By Liz Massey, September 2016 Issue.

In Phoenix, a city known for its population churn, it's often a badge of honor to assert one’s status as a native. But laying claim to being a “desert rat” isn't the only way to prove that you really, really love this place.

Becoming involved with Valley Leadership (VL), a nonprofit dedicated to equipping community leaders with the tools to transform the greater Phoenix area, is another method, according to recent VL alumnus Travis Shumake.

Travis Shumake. Photo by Scotty Kirby.

“If someone wanted to offer an undergraduate degree in how Phoenix works, [VL] would be it,” he said of his experience in Class 37 of Valley Leadership Institute, the organization’s flagship program.

As a case in point, Shumake offered his experience at the first of nine classroom instructional sessions he attended. It was a class on infrastructure, and Shumake went in thinking he'd receive some general information about how the city functioned. Instead, he said, he and his classmates learned about how the nine canals located within the city operate, even discovering the direction in which the water in each one flows.

Shumake is one of growing number of openly LGBTQ local citizens who have graduated from VL during its nearly 40-year history. What he and other attendees say they have gained through this experience is in-depth knowledge about the social, economic, cultural and government sectors of Phoenix and access to a deep network of civic-minded peers. Additionally, they have found that working together with a wide range of fellow leaders provided them with a opportunity to represent the LGBTQ community in a constructive, non-conflictual manner to others.

Creating “Change Agents” 

According to its President and CEO Christy Moore, Valley Leadership was created in the late 1970s through the efforts of members of civic groups such as the Phoenix 40 and Greater Phoenix Leadership.

“Phoenix needed change agents,” Moore explained. “We are the first and largest organization focused on creating change agents here.”

When Class 38 of VL got underway last month, its members joined a network of more than 3,000 program participants. The class members have been selected via a rigorous application process involving essays, letters of recommendations and an interview, which Shumake likened to “applying for college all over again.”

Out of the many applications submitted each year, alumni and community leaders select around 50 candidates to comprise the Institute class.

The organization aims for diversity on all levels, including cultural, social and economic, as well as diversity in gender identity and/or sexual orientation status. About one-third of those selected are from nonprofits, one-third are from corporate or business settings and one-third are employed by government agencies.

One commonality for all VL Institute class members is that they are established leaders, Moore said. Applicants must demonstrate their history of leadership in a workplace, social, community, church or other setting.

“Institute candidates are able to understand complex issues, and they are ready to step into solving these problems,” she said.

Learning Inside, and Outside, the Classroom

Christy Moore, Valley Leadership president and CEO. Courtesy photo.

At the heart of the VL Institute are the nine instructional sessions, known as “program days,” which offer concentrated doses of information about various aspects of Valley life. Topics include healthcare, arts and culture, the city’s infrastructure, quality of life and much more.

According to Moore, the program days help participants gain “contextual intelligence” that is intended to make them better-informed decision makers. In-class experiences are supplemented with tours of prisons, schools, police ride-a-longs, etc., to augment understanding of key issues.

Shumake said that the tours and class sessions helped him see how numerous elements of Phoenix functioned together smoothly.

“You see the power that these sectors have and the role each has to play,” he said.

The final, and possibly most important, part of the VL experience is the group project in which each member participates. After their thinking styles and personalities are assessed through a testing process known as Emergenetics, VL class members are placed in groups of about seven or eight people, intentionally paired with other leaders who complement their strengths.

According to Moore, this approach ensures each group was operating with a “whole brain.” Groups are provided with training in the discipline of design thinking, a human-centered, collaborative protocol for creating solutions to a specific challenge. After that, the group chooses their project, which typically identifies a need in the community and develops a method of addressing it.

In the case of Shumake’s group, the members partnered with the Foundation for Senior Living (FSL) to develop an “Experience of a Lifetime” program to fulfill a wish for a low-income older adult who would not otherwise be able to achieve it.

Each of the eight group members was able to lead one of the experiences, which included activities such as playing golf at the Arizona Biltmore resort and taking a hike in the mountains after many years away from the sport. The group worked with FSL to set up “Experience of a Lifetime” as an ongoing program of FSL after their VL class had graduated.

Shumake said that the group work on the project was instrumental in helping the leaders in his class become more open to problem solving with people from diverse backgrounds.

“Those group conversations break down the stereotype that we can’t work together, or that there will be a barrier to working together,” he said. “When you put (that many) leaders in a room, you learn to communicate and not compete … and actually get stuff done.”

Valley Leadership Class 37. Photo courtesy of facebook.com/valleyleadership.

Becoming Part of a Greater Network

Both Moore and Shumake identified the personal connections forged through VL – both within classes and small groups and between alumni from other classes – as one of the greatest assets for participants in the program.

VL has a staff member dedicated to alumni programming, and the organization hosts a monthly get-together for graduates. An alumni e-newsletter regularly shares additional requests for resources and networking connections.

Additionally, Moore said she’s been known to connect alumni from various classes when one of them asks for help with raising awareness around an initiative, finding quality job candidates or getting a project off the ground.

“We consider Valley Leadership a lifetime commitment to our alumni,” Moore said. “We’re here to link them up with opportunities that align with their passions.”

Prior to his involvement in VL, Shumake had been involved in a mix of community activities, including serving as the fundraising chair for the LGBTQ youth support organization one n ten, co-chairing the 2016 Dancing With The Bars competition and co-chairing Aunt Rita’s 2016 RED Brunch.

After experiencing Valley Leadership, Shumake said he felt encouraged to reach for whatever leadership opportunity he felt passionate about, regardless of whether it was an LGBTQ organization or not. As such, he currently serves on the board of directors for Ronald McDonald House Charities, Phoenix Suns Charities and he also founded the Downtown Phoenix Neighborhood Alliance.

“Sometimes, we don’t step outside of our own organizations – we’re afraid of not being respected as leaders,” he said. “Valley Leadership has given me renewed confidence to take leadership positions outside of LGBTQ organizations.”

Involvement in the organization has also provided a boost to Shumake’s career. He said his employer (CityScape Residences) paid for his Valley Leadership experience, knowing that it would distinguish him among his professional peers. He also said that he feels that his status as a VL graduate would bolster his reputation if he were to search for a new job.

“People know what Valley Leadership is and what it brings, and what you now have as a result of being involved with it,” he said. “For example, I am not sure I would have made the Business Journal’s list of 40 under 40 without VL on my resume.”

Another advantage to being involved with VL’s programs as a LGBTQ participant and alum is the opportunity to be viewed as an equal peer among community leaders, Shumake asserted.

“We end up representing the LGBTQ community,” he noted. “I’ve had many of my classmates say to me, ‘I’ve enjoyed getting to know you, and you’ve changed my view on x, y, and z issues.’”

Reshaping a Personal Vision of Leadership

VL’s approach to developing local leaders often sparked new insights and ideas in participants as they moved through the experience, Moore noted.

“Many people have ‘aha moments’ [in our program] and become more self-aware,” she said. “People will tell me that VL has reshaped their thinking and given them new opportunities to serve.”

According to Shumake, VL helped him refine his vision of himself as a leader. Prior to his participation in the program, he said, he would usually strategize how he might eventually become the top leader for any organization with which he became engaged.

“I realized as a tresult of VL that my strengths are in connecting people and resources to reach a common goal,” he said. “It’s helped me figure out what to do with my life. I had wanted since about fifth grade to end up becoming the mayor of Phoenix, but now I’ve found other ways to serve the community that better fit my strengths and personality.”

To learn more about Valley Leadership, including its Community Dialog Series events that are open to the public, visit valleyleadership.org.

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