Community leaders are everywhere: GO! Austin/¡VAMOS! Austin

On first glance, Kurt Cadena-Mitchell seems an unlikely person to spearhead a shift in health outcomes for an entire community. Sporting a black button-up shirt, white tie and short, appealingly spikey hair, he looks far younger than his 25 years. But as soon as he opens his mouth, all doubts fall away. This man is clearly someone with the ability to galvanize both consensus and action.

Cadena-Mitchell is the Dove Springs Community Programs Coordinator for GO! Austin/¡VAMOS! Austin (GAVA), a place-based initiative designed to help decrease childhood obesity in key Austin, TX neighborhoods.

Funded by the foundation, the program’s goal is two-fold: To change health outcomes in key communities, and to create a replicable framework that marries evidenced-based strategies to community-members’ highest priority concerns.

How do you create leaders from within the community?

The multiyear GAVA effort in Dove Springs began in 2012. We chose the Dove Springs community as our ground zero in part because it has the highest obesity prevalence in Austin and in part because it’s a hotbed of neighborhood activism. And while the project is still in relatively early days, we’ve already gained enormous insight into both the strategies we need to implement at the community level, and the people we need to partner with to make that happen.

Cadena-Mitchell is the key to finding those people. In this job, he isn’t just tasked with identifying existing leaders and gaining their buy-in to the foundation’s programmatic approach.

His bigger role lies in bringing people together, getting them to articulate their concerns and priorities, and only later mapping them to our goals. What makes Cadena-Mitchell extraordinary at this work is his conviction that, ultimately, his job is to make himself — and his job — obsolete. “Everyone wants to change environments and infrastructures, and that’s important,” he says.

“But the bigger question is: How do you create leaders from within the community? How do you operationalize that? And finding an answer is critical. Otherwise, what’s going to happen when my funding ends and I go away? What happens if you don’t have someone who’s paid to be on point and have this eclectic skill set?

“You’re going to need leadership from different people. So, my job is to cultivate that ability where I can.”

In the fight to curb childhood obesity, change comes step by painstaking step: One family, one park, one street and one community, at a time. It also comes one leader at a time.

Operationalizing leadership development: Never go alone, learn to spot leaders in the wild, and more

In Dove Springs, Cadena-Mitchell’s passion translates into a clear-eyed tactical approach to building up and empowering other leaders. His rules of engagement are simple[i]:

1. Do nothing for others they can do for themselves.

The goal here, says Cadena-Mitchell, is to cultivate neighborhood leaders’ ability to drive change without outside assistance. “There’s a park where we’re trying to build a soccer field because that’s what parents have asked for. It would be relatively easy for me to call up the parks department and get things rolling. Instead, a neighborhood leader is doing that work. She’s never worked in this capacity before, but she’s doing a tremendous job, and I think they’re going to pull this off.”

2. Always take a partner.

Cadena-Mitchell partners with at least one community member when he attends any meeting, using the meetings as an opportunity to develop new leaders and as an opportunity to ensure that the community is driving the agenda, not him. “The goal is to ensure that you don’t run three steps ahead of your leaders. Having a community member present the agenda helps to ensure that I don’t run my vision forward, because they’re in there with me to move their vision forward.”

3. Look at relationships as a key output of the work.

“It is much more important to build a relationship than to get something from the relationship,” says Cadena-Mitchell. “You want to be friends with the president, for instance, of the PTA so that that if we’re trying to schedule an important community meeting, the PTA doesn’t schedule a big carnival at the same time.”

4. Know what makes a leader, and learn to spot potential leaders in the wild.

How do you know if someone is a leader? “You know that if they have a following,” says Cadena Mitchell. “You know that if they bring 10 people with them. Defining leaders that way prevents us from identifying as a leader someone who’s disconnected from the community—someone who claims leadership, but who doesn’t speak with integrity on behalf of anyone else.”

In the fight to curb childhood obesity, change comes step by painstaking step: One family, one park, one street and one community, at a time. It also comes one leader at a time.  In Cadena-Mitchell, we’ve found an organizer who recognizes that his biggest contribution is to seed the community with leaders–moms, dads and even kids–who know how to work all the angles to make sure that victories happen today, tomorrow and in the future.

This post is an edit of a version that originally ran on CommunityCommons.org.

[i] Cadena-Mitchell is scrupulous in pointing out that his operating principles were originally articulated by the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national community organizing network established in 1940. Cadena-Mitchell is an active volunteer with the Austin branch of IAF, Austin Interfaith.