Looking Back at the Grassroots Leadership College

From 2003 to 2012 I ran a small nonprofit in Madison, Wisconsin called the Grassroots Leadership College. Our work was based in the idea that everyone is a learner, everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a leader. Starting with that idea in mind we created a coach/leader/ project based leadership education program for adults.

Over the nine years that the GLC operated we provided training to more than 500 people through our core program, workshops, and our Spanish language series. Those program participants led more than 120 different community organizing projects in the Madison area. Many of those efforts continue today.

The GLC was an amazing experience, not only for the projects that our participants led, but because of who our participants were and the community that they created by coming together to learn from each other. Madison has historically been a very liberal community. However, like many liberal towns, it has always been very much divided by race and class as well as other differences. Through very intentional work the Grassroots Leadership College was able to break down those barriers, even if only just for a moment, and bring people together. Our class groups would typically include homeless individuals, former felons, retirees, university faculty and staff, students, and professionals. The groups would often have an age range of thirty or more years. We simply created a space in which all voices were heard and honored for the knowledge and experience that they carried.

One of the people who had a great impact on me was a woman in our first class group. I’d only just begun as the director a few weeks before receiving her application. In that application she acknowledge that she had schizophrenia. I wasn’t sure of what to do, but our vision statement “everyone a learner, everyone a teacher, everyone a leader” played through my mind. Did we really mean everyone? I took the issue to my executive committee and we agreed that I would meet with her to learn more and determine whether she’d be a good fit for the program. Mona and I met at the Yahara House, a clubhouse for individuals seeking support with mental health issues. We discussed the program and her health. She explained to me her illness and told me about the others in the room that I couldn’t see, but she could. It was a wonderful conversation. She was a gifted teacher. My decision was easy and she joined the program, helping break down the fear of mental illnesses for many of our participants that semester.

After nine years of successful teaching coupled with financial struggles, it became clear that the Grassroots Leadership College wasn’t economically sustainable regardless of the good we did or the love we had for the program and we had to close the doors.

Now, it’s almost nine years later and so much has changed politically, socially, and economically both locally and on the grander scale. Still, I see good energy out there to do great things and some really good organizing going on. I think about the GLC and believe that what we did almost a decade ago could serve those doing the good work today. I don’t think that it’s up to us who led it then to rebuild it, but I wonder about how we might share the stories? What tools might be of value? How can we or should we hand on what we learned? We are in a different time with new leaders rising from the grassroots, but many of the needs remain the same and it seems there is little need to start over completely when there are models to build from. Still, one must also honor the new leaders and allow them their space to grow. It’s a delicate balance and one that I am trying to figure out.

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