The Leadership Classroom: Celebrating 25 years of Mentoring and Leading the Future’s Grassroots Organizations

It’s the first The Leadership Classroom (TLC) class of the New Year and facilitator Hasan Stephens decides to switch things up. He finishes writing his thoughts on the whiteboard for the upcoming lesson when he turns around, adjusts his jacket and asks the class an unexpected question: what are everyone’s New Year’s resolutions – or goals – for 2019? One mentioned organization, another mentioned leadership while a group in the back mentioned all the good things coming down the pipeline for the year already.

For Sean Reed, Jr., Alexander Grant and Erris Robinson of UPSTAR Academy, it is a time of reflection before the question eventually circulates to them. The organization – which provides mentoring, educational tutoring and athletic training to adolescent males – has been on an upward trajectory for the past six years.

Reed remembers the day vividly when the trio decided to fully invest.

“I got a text message from a kid going through a very serious situation and he pretty much needed a male influence in his life,” said Reed. “After I got off the phone with him, I described the situation to the guys and they were all on board to help. I left work early, jumped into my car and went right to the Dunbar Center. ”

The student had been feeling alienated at home. His father, who had a strong street reputation, was incarcerated, and his environment was encouraging him to head down a similar life path. Reed and his UPSTAR partners stepped in to help the teen see and reach his fullest potential.

Stephen’s question has now reached the back of the room. Reed and Grant take a moment and state that they want teens growing up in poverty and violent neighborhoods to strive for excellence to achieve their goals and dreams.

The Leadership Classroom is the Community Foundation’s longest running program and is set to celebrate 25 years as the go-to professional and organizational development resource for grassroots organizations in Central New York. Initially launched as the Neighborhood Leadership Program, the program has taught hands-on skills to hundreds of organizations working to improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

“TLC has been the perfect opportunity for UPSTAR Academy,” said Grant. “The model that they are teaching and the skills that we are learning, it’s definitely everything we needed to grow our program. We have a great grassroots relationship, but there is still a way of doing business that we definitely need to learn from.”

Over the course of eight months, TLC offers monthly interactive training sessions that cover topics such as how to lead productive meetings and projects, gather community support and use available community resources to build strong partnerships. The sessions are facilitated by Stephens, executive director of The Good Life Youth Foundation and Beth Broadway, executive director of Interfaith Works.

The class at this point is like a close-knit family. They’ve been attending TLC together for over four months now and every success encountered is another milestone celebrated by all.

One of today’s topics is navigating power dynamics. To kick off the conversation, Stephens and Broadway gear up for the “Star Power” game – one of TLC’s most anticipated interactive games in the curriculum.  The lesson speaks to leadership and communications challenges that many organizations endure and the different ways individuals and organizations come to have power. UPSTAR Academy is no different.

“Going into a business relationship with your brother and best friend is something totally different,” said Reed. “We really had to figure out how we were going to work side-by-side. Our egos can’t get in the way. We might have a vision of where we want it to go – and that’s great – but the other guys have a vision as well. We finally figured out that – OK – this is your lane, this is mine.”

UPSTAR Academy serves roughly 60 children. Each one of them brings a story that is relatable to Reed, Grant and Robinson. Growing up in extreme poverty, a majority of their friends have either passed away or are incarcerated. Determined to not be a statistic, the three of them set out to break the cycle.

“We are tired of having conversations like, ‘Where are the males at?’ We want to change the community one kid at a time,” said Reed. “And I think we are on the right track to accomplishing that.

“We really want to take this program to the next level, and TLC is helping us do that. When a child becomes part of the UPSTAR Academy family, that part is such a big deal. All of us do the best we can to be role models and set a good example.”

Over its 25-year history, nearly 450 individuals have graduated from TLC and more than $280,000 in small grants have been awarded toward the graduates’ community projects. Learn more about TLC at cnycf.org/tlc.

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