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June 21, 2024

Gavilan hosts youth leadership conference

Courtesy of Jan Janes from Gavilan College:

Students from area high schools and Gavilan College convened at the first Youth Leadership conference to learn leadership and organizational skills from local community activists.

Dr. Kathleen Rose, Superintendent/President of Gavilan College, opened the conference wondering what the students might be thinking: What will the conference be about? Will the food be good? Will it be boring? Will I learn what kind of leader I am?

“When I started my leadership journey 40 years ago, I didn’t wake up and decide to be a college president,” she said. “My leadership journey began with simply living my life every day. Just like you are doing.”

Courtesy of Gavilan College.

She asked students to turn to the person next to them and name a leader. The room filled with student responses. What do leaders do, she asked next. And they responded. Do we need better leaders? Do you see yourself as a future leader, and how? With each question, students throughout the room offered their responses to her and to their fellow students.

“Now together,” she said, “Try this out – I am a leader!”

The leadership conference convened less than a week after the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, and Dr. Rose mentioned the tragedy in her remarks. “Here’s a little about what I know about leadership,” she said. “It grows with you and it deepens with experience.” She talked about being together and talking, expressing feelings as steps in recovery.

“And also leadership and education,” Dr. Rose said. “You are here today as a part of that process.” She outlined the five ingredients of leadership as guiding vision, passion, integrity, curiosity and daring.

“Your ability to be resilient will grow,” she said. “I hope you keep saying ‘I am a leader’ over the next two days, and that you associate Gavilan as a place for leadership.”

Dr. Rose explained how the leadership conference came to pass and introduced Elvira Zaragoza Robinson, the mastermind behind it. “She is both intense and also the most loving person,” said Dr. Rose, “And she served on the Gavilan College Board of Trustees for more than 20 years.”

Robinson thanked Dr. Rose and the college for agreeing to sponsor the conference. “Yes, yes, and yes,” she said, “Everyone said yes!”

Turning toward the students, she said, “For each and every one of you sitting in the room, we want to touch you, and we want you to benefit from our experience.”

Robinson attended SJSU, earned her law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law, was admitted to the bar in 1976, and was the first Latina attorney hired by Santa Clara County. She handled thousands of cases, taught at several law schools and is known statewide for her work in public law and with La Raza.

“It was my Spanish teacher who encouraged me to become a lawyer,” said Robinson. “We are here to learn and to be touched by others.”

She introduced the workshop speakers for the day: Pastor G.E. Harris and José Yengue.

Dr. Harris, a coach, trainer and speaker, previously worked as a prison warden with 7,000 inmates and 1,500 employees. But he started life as an abandoned baby who was raised by his grandmother in the Central Valley. He never expected to graduate high school, let alone college. The best job he could expect was to be a janitor.

“I have faith in you,” Dr. Harris told the students. “You are like a picture I have seen a thousand times.” He emphasized the importance of influence and using it in a positive way.

José Yengue, an actor who flew in from Los Angeles, is the founder of Arts for Tomorrow established to harness the transformational power and healing of the arts. He was introduced to acting classes by his mother, not because he wanted to act, but as a tool to address being overweight and to help correct a stutter.

“As a kid I was out of control, angry,” he said. “Really angry. I felt everything passionately. First crush? Really in love. Heartbroken? Really heartbroken.”

He told the students he would teach them some of the tools famous actors use to bring their characters to life in front of the camera. “So you can bring your own characters, as leaders, to life.”

Keynote speaker Rolanda Pierre Dixon, former Assistant District Attorney for Santa Clara County for 30 years, shared her path to success.

One of four children raised by a single mother, Dixon saw how hard her mother worked to earn an LVN and support the family. “I had a mother who cared and sisters coming up behind me,” she said. “Everything I did, my little sisters were watching me. Setting an example – that’s a leader.”

Her schoolwork was noticed in junior high and she was offered placement in advanced classes. Questioned about life goals as she began high school, Dixon offered a typical teenage answer. “I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow. How do I know what I’m going to do with my life?” Her teacher’s response: You’re a good student, you write and speak well. Why don’t you become a lawyer? The path was set.

“It was so important having family and community support,” she said, “And teachers who help you stay on the path.”

Dixon shared with the conference attendees her exploits at SJSU, where she hid in her dormitory room, studying, during the day, could party with her friends in the evening and still achieve high grades, earn scholarships and graduate with honors.

“As a leader, you’ve got to push yourself,” said Dixon. “Because when you fail, you fail alone.”

Accepted into Santa Clara University School of Law on a scholarship, Dixon still needed to earn money to pay for books. She described her summer jobs working at a cement plant, digging holes and dodging rattlesnakes, later learning how to pack dynamite because that job paid more.

While at law school, Dixon was president of the black law school association, 8 students out of 300, some of whom were struggling to pass their classes. She learned contract law well enough to tutor the struggling students on weekends in her apartment while still doing her own course work. When word got out, the number swelled to 50 students. After much negotiation, the school made it a paid position.

“I take no to mean yes,” said Dixon. “I’m going to work around this. I am committed, and I am a leader.”

“What leadership skills do you see in that person, in yourself?” Students wrote down the leadership attributes they ‘saw’ in their imaginary photos. The class discussed the many ways that personality traits are leadership qualities.

On the second day of the leadership conference, participants heard testimonials from successful graduates, gained information about careers from practicing professionals and learned about legal issues affecting young adults and teens. The program concluded with a question and answer session that included the first day’s workshop leaders.