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Reflections on Leadership Development from a Community Development Practitioner

Zoraima Diaz-Pineda is the La Puerta Program Manager with the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville, Texas. As program manager, she is responsible for the planning, implementation, and evaluation of financial capability programs.

The LISC Institute asked Zoraima to reflect on the current state of leadership development in Community Development given her experience as a practitioner and participation in the Rubinger Fellowship program and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. The article below summarizes her reflections.

What are the key issues around leadership development in the community development field from your perspective?

A. Generational shift.

The field and many long-standing organizations are seeing many “first-generation,” founding directors retire and new leaders beginning to fill the gap.  Many of these first-generation leaders emerged directly from grass-roots organizing and started non-profit organizations designed to meet the needs of the marginalized communities they served.  Typically, they were deeply rooted in the community and developed organizational cultures defined by a strong work ethic and commitment to producing the highest quality results. 

Many of the younger leaders poised to replace these pioneers are often not as intrinsically connected to the communities they serve and, instead, emerge directly from institutions of higher education.  While strong academic backgrounds equip new leaders with the requisite technical expertise the field demands, especially as it evolves to resemble the private sector in many ways, the new generation of leaders can at times struggles to apply theory into practice on the ground. 

The reality is that community development organizations are becoming hybrid organizations— mission-based organizations seeking to solve social problems, while also engaging in commercial activities.  This trend now requires the first-generation leaders and those who succeed them to possess a certain business acumen while still being responsive to and informed by the voices of the individuals and families they serve as they develop programs, policies and products. 

B. Chronic Survival Mode and Capacity Constraints

Community development organizations often serve individuals and families living in chronic survival mode, caught in a cycle of financial stress due to low-wages, constant income volatility, and lack of access to affordable credit.  Similarly, many non-profit organizations also operate in a constant state of crisis, especially in the current political and fiscal climate where budget cuts at the federal level have deprived organizations with critical capital to invest in local communities. 

Many community development organizations originated to create inclusive economies, increase equity in neighborhoods suffering from decades of disinvestment, and to promote social justice.  Now more than ever, however, leaders in the field are hard-pressed to find innovative financing solutions that leverage public, private and philanthropic resources to create integrated programs and products that serve low-income individuals while promoting the narrative within persistent poverty communities that reflects the intrinsic hope, ingenuity and relentless commitment to improvement shared by the individuals in the communities they serve. 

C. Intentional Leadership Development

Individuals working in community development are often servant-leaders with a strong internal moral compass guiding their work.  They possess an innate desire to diligently apply all their abilities to improve the lives of the individuals in the communities they serve.  Collectively, we often find ourselves wishing there were simply more hours in the day to accomplish all the pressing tasks at hand.  This leaves little time or energy to think about how we work, seek guidance or examples from individuals with more tenure and experience in the field, or to research strategies that could facilitate leadership development in our organizations. 


Why do you think that leadership at Community Development organizations are often not representative of the communities that they serve. Are these organizations doing enough to cultivate leaders from the places they work? If not, what more could they do? 

The demographic landscape of urban and rural communities throughout the United States is rapidly transforming and it is predicted that, by the middle of this century, communities of color will comprise the majority of residents in cities and suburban areas.  Leaders within community development have long sought to increase access to affordable housing, high quality public education and health care for communities of color.  In order to cultivate organic leadership from the communities served, we must strive to create supportive work environments.  Young professionals and community organizers, specifically women of color, need access to workplaces that support their professional trajectories.  Community development organizations can take the lead by implementing living wages for all staff, supporting higher educational pursuits for existing staff, paid family leave policies and remote work arrangements that promote healthy work and family balance. 


What types of leadership development programs have you participated? What has your experience been like? What made them worthwhile or less useful? Are there any other resources you’ve found valuable as you seek to advance in the field?

At an early age I was blessed to learn the example of servant leadership from my parents who worked as farm worker labor organizers. My first exposure to a formal leadership development program was as a National Hispanic Institute participant where I was immersed in an intense preparation to learn the art of debate, public speaking, and event production under the guidance of Ernie and Gloria Nieto and Terrie Rabago.  While a student at UT Austin and Brandeis University, Dr. Angela Valenzuela, Jordana Barton, Ana Marie Argilagos, and Dr. Janet Boguslaw were instrumental figures who served as examples of true citizen scholars, reaching beyond the traditional ivory tower to use their research to inform policy and program development.  As a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Fellow I benefited tremendously from the guidance of Carmen Jorge and Marco Davis from whom I learned the importance of coalition building across Latino communities throughout the United States.  Over the last 20 years Dr. Barabara Robles (Federal Board of Governors) has selflessly invested in my personal, academic and professional development. Under her tutelage I gained exposure to public policy, community development and assets building fields, and learned the craft of participatory action research.  She encouraged me to attend graduate school and assisted me to find my passion to engage in reasearch, writing and program and policy development that increase the wealth trajectories of low-income Latino families.  

I have also participated in the Rubinger Fellowship and have found the peer-to-peer exchange with other fellows immensely insightful as I have learned new strategies to approach my work from informal conversations with the other fellows.  I feel well versed in my subject matter, expanding opportunities for low-income Latino families to achieve financial health and build long-term wealth, and less confident in my ability to forge a path for my own professional development.  Participating in the Rubinger Fellowship has challenged me to take time away from ‘doing’ my work to think about how to structure my time, interests and abilities intentionally to engage in ‘deep work’. 

Among the various fellows, one consistent theme has emerged: as servant leaders we are each so committed to our work we are often stretched to capacity.  I often find myself caught in a mode where I strive to enroll one more family in our IDA program, file one more tax return, coach one more couple hoping to save enough for a downpayment, write one more family narrative, focused on helping one more family, and have learned from others in our cohort of the importance of carving time away from ‘active work’ to analyze client outcomes and reflect on the process involved in my day-to-day work. 


Please share your top 3 recommendations for addressing leadership development in the field of community development (current leaders and future leaders).

1. Formal Mentorship Program.  Many other industries maintain mentorship programs where younger leaders are formally paired with someone within the field to serve as their mentor.  Perhaps the various community development organizations could develop a collective of individuals who would be willing to serve as a mentor and then solicit requests from younger members in the field who would be interested in being assigned a mentor.  Ideally mentors and mentees would be paired in the same city, but could also engage virtually should one reside in a geographically isolated area. 

2.  Perhaps another avenue to cultivate a pipeline of leaders within the field is to establish a fund to support student loan repayment.  Although the costs of undergraduate and graduate schools have increased exponentially, wages in essence remain stagnant, and, as a result, young professionals often find it difficult to make a long term commitment to working in the field while maintaining their personal household financial balance sheets, largely stressed by looming student loans.  Perhaps national community development intermediary organizations could create a Student Loan Repayment Fund to support emerging leaders as they maintain their commitment within the field. 

3. In addition to developing a leadership pipeline and student loan repayment fund perhaps LISC could invest in developing a set of case studies highlighting “first-generation" community development leaders.  Although individuals learn through various modalities, a collection of community development leaders’ stories or an oral history of their most valuable lessons gained during their tenure within the field would serve as examples for emerging leaders to study and apply as they traverse their own professional journey.