diverse spectrum.
Equipped with this guiding instrument as a reference point, we set out on our interviews in the hopes that we might glean insight enough to contribute to this developing leadership model. We were both more than eager to sit down with our interviewees, but neither of us anticipated how much they have in common.
Charles McGee is a Liberian immigrant in his early thirties, affable, boisterous, with socks as loud and endearing as his laugh and the kind of charisma that attracts attention immediately. His leadership story started early, with strong examples of civic engagement modeled by his family in Liberia before they fled the civil war in 1989, and again later, in the Northeast neighborhoods in which he was raised. Charles did not let immigrating to a new country deter his civic development, rather, he drew upon his experiences and accelerated it. At 19 he ran for the Portland school board and although he didn’t win he drew quite a bit from the experience. In speaking about his experience in running for office Charles stated “When I went through it I learned so much about myself, I learned that I was tough, I learned that I care what people think, I learned that I ultimately do believe in what I do, I learned that I love this community and over the last couple of years I’ve also learned that I can do and get things done without being elected…there are multiple ways to lead and to change the world.” It was those experiences that Charles drew on, in creating the Black Parent Initiative and through it Charles executes the work that matters most to him: educating, uplifting, supporting and enriching black families.
At a glance, you might not think that his work, (or even his life story), has much to do with Sue Hildick – but you’d be wrong. Sue is a fourth-generation education advocate and native Oregonian. While her presentation is more modest and her demeanor subdued, Sue immediately commands every bit as much attention with her thoughtful communication, gracious and inquisitive nature that shines through her attentive and welcoming stare. Sitting with Sue you get a sense that she is taking the experience in, without judgement, and truly listening – attributes that have served her well in her leadership journey. Like Charles, Sue wasted no time in her youth, quickly ascending the political ranks to be a legislative to former U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield, director of government relations at Oregon Health Sciences University, and CEO of the Oregon Trail Chapter of the American Red Cross – all before she was 40 years old. For the past thirteen years, Sue has served as the President of The Chalkboard Project. Calling upon her lessons in leadership and her connections as a Board Chair of the Women’s Foundation of Oregon, Sue has managed to build a thriving coalition of Oregon’s largest foundations to focus and streamline efforts to improve public education throughout the state. Sue summed up her main goal as “My vision is about how does the quality of life in this state get better? It only gets better, to me, if the education system is far better and that is why I do the work that I do and that’s what motivates me is a sense of place that is really, really deep.”
So, what do these two leaders have in common, besides their enthusiasm for education advocacy? While they may have different demeanors, both leaders have thrived in their journeys despite arbitrary obstacles like gender and race. Each has created their own nonprofits and have prioritized their work therein above the opportunity to run for public office, and each has received great accolades for their work. Charles has been recognized as one of the most influential African American leaders in Oregon, and with ten additional years of accomplishments under her belt, Sue has been recognized with distinction more often than not in the last several years, including titles of: New Leadership Oregon’s 2009 Woman Leader of the Year, Nonprofit CEO of the Year by the Portland Business Journal, twice as one of Oregon’s Fifty Great Leaders by Oregon Business Magazine, Oregon’s top 40 under 40 and most recently Sue was selected as a Presidio Institute Fellow in 2016. Given his drive and all that he’s accomplished thus far, we’re sure Charles will follow suit. Most importantly to our project, though, is that each of our interviewees named the same missing components from the model we asked them to engage with, namely: relationships.
Since both Sue and Charles were raised in families in which leadership was modeled, they each adapted leadership styles earlier-on in their trajectory than most leaders. As such, neither felt that they fit squarely into the most common starting points delineated on the Leadership Model that we used. What they related to us was the importance of the relationships that propelled them ever onward and upward. In Charles’ case, hard lessons learned about being a shining star early on and the type of fickle supporters that can be attracted to malleable new leadership talent has helped inform his process of choosing the relationships he relies on more judiciously. In Sue’s case, it was the opportunity to work with Mark O. Hatfield and to learn about relationship building from his unique, inclusive and equitable team-building style that helped shape her into the leader that she is today. In order for the leadership model to be complete, both Charles McGee and Sue Hildick agree that it should reflect the trajectory of leaders that build their legacy through the relationship they make, and the interdependence of all of the work that has yet to be done. In reference to these ideas Sue mentioned that “Now, the whole conversation is about equity and that’s about empathy and really listening and understanding many more perspectives that are frankly very hard to find in Oregon sometimes, and make sure the table is set right and we are learning that now, as a 52 year old leader I am deeply engaged and learning that now.”
CPS Blog written by Shane Jaqua & Adriane Ackerman
Edited by Peter Chaille,Ph.D., Masami Nishishiba, Ph.D., and Jennifer Martinez, Public Affairs and Policy Doctoral Student.