Leadership L.A. 2009 Class Report

The following remarks were written and delivered by Brenda Sutton-Wills, California Teachers Association and Graduate, Leadership L.A. (LLA) 2009. She was selected by her peers to summarize the LLA experience over the past year.


Good evening, Mr. Buzzelli, family and friends, and my fellow graduates.  I am very pleased to present the Leadership L.A. 2009 Class Report and Remarks.   In many ways, this Leadership L.A. experience has been a meditation on engagement, commitment and authenticity.

This has been a meditation on engagement in its many necessary facets.  Many of you here are employers and members of the Chamber.  Thank you for the foundation of engagement necessary to make Leadership L.A. a success.  The first act of civic engagement was your investment in this program.  It occurred when you committed your resources-whether it was our time away from work, the tuition, or a grant that made the fellowship possible.   My employer, the California Teachers Association, has been flexible and supportive of my civic engagement during my entire career, thank you CTA.

There has also been the critical and personal investment of family good will into this program, as our involvement over the months has deflected energy from home to invest in the promise of even further outward involvement.  To our supportive spouses, families and friends: we thank you.

Taleen, Alex, April, your professionalism is impressive.  You have demonstrated an unflappable sense of humor, skill, poise and knowledge of Los Angeles in implementing this program.  The Leadership L.A. Class of 2009 appreciates you, more than you could know.  Thank you.

In Leadership L.A., the bus ride is as much of the experience as is the destination.

Do you ever have those conversations where you are greedy for more information, where you are meeting someone who is staggeringly fresh, honest and committed? I recently had one of those conversations.

I rode with Helen Kwon, who is the president of an executive search and placement agency.  She told me about the challenges her business faces in this economy, the challenges she faces in Los Angeles as a person who is more comfortable in New York, San Francisco and in Korea.  She is new to Los Angeles, and her 9th grade daughter is having a hard time with new friends and a new language in Los Angeles.  She told me that she and her teenager were having challenges relating to one another.  What she said next blew me away.

“My daughter says I don’t understand her.  When I saw the young men at the Central jail and their lack of opportunity, I decided that if I could reach disadvantaged young men in school, and help them find opportunity-many of them are Black and Latino, I don’t know how to talk to them either-I could also reach my daughter.”

New to Los Angeles, struggling to navigate dicey economic times and a teenager, and following her visit to Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail, Helen established a job-shadowing program for disadvantaged youth.

It is in the brief telling of Helen’s story of personal engagement that I introduce you to the Leadership L.A. Class of 2009.  We are engaged, hopeful, and committed on a very personal level.  I am thankful and honored to be a part of this cadre.  Thank you so much for the opportunity to deliver this report.

We all agree that we studied more systems and met more experts than our careers or current level of civil engagement would have exposed us to.

We saw the beautiful new schools, bursting at the seams with young people eager to learn and trusting LAUSD and the larger community of stakeholders not to let them down.  We heard from teachers and administration that are committed and engaged at a very personal level, even as they worried about potential job losses due to a lack of funding for public schools.

In sharp and meaningful juxtaposition, many of us were moved by the visit to the Men’s Central Jail. Looking into the faces of the predominately Black and Brown men left us in pain, and it reminded us of the urgency of civic engagement and quality education.

Many fellows acted immediately and formed a group to financially support Homeboy Industries.  Heeding a call for assistance from a group whose motto is “Jobs not Jail” is indeed a worthy and well-timed act of civic engagement. The session on arts, culture and creative economy also offered a counter point to the jail experience.  Inner-city Arts truly is an oasis of learning and creativity in the heart of skid row.  Leadership L.A. fellows formed a board of directors to serve their needs.

Pamela Parker is a resident of the Abbey Apartments.  Ms. Parker had been at the top of the entertainment industry earning substantial money.  She found herself homeless in skid row.   She captivated us as she spoke with pride about her modest and beautiful new home at the Abbey, and she served us home-baked cookies.  We left that session in the heart of skid row with an impression of hope for the chronically homeless in Los Angeles.  Well strategized interventions do work even when facing very daunting and dark problems.  Many fellows engaged in a letter writing campaign meant to convince the board of supervisors to adopt further funding of the multi-disciplinary service model of homeless intervention.

We heard from community leaders in Korea town.  They asked to be understood.  The sense of urgency expressed by Hyepin Im, Chang Lee, Brad Lee, and Christopher Pak reminded us that civic engagement also means extending ourselves beyond our comfort zone to form community across cultural barriers.  The Koreatown community continues to reach out to reinforce our cross-cultural continuity of interests following the April 29, 1992 realization that they were considered “other” by many in the communities surrounding their businesses.

These few examples of our experiences provide a call and response between engagement and commitment. The trust, engagement, and honesty of our neediest community partners presenting themselves and asking us to take them as we find them is the call. You, the class of 2009 responded, intelligently and urgently, with commitment and community. We are plotting our next moves.  We were exposed to health care access, education and workforce development,media and entertainment, public safety, the Port of Los Angeles and airports; a deep dive into Koreatown, water and the environment. There is more to say than my time will allow. What I can say, is that we have made a commitment to be accountable to one another and to engage and invest deeply.

Finally, this has been a meditation on authenticity.  At the first session, we talked about how holding one’s self out as a “leader” is a tricky notion.  I have had conversations with many of my colleagues and have confirmed that our quest for improved civic engagement is selfless and authentic and without pretense.  We as a class struggle with time, as we maintain our careers and families. It is the exposure and investment of the larger community that calls to us, to answer and engage with the vulnerability that comes with a personal investment in Los Angeles.

In closing, the Leadership L.A. Class of 2009 thanks Kevin Cottrell.  The obvious joy and personal investment he demonstrates is at the core of the success of Leadership L.A.  We appreciate you, Kevin, and we look forward to being in touch with you as we continue this journey.