Fostering collaboration, commitment and continued community engagement from GR to the lakeshore

The LEADeres program at Ferris State University (FSU) is now in its 10th year of developing leaders out of the West Michigan Latinx community. In that period, this program has helped form judges, business leaders, educators and others who play a role in shaping the identity and future of this region.

Cohorts of developing Latinx professionals are brought together once a month for six daylong segments convening at different venues in Grand Rapids, for those in the Grand Rapids cohort, or in Holland, Grand Haven, Spring Lake or Muskegon for those in the Lakeshore cohort. During these times, they focus on growing leadership skills by:
  • Networking with and learning from seasoned community and civic leaders.
  • Increasing cultural intelligence.
  • Practicing with tools that support self-reflection, personal growth and development.
  • Developing a personal development plan that emphasizes growth at work and in the community.
  • Working on a team and using innovation strategies to explore and present recommendations to address community and business issues.
Over 150 Latinx professionals have gone through the LEADeres program, each connected to resources that help them plan career paths that value their civic and professional life journeys as well as cultural identity.

Through relationships with mentors, role models and other people who can help them get jobs after they graduate, many students in the program credit it for helping them achieve their professional goals.

Javier Cervantes - 2017

Javier Cervantes, communications coordinator for Grand Rapids Public Schools, went through the third cohort of the program in 2017 after being introduced to it by a former co-worker.

"I signed up with one of my friends who, at the time, worked for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce," Cervantes says. "It was better knowing some individuals in that group. I was also able to build relationships and friendships with new people that I still talk to today."

Javier Cervantes"It has helped me out tremendously because I know that we're in similar spaces sometimes, but we don't always have the time to get to know each other on a deeper level," he adds.

Cervantes leveraged those connections to recruit a member of his cohort. It was during his LEADeres experience that Cervantes met a talented graphic designer and website content creator. When an opening came up at GRPS, Cervantes reached out and asked her to interview. She's been working with the school for more than a year now.

"When you know someone from your cohort, you can tap into their network as well," Cervantes says. "You can lean on your cohort and they can connect you with someone that can do that kind of work [you’re looking for]. It's been a tremendous help."

Cervantes has also helped promote the program. When he joined the board of directors for the Hispanic Center of West Michigan, he shared his LEADeres experience with others on the board.

"That caught a lot of attention, and people were asking me for more on the program and how it could help them," he says.

The LEADeres program gains at least one new participant a year, and some years three or four, thanks to Cervantes' advocacy. He talks to the individuals who are interested in learning more about what the program entails and the commitment required. The conversations are usually one-on-one via Zoom or a phone call "just to talk about my experience, how it's helped me and how it continues to help me till this day," Cervantes says.

Juanita Bocanegra - 2018

Juanita Bocanegra completed the LEADeres program in 2018 while she was working as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ottawa County.

She was involved in another leadership program through the West Coast Chamber of Commerce when she learned about LEADeres and wanted to compare the two programs, learn what the differences were and potentially bring a similar program to the lakeshore. 

Juanita F. Bocanegra"I hesitated, to be honest, because I was already working full time," Bocanegra says. "I had a lot of things going. I'm with numerous boards. I was already doing a leadership class and the idea of doing another leadership class on the weekends was not super exciting, but I committed to it."

Up until attending LEADeres, Bocanegra says she had been regularly asked when she was going to run for judge. She would typically decline with, 'Never. I love being an assistant prosecutor.'"

"I honestly thought I would retire either [as] an assistant prosecutor or perhaps the prosecutor one day," she says.

During one of the last sessions of the 2018 cohort, a presenter invited participants to share their action plans moving forward.

Bocanegra stood up and told her cohort, "I will run for the next seat when there's a seat on the bench that becomes open. I will run for that opportunity."

It had always been easier for Bocanegra to turn down the idea of running for judge. After sharing her commitment with the cohort, however, there was no going back.

"I wasn't sure I wanted to fully consider that or commit to it," Bocanegra says. "I don't like politics. I don't like popularity contests. That aspect of it was the least appealing to me. But it was during that class that I committed to do it. And, when the opportunity came up, it was one of my friends from that class that was the first person to contact me to say, 'This is what you said in that class. How can I support you?"

That friend, Reyna Masko, has since become one of Bocanegra's biggest supporters "spending countless hours on the campaign and working incredibly hard to get me support and help me win votes," Bocanegra says.

The Ottawa County 58th District Court judge says she is looking forward to helping a future cohort by sharing her experience when the next opportunity arises.

Reyna Masko  - 2018

While living in Grand Haven, Masko had heard her Grand Rapids colleagues speaking highly of the LEADeres program. Like Bocanegra, she was also looking for a Latino-centric lakeshore-based resource to help community members become community leaders, but couldn't find anything in Grand Haven, Muskegon or Holland.

Reyna MaskoMasko has been devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for more than a decade and in 2013 chaired a cultural intelligence initiative for the county. She also helped establish Ottawa County's diversity, equity and inclusion department, now headed by Robyn Afrik. Masko is involved with continued diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the court system and cofounded of the Grand Haven Hispanic Heritage Fiesta.

Living in Grand Haven, Masko says she appreciates the West Coast Chamber's leadership program for its focus on getting to know community and local resources. What she found unique in LEADeres was a focus on bringing out an individual's strengths and weaknesses and using that understanding to navigate the professional world of leadership styles and salary negotiation.

She also found a call to action.

"I feel like the program got me equipped to do things," Masko says. "It was during the civic engagement piece when Juanita decided she was running for judge. So, I decided to help her. I became her campaign manager."

A county employee for 22 years, Masko hasn't seen her day job change dramatically since going through the program, but it has motivated her to take on other impactful initiatives. She says she never imagined she would ever be helping run a campaign.

"I knew that the need was there for change and I personally know her so I completely support her as a professional and as a friend," Masko says. "That was the first big step I took out of that program."

Through work on Bocanegra's campaign and continued conversations with Carlos Sanchez, director of the Latino Business and Economic Development Center at FSU, Masko helped establish the Tri-Cities Puentes initiative (TCPI), a nonprofit that brings principles and training from the LEADeres program to the lakeshore.

“A few years back, we learned that for some participants from the lakeshore driving to GR was an issue, particularly in the winter sessions,” Sanchez says.”On top of that, the high concentration of Latinx professionals in that area demanded [that we] pay attention to that issue.”

Today, Masko also sits on the advisory council for LEADeres, has contributed to the program as a panelist for the civic engagement portion of the Grand Rapids cohort, and is now working closely with Sanchez on new cohorts held by TCPI.

Sanchez says he tried to rally support for a lakeshore program four years ago but “It wasn’t until Reyna joined the efforts when we succeeded to get financial support from the Grand Haven Community Foundation for a pilot cohort in 2021.”

The Grand Haven Area Community Foundation granted $40,000 to launch the first TCPI cohort. Additional private support came from Independent Bank, Gentex and other companies based along the lakeshore. More recently, a second cohort is going through the program, thanks to a $28,000 grant from the Holland/Zeeland Community Foundation.

Speaking up and engaging within the community

A decade in, Sanchez says the impact the LEADeres program has made on people is beyond what he expected. Several events stick out as points of pride but he holds one example of community engagement particularly close.

There was a local community project driven by different nonprofits who were trying to develop a property in a predominantly Latino area in town.

“People in the community were not too happy with the project,” Sanchez says. “Some people in the community asked to sit down with the organizations that were developing the area and it was somewhat contentious. But, I realized that those in the community who were asking the questions and trying to keep the developers accountable, eight out of the 10 had gone through the LEADeres program.” 

One of the pillars of the LEADeres program is Community & Civic Engagement. Participants are asked to interact with political and community leaders and identify personal barriers to becoming involved in the community. 

“I spoke to someone I know from the University, ‘Do you realize that this is what we are preparing them for? To hold authority accountable, to challenge authority and to challenge the status quo?’” he says.

The answer was perhaps an obvious, “Yes,” but never before illustrated so appropriately.

”It was a very proud moment for me,” Sanchez says. “Now I see myself on the other side of it. They are challenging me and asking me to be accountable.”

The coming months will see a new cohort and new initiatives, Sanchez says, eager to unveil what he calls “LEADeres 2.0.”

This solutions journalism story is part of a three-part LEADeres series on its past, present, and future impact on the West Michigan region. Underwriting for this editorially independent series was made possible through Ferris State University.

Photos courtesy of LEADeres.

Matthew Russell is a writer and maker living in West Michigan. Matthew has over 20 years of experience as a journalist for newspapers and magazines in the Midwest, has been published in two books about Grand Rapids history, and is currently improving his skills as an amateur apiarist while building a sustainable microfarm.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.