Lourdes Gonzalez first heard of Resident Leadership Academy (RLA) through her son’s school, Mar Vista High School. She immediately liked the idea. “I always like to learn something new,” she said. Gonzalez thought the academy gave her another opportunity to learn the needs of her community and make a difference.
RLA, offered to residents through South Bay Community Services (SBCS), is a 16-week course which teaches residents to become leaders in their community and make the move from talk to action, explained SBCS Community Engagement Director Rachel Morineau.
Last year 13 residents from Imperial Beach graduated from the program. Morineau explained the role of the graduates in their community, “They civically change policies, working toward better street lights, walkable community, graffiti removal, wherever they want their focus to go.”
Morineau said that each cohort that goes through the academy together forms a bond. By the time session 7 or 8 rolls around they establish roles and create positions such as researcher, historian, leader. As part of the graduation, the cohort has to have a project planned in their community. After graduation, the group continues to work on projects and meets once a month.
Recently the group wrote letters and spoke to city council about a ban on flavored tobacco which passed. Gonzalez was one of the RLA graduates that attended that council meeting. It was the first time she ever went to a council meeting. Academy graduates vary from residents who have leadership experience to others with minimal experience, but whatever skills they have, RLA helps them enhance them.
As part of their graduation project, the Imperial Beach graduates worked on Lighting with Art Initiative, Part I “Riding West,” starting at Elder Avenue and 3rd Street focused on better lighting and incorporating art. Gonzalez said her cohort wants to start the project at Central Elementary.
About four months ago the graduates organized a community walk with Live Well San Diego that took them through Imperial Beach and the Tijuana Estuary in an effort to get to know their town better - and also exercise. They also made a stop at Dunes Park where a community ambassador showed them how to use the exercise equipment.
The graduates meet once a month, now via phone, to discuss projects, community needs and ideas.
“I would like more people to join so they can learn the needs of their community… working together we can get better results,” said Gonzales, who is an aide for special needs students. “The academy taught us how to speak, how to ask for what we want.”
Gonzalez enjoys the connections she has with the other graduates and the collaboration. “We’re a family,” she said. SBCS continues to support the graduates and a facilitator meets with them regularly helping them along until they run programs on their own. There are two facilitators from the city of IB.
The academy is open to the communities in certain zip codes and word of it is spread through schools and local leaders. Candidates are pre-screened before acceptance. The last academy started with 16 people and 13 graduated, explained Morineau. In addition to the cohorts meeting once a month, all eight RLA cohorts from different communities meet monthly.
Another important project the local graduates have worked on is Friendship Park within the Border Field State Park. UCSD has applied for a $4.6 M grant to work on the park and asked for input. The Imperial Beach cohort was asked to take part of the information gathering and sharing of ideas together with other organizations like Fish & Wildlife.
“These are opportunities for these resident leaders, sitting at the table with these experts,” said Morineau.
RLA graduates toured city hall and learned how the city works and how decision are made. As part of the program they also have a speaker panel with guests, like Councilman Mark West, and one on one sit downs where they share personal stories of how they got started in advocacy.
West has been impressed with the Imperial Beach RLA cohort and has been a supporter of the program for the past three years. “The community driven and focused multi-week event empowers residents with the critical tools who are looking to get more involved in the community. RLA partners with local organizations along with the South Bay Community Service to facilitate free training which is focused on community leadership, crime prevention and safety, land use and active transportation, and making healthy decisions. All of the graduates I have had the pleasure of meeting posses the utmost knowledge, tools, strategies, and commitment to make positive changes at the neighborhood level, increasing the quality of life of all Imperial Beach residents.”
For Morineau the best part of the academy is to see the change in the residents at graduation. “They stand there and present the project… it’s amazing, it’s the best piece of this. It always gets me choked up,” she said.