When Wanda Bonnell was a student working towards her Master’s Degree in Education and Counseling at California State University, Stanislaus, she vaguely heard about the American Leadership Forum.
“I didn’t think much of it when I first heard of the Forum and in no way did I anticipate that one day I would be a participant,” said Bonnell , now an academic advisor and Promise Scholars program coordinator at CSU Stanislaus.
Fast forward 25 years and Bonnell is representing her alma mater in the fifth annual American Leadership Forum Great Valley Chapter class of fellows. Bonnell is joined by 21 other local leaders from the tri-county area — including Merced, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin counties — all of whom were nominated to participate in the Forum’s regional leadership academy.
The year-long program connects representatives such as Bonnell from a variety of different professional and personal backgrounds to participate in the forum that aims to not only develop their personal leadership skills, but strengthen the community through cross-sector collaboration. After just two meetings, Bonnell has recognized the transformational power of the program.
“Now I am meeting people I never would have had an opportunity to meet,” said Bonnell. “Everyone contributes input from various backgrounds — from education to medical to law — and it is in an environment that is without judgment or criticism. None of that exists.”
Geared towards providing fellows insight into the region’s issues and initiatives through eight hour long collaborative seminars each month, the Forum also aims to start a conversation amongst its stakeholders to refine their skills as leaders to better serve their communities. But what makes this leadership program unique?
“I’ve gone through the Turlock, Modesto, and Merced leadership programs through the Chambers and they are wonderful, but the difference here is the content and the depth that you go into. There is a more global scope,” said Vicki Trask, a career and technical education instructor for the Stanislaus County Office of Education. “The thing that piqued my interest is that there is tri-county impact and what we’re learning is applicable at the local level as well as higher levels.”
Confidentiality is intrinsic to the effectiveness of the program as the monthly meetings provide local leaders the opportunity to discuss not only their opinions and views but their ideas for regional growth in a trustworthy and private environment that includes small breakout groups.
“The fellows always sit in a circle so everyone can see each other and effectively dialogue,” explained Senior Director Kathy Halsey of the Forum.
The private meetings center on monthly themes such as “common good” and allow the fellows to dissect not only the importance of the theme but its value in the region. The Forum’s structured conversation serves to not only deepen fellow to fellow relationships but also to strengthen their skills as communicators and industry representatives. By promoting a collaborative spirit, the program generates organic dialogue that will result in small groups developing implementable projects to improve the region. Bonnell succinctly expressed the positive approach she said all fellows share in her own testimony regarding her hopes for the program:
“I personally hope that I will broaden my perspective as a person through this experience. I hope that by the time I leave this program, the experience will have given me the tools so that I can better serve my community, problem solve in the realm of education, and better advocate for the needs of others.”