The Latina Leadership Initiative is building the leaders for the future

In the past the belief has always been that leaders are natural born, but lately the Behavioral Theories tell that it is not true. The new belief is that leaders are made through the process of learning, teaching and observation. Also, leadership is a set of skills that anyone can learn through training, perception, practice and experience. With this in mind, it is good to know that in the Des Moines area there is something called the Latina Leadership Initiative (LLI).

Latina Leadership Initiative is a place where young Latinas can learn to be leaders.

“LLI is a unique organization that fills in the huge gap in our community which is to empower young Latina leaders and support their leadership in our community, but at the same time we want them to be engaged in representing themselves and their community in mainstream,” Sonia Parras, lawyer and business woman, who is also a founder of LLI explained.

She also said that LLI gives opportunity to young Latinas to develop more their leadership skills and through them build bridges between the Latino community and other communities. LLI came to existence 5 years ago. Ms. Parras explained that throughout her career and after some personal experiences she learned that there was a lack of professional development for Latinas.  She saw that even though the Latino community has its professional leaders they did not make a connection with the grass roots and the next level of the leadership and she knew that to prepare, or mentor those professionals to make those connections, will launch them even beyond the Latino community and this way making a stronger connection among many members of society no matter whether they are Latinos or not.

Latina Leadership Initiative: Fabiola Schirrmeister, the new executive
director; Sonia Parras, founder and Paula Plasencia board chair. 
Photo by Tar Macias

“What I wanted the women we work with to learn is what are the rules of the game, what is that and who calls the shots, how are they called and who makes decisions, how does that happen. And now knowing that how can I bring in my heritage, my culture and my need identified by me and community into that world of rules to make sure that that world also responds to my needs and my community and that I have the saying in all that,” Ms. Parras explained how LLI was conceived as a way to teach future Latina leaders to be that bridge and connection between cultures and communities, to use their culture to their advantage while learning about the American way of leading.

“How do we make the program to where it is bicultural so they don’t lose their identity, but at the same time when they are in that board meeting or when they are in the meeting with their other coworkers and it is predominately white, how do they feel comfortable about speaking up. How do they know that this is how that interaction is going on and it is not going to be the Latino communications style, it is going to be white communication style.” Ms. Paula Plasencia, Chair of Board of LLI, added. “How do you learn to speak up and speak out and put away that this is how I have to behave when I am in white culture predominant in power positions and this is how I behave within the Latino community within power positions,”

LLI is not only teaching Latinas to not be afraid to lead in a bicultural way, but also it helps future Latina leaders to navigate among predominantly male Latino leaders so the decisions made would be beneficial to everyone and everyone’s opinion is valued regardless of their gender.

While the goals of LLI were very clear from the beginning, at first they were feeling the ground and finding their footing, but after putting in place everything needed to run the organization, they started to offer classes. There have been 4 graduating classes in the past years, but in 2017 LLI took a year to rebuild and revitalize itself.

According to Ms. Plasencia, the reason the board of LLI took a year off was to learn and see what needed to change or improve and what kind of executive director the organization needs to better serve the young women  who are looking to improve their leadership skills. LLI fully embraced the new age of social media and also tried to find a better way to help young women who are part of both cultures, who still speak Spanish and English at home.

“The new and improved [LLI] is a reflection of getting some grip of what we envisioned is actually happening,” Ms. Parras stated. “And this rethinking and stopping and launching is just a living proof of the need and that it works.”

LLI is an organization that not only gives Latina leaders a chance to learn to lead and even become mentors to others. Some of the young women who went through this program are returning to LLI and helping it grow. In fact, the current Board of Directors has two LLI alums.

“[They are] trying to revamp the curriculum. We are staying with the basic subjects of the curriculum, but we are finding different ways to help the participants understand and adapt to what we are teaching them to work,” Ms. Plasencia explained how young women leaders who went through the program are helping LLI to expand and continue bringing value and relevance to the participants.

She also added that because of the research and development they have been doing for the past year, the participants for this year should expect to have homework that would help to get ready for the following session. The young aspiring leaders will have to be more serious, they will have to do some research on their own as well and be prepared for each class.

Fabiola Schirrmeister, the new executive
director of the Latina Leadership Initiative.
Photo by Tar Macias

On Tuesday May 8 LLI will have a reception to commence a new chapter for LLI, highlighting the new beginning the new director of the organization will be introduced, as well as a new website. From then on LLI will start recruiting young Latinas with the classes set to begin September of this year.

LLI is a fairly new organization, but the hope is there that it will continue its work of creating Latina leaders for many years to come.

“[10 years from now] I see [LLI] as established institute that has many graduated women,” Sonia Parras shared her vision for the future of LLI. “As of now we already are able to identify LLI graduates in positions that are meaningful in terms of civic participation and civic engagement. So I can imagine the amazing impact the graduates of the future will have in our community.”

For Ms. Plasencia the future LLI will be a prestigious program for future Latinas who will see it as important stepping stone towards developing successful leadership skills for their career, their involvement in the community or nonprofit organizations. She also wishes that future Latina leaders aspiring to enter politics will use LLI as a tool to help them reach that goal.

“If they want to enter politics it is through LLI that we prepare them to go become involved in Latino Political Network and be prepared to run to be a politician,” Ms. Plasencia shared her examples of vision of future of LLI. “Whether they want to serve on a Board of a corporation we have prepared them and gave them the confidence of I can do this. “

There are plans to expand this program to other parts of Iowa and to involve young girls so they can grow up learning how amazing it is to be a professional and well respected Latina. More than anything, even now LLI is here to provide this professional development for Latinas need to go on to become successful in their professional lives.

“In a way you are telling them what the rules are,” Ms. Parras explained the role and importance of LLI for future Latina leaders. “Now that they are aware of that they can use it to their advantage because just because those are the rules of mainstream doesn’t mean you have to follow them, but you need to learn and know them so when you are interacting and you have a goal in mind you can achieve that goal know what the rules are.”

Ms. Parras explained that if one does not have a mentor who can teach them about the rules of the community and how it operates, it can take that someone a lifetime to achieve anything simply because they do not know who to present their agenda to. LLI will teach students to identify those in power and teach them the right way to present their agenda or to be articulate and convincing message.

And a good way to help the community to have homegrown leaders who understands the needs of this particular community is to also do our part and donate for scholarships for LLI students.  If you wish to help LLI you can donate for scholarship or sponsor a future leader. Donations for scholarships are accepted all year around. Visit the LLI webpage www.latinaleadershipinitiative.org for more information about donations.

Those women interested to be accepted to the Latina Leadership Initiative can apply online. There will be 12 classes in total with graduation in April of next year. Applicants can fill out and submit their application starting in May of this year. 10 to 12 participants will be selected from the pool of applicants. Along with the application applicants need to pay a fee of $300 or apply for a scholarship to cover the cost of class supplies, lunches and rents of venues where classes take place when needed. The application can be found one LLI website www.latinaleadershipinitiative.org Once the application is submitted it will be reviewed. The next step will be an interview with the applicant. Those who do not get to participate this year will be asked to return next year.

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