Advocacy IS Leadership: The Junior League Model of Public Leadership Development

16 Nov

My Leadership Voices partner Dawn and I first met in 2001 on an advocacy lobbying trip for the Junior League of Central and North Brevard (JLCNB) Public Affairs Committee to Tallahassee.

We were introduced by Michelle Fischer, an inspiring woman who led our League’s efforts to advocate for Booster Seat legislation to protect children between the ages of four to eight years who were not required by Florida law to use these life-saving devices. (Michelle’s League volunteer experience soon led her to become a public life safety specialist who founded several child safety organizations.)

I was new to the League and Dawn was fairly new to Brevard County. As Public Relations and Marketing Director for a large zoo in the middle of a capital campaign, I was encouraged to join the JLCNB by a zoo board member who convinced me that it would be a good networking opportunity outside my Chamber of Commerce comfort zone. While I was still under the illusion that Junior Leaguers were “ladies who lunch,” I joined the Public Affairs committee because it seemed the most aligned activity to my interests. Dawn, who was working as Marketing Director for a multi-million company at the time, had already discovered the value of the league.

As we shared our life story elevator speeches, we discovered our backgrounds were very similar in terms of family, marriage, educational focus, and work experience. We were similar in age, both living the DINK life, and we both had well-defined “joiner” tendencies and public service motivation (PSM). We became fast friends and found ourselves co-chairing the Public Affairs committee when Michelle moved on to start the Brevard County SAFEKIDS chapter.

Although I ceased active membership in the League shortly after having preemie twins, when I later started writing for the Florida Today ABOUT ME Magazine for Women, I did stories on the League. I enjoyed dispelling misconceptions about the organization. Similar to Meredith Lepore’s piece, “This Isn’t Your Mother’s Junior League: What Every Career Woman Should Know,” I did a story on Maro Nime, the JLCNB president at the time and a successful engineer for United Space Alliance, to exemplify how my original stereotypical view had been completely wrong.

The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. (AJLI) is an organization of women committed to promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Its purpose is exclusively educational and charitable.

The League’s mission to support women’s leadership development through training and experience in everything from advocacy to fund development has had an enormous impact to encourage women to use and combine their powerful voices. 

What I always found the most appealing about our League was the exercises in consensus building. Every few years, members would present their ideas for “signature projects” to focus support. The entire membership was educated on each and then voted for one or two. Once decided, the entire membership and every committee threw all support behind accomplishing the project goals. Those whose projects were not chosen did not take their toys and go home. We voted together. We made a decision together. Then we all moved forward immediately to make a difference.

It is a powerful lesson if you take a step back and look at the big picture. 

In order to better our shared community where there were thousands of competing issues and needs, we would choose one or two projects which we could agree would have the biggest impact and satisfy our mission. We did not get bogged down in side debates that could have derailed our primary goals. We took the time to become educated on the issues, voted to choose those we could agree on, and then moved forward as a team.

As volunteers, we were trained in advocacy techniques, political strategy, communications and management strategies, and then we formed organizational units to tackle the different  tasks needed to accomplish the shared goal. Instead of focusing on our differences, we learned to work with and respect one another for commitment to the shared goal.

Working together toward shared goals also forged strong friendships and bonds. These relationships served us all well on other issues and projects we worked on for other organizations and in our businesses. We found consensus and common shared goals first. We got to know one another as we worked on the shared goals. We were all able to leverage all of those relationships for a multitude of other important issues over time where coalition building was needed.

How different might our nation be if our elected leaders could follow this model?

You might contend that this model could not work for community and elected leaders because they must deal with all of the issues at hand. Well, we have seen how well our current leaders work together to pass budgets and jobs bills while they are debating personhood amendments.

Perhaps the way past all of this divisiveness is to take a step back and find the common ground service issues with the most support and tackle those first.

Public leaders – be they elected, civil servants, community volunteers, etc., all have at their individual cores a commitment to public service and advocacy for citizens. I thought about this a lot on Veteran’s Day, as I always do when I see a “Support the Troops” bumper sticker next to one that indicates the driver’s commitment to reduce taxes or government services that support the troops once they hang up their military uniforms – quite often to then don the uniform of a civil servant at home.

Why isn’t there a Public Service Appreciation Day?

We have Veteran’s Day, Labor Day – but nothing to recognize those who commit their lives and careers to public service on the home front.

The service of our Vets should never be under appreciated – but neither should the service provided by our first responders, teachers, city and federal engineers, and the other civil servants so often stereotyped by the derogatory lazy “bureaucrat” slurs. Teaching people to hate government has the unfortunate side effects of encouraging negative impressions of all government employees and thus decreases the ranks of the truly gifted who would consider careers of public service.

Perhaps the time has come to focus instead on “service.” Public service. Community service. Faith-based service. Civil service. Military service.

All of these derive from the same internalized desire to work for the betterment of mankind, country, or community. All of these can be increased or decreased among our best and brightest based on how we view those who heed the call. We have all heard great leaders say “I would never want to do the president’s job” but wouldn’t it be better if we once again heard our top business and community leaders say, “what can I do for my country?”

These concerns that the never-ending campaign type politics of personal destruction could deter our greatest leaders to choose business service instead of public service are well founded. Just since starting the Leadership Voices project and searching for public sector leadership voices to follow online, I have been disheartened day after day to find so many excellent business and corporate leadership coaches, publications and strategies — and such a gaping hole when it comes to those voices taking up the message for the public sector.

Irregardless of whether a good business leader would make a good public leader, the missing discussion about public sector leadership training is stunning in an age when the only thing we all agree on is that we need better leaders. 

Training such as that provided to develop the leadership potential of ordinary citizens to get involved in the public/nonprofit community sector. The Junior League has a fantastic model that can be adapted and emulated to encourage service and collaboration for our next generation of leaders.








2 Responses to “Advocacy IS Leadership: The Junior League Model of Public Leadership Development”

  1. lynngolsen November 16, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

    Your call to honor those who serve in the public sector deserves the support of everyone. Why does no one seem to realize that public servants provide drinkable water, sewage and garbage collection, street maintenance, stormwater and flood control — not to mention police and fire protection and public education. I do not want to do without any of those services and I applaud those who work hard to make sure none of us have to do without. Thank you for a well-considered, intelligent article that celebrated common sense and common decency.

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