Finding Leaders within the Community

I am often asked by other organizations and agencies how the Latino Leadership Council can consistently develop effective, grassroots community programs. The key is in the leadership, though not the leadership you’re probably thinking of.

When thinking of leaders, one often immediately thinks of those in positions of power, individuals with titles and heads of organizations. And while those leaders are definitely needed to build support for your programs, help with financing and open the doors you need to launch your program, they are not the leaders on which programs are built.

The leaders I’m referring to are those individuals who, without title, training or formal designation, are the ones the community naturally turns to when seeking help, advice or a listening ear. They can be the lady down the street who brings food to her neighbors who are going through hard times; the man who keeps an eye out for the neighborhood kids and tries to warn them of the perils of gangs; or even the person who seems to know all the neighborhood goings on because everyone feels comfortable coming to her to share their secrets. Whoever those individuals are, they are people who have gained the trust and respect of their neighbors and community…they are the true leaders.

Instead of trying to impose formal leaders on a community, the Latino Leadership Council finds those natural, existing leaders and reaches out to them with information about important health and social issues, and engages them to be a resource to their community. That’s the idea on which the Promotora program is built—providing existing community leaders with health education and information and encouraging them to go out into their community and share the information with those whose trust they’ve already earned.

This approach is incredibly more effective than using formal leaders, social workers or government representatives because it naturally overcomes many of the barriers that exist in our community, including trust issues, language limitations and cultural differences.

The difficulty comes in identifying these community leaders. Because they hold no official title, they are most likely not involved in the usual programmatic meetings and meet-and-greet events or listed on any database. The way we’ve done it is to simply ask everyone we come across who they go to for help and support. We don’t settle for a generic answer, like “a friend,” “my church” or “my family.” If they say a friend, we ask the friend’s name. If they reference their church, we want to know what church and who within that church. Over time, we start seeing some of the same names repeated over and over by different people…and then we know we have a leader.

We ask these questions in person and on surveys at almost every event that we organize. If you work in a clinical setting, consider adding the question to your intake form and keep track of the information. Look for patterns and repeated names and then find these individuals and engage them in your mission. They are trusted in their community because they are willing to help their neighbors. If your program goals and mission are helping their community, chances are they’ll be willing to work with you.

This approach has the added benefit of providing these leaders with more skills and training that will enhance their leadership potential and continue to empower our community.

By building our programs around these true community leaders, our efforts are truly grassroots and their effectiveness surpasses anything we’ve done before. If you’re not using this approach, I encourage you to give it a try. You will not only be benefiting your program and efforts, but also helping build leadership in the communities you’re trying to reach.

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