by Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D. and Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • June- July 2001

Dr. Abelardo VillarrealRosana RodriguezWe are living in an extraordinary time of diversity and change in the midst of educational inequities. This context offers a unique opportunity to celebrate and honor diversity and co-create a reality that pushes our educational systems, families and communities to act in partnership to eliminate inequities.

This is the second in a series of articles aimed at raising awareness of institutional responsibilities to engage families and communities in efforts that create positive educational environments for a diverse student population. This article provides some thoughts and insights on the characteristics of transformative leadership in Latino communities that champions educational equity and excellence for all students.

It is based on experience and promising practices, lessons learned and opportunities for changing leadership gleaned from evaluations provided by ENLACE – ENgaging LAtino Communities in Education – grantees. ENLACE is an initiative which provides resources to kindergarten through college graduation (K-16) partnerships that propose to increase graduation rates of Latino students from high schools and universities. ENLACE is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Intercultural Development Research Association.

Emergent Leaders and Engaged Institutions

Educational leaders are being asked to pay more attention to the success of a diverse student population, to consider themselves stewards of a community’s well-being, and to share responsibility and decision-making with a variety of stakeholders. They must view themselves in new ways that demand new skills, including learning how to work effectively with diverse groups of people, families and students. Sustaining change within this context of diversity requires a redistribution and realignment of control, power and predictability.

We chose to call this new type of leader a “transformative leader,” because of his or her potential to become a change agent within collaboratives that include all stakeholders in the K-16 educational pipeline, including communities and families. Transformative leaders face the challenge of catalyzing the thinking of diverse stakeholders – including non-formal educational partners – whose culture, values and beliefs have not heretofore been acknowledged or appreciated. The long-term impact of this more collaborative educational practice will depend on a leader’s ability to foster a climate of interdependence, relevance and shared accountability. The readiness for co-creating this type of educational reform begins with the leader’s own values, attitudes and skills.

Emergent leaders and advocates for equity and excellence in education must understand the dynamics of an engaged institution. An engaged institution is one that is inclusive of the communities it serves and has positive impact on the quality of education for all students, including Latino students. Consequently, student and community leadership development are integral parts of the overall ENLACE strategy. These concepts are imbedded within the ENLACE institutional engagement objective to partner with community in planning for student success.

With that in mind, institutions approach community in new, comprehensive, dynamic, and creative ways. In so doing, fundamental shifts occur about leadership and about perceptions of community and its implications to successful leadership development. It is the hope that the ENLACE partnerships will demonstrate expertise in the areas of community and leadership development and be guided by an ethos that fosters a receptive and responsive climate for institutional change.

As a result of the planning year, we have gathered hypotheses, which we present here in the hope that they will spark further thought and discussion in the area of leadership for engagement and transformation.

We consider this information a first step toward using what has been learned to begin a concerted effort for ongoing exploration of these issues. We hope this inspires others to join in this journey of inquiry.

A Context for Leadership Development

The community is an essential component of the ENLACE initiative. When completed, the ENLACE initiative will have created better educational environments for learners through new paradigms of engagement for student success. These new paradigms will emerge through community and K-16 partnerships for education-related decision-making; and an emerging cadre of Latino students, administrators, faculty and community members with a shared vision about engaged and transformative leadership.

Recent literature is replete with information on leadership qualities and their impact on successful initiatives. ENLACE is in a unique position to promote the involvement of Latino communities in partnership with K-16 institutions.

The heightened interest and funding in collaborations represents a new understanding of the interaction between an educational system and the increasingly complex environment in which it functions, i.e. its local community.

Communities represent a set of cultural values and beliefs that must be considered by leaders in designing, implementing and evaluating change. In considering community as an integral part of overall systems change and of leadership development, particular attention must be given to the unique leadership qualities that are consistent with the cultural ethos of a group.

A recent study conducted by the National Community for Latino Leadership, Inc. (NCLL) reveals the 20 most desired leadership qualities by Latino communities across geographic regions. These qualities are clustered around character, competence, compassion and community service. These findings serve to inform efforts to create a framework for developing leadership that will benefit educators and community leaders serving Latino student populations. The graph below delineates these qualities by the four clusters.

Latino Leadership Qualities

Source: National Leadership Perspectives. Reflecting an American Vista. The Character and Impact of Latino Leadership, January 2001.

A Transformative Leadership Development Approach

Often, there are some inconsistencies in defining “community.” The concept of community is fundamental to ENLACE in that it reflects a holistic view of the learner and a valuing of the context in which the learner lives and interacts. Each grantee in the network or cluster brings a different perspective or preference to the concept of community.

One underlying definition that is shared by all grantees is that community includes the geographical dimensions that the institution of higher education (IHE) or a particular school district or group of school districts serve.

The second issue involves the dual role of community in the ENLACE initiative. In the same project, community can be both the object of change and the agent of change.

Not only must the community promote change, it must agree to become an object of change. This duality of roles is shared by the K-16 institutions. Sometimes this duality can result in confusion and conflict, especially when one of the partners takes a “you, not I, must change” posture and attitude.

It is important that any changes occurring within each of the partners capitalize on the assets and strengths of the community, rather than view the community from a deficit perspective or a conglomeration of problems to be solved.

The community as an agent of change is best addressed through this question: Who can we call upon as a resource, or who can we mobilize, equip, and support to participate in local education decision-making, programs and systems? The answer is simply to include families and other stakeholders who have a vested interest in the educational success of Latino students.

Other stakeholders include community-based organizations (CBOs) that may represent aspects of the community and are established to respond to specific needs. Examples are youth organizations, parents’ clubs, children’s rights defense groups, and faith communities. These types of CBOs can work with K-16 institutions to create a supportive atmosphere for learners.

Experience has shown that while engaging stakeholders sounds simple, it may not be. Educational organizations must put forth a conscious effort for engagement of this nature to occur.

Once stakeholders have been recruited, the next big challenge is to embrace and practice a new paradigm within the community of possessing valuable assets that are critical to educational decision-making and planning.

With this broader understanding of the term “community,” it becomes easier and more effective to pursue an engagement approach to educational reform.

New Paradigm of Transformative Leadership and Engagement

A credo to preface a transformative leadership development approach that incorporates community might be framed to include the following thoughts:

  • We reaffirm that education is a basic human right. In accordance with this, it is necessary to work together on efforts that allow the realization of this right in defined community clusters, providing maximum support to Latino youth to attain improved educational levels in the scope of promoting community participation in education.
  • To accomplish this, it is necessary to foster the most extensive synergy possible of educational systems with community – inviting, motivating, training, supporting, and thus strengthening families and stimulating the development of leadership.
  • It is the duty of the educational systems from K-16 to become involved creatively in this process, empowering students and the communities in which they live with a view of transforming our educational systems and communities and generating an attitude of increased responsibility for individual and collective well-being.

Through the synergy of educational systems and community, new paradigms of transformative leadership and engagement can emerge that reflect a change in values, a new solidarity and the upholding of the principle that education, and especially higher education, is a right and a viable option for all.

This approach banks on a commitment to value community engagement. Some of the major implications for higher education include the following practices:

  • reassessment of curricula in different undergraduate and graduate courses in order to identify possible solutions to challenges identified by the community;
  • realignment of curriculum to establish a seamless K-16 curriculum;
  • allocation of credit hours for community work studies;
  • additional credit hours for community work activities related to multiple disciplines;
  • additional credit hours for community work itself;
  • making university work accessible to the community (transportation, centers); and
  • additional recruitment efforts in the community.

These, and other steps, will help bring educational institutions to the community, make their services more accessible, and create a synergy for effective partnering. This is indispensable to maintaining a dynamic community that is committed to excellence and to the welfare of its student population.

It is vital to identify the best professors and IHE administrators to interact in community experiences. They must be willing to dedicate prime-time to this task, which implies a willingness to become part of collective learning, solidarity, mutual exchange, and self-criticism. It also implies a commitment to the following:

  • identifying common aspects of various professions in community work approaches, trying to marry the aspects of theory and practice;
  • organizing multi-professional teams that are responsible for conducting projects in various settings; and
  • working with community and service representatives on local activity planning.

In addition, it implies a desire to foster cooperative involvement by professors and students of various professions with communities. Multi-disciplinary work should go beyond being merely the sum of activities performed in each discipline or course. Their collective actions in and with the community must be coherent and contribute to an overall vision developed in concert with the community.

Finally, such an approach means promoting an ongoing discussion among different participants about the developing ENLACE efforts. They must freely discuss advances, limitations, and conflicts to maintain the integrity of the collective experience. This effort can foster trans-university organizational changes that bring about curriculum revisions, a working methodology, and relations with the community and service institutions.

Leadership development in the context of transformation requires favorable conditions to develop work within communities. These include providing faculty with support systems to work with community, keeping good records, giving feedback, providing needed materials, and furnishing support from the highest levels of the institution for greater sustainability.

Key Assumptions for Engaged and Transformative Leadership

In our journey to define and create transformative leadership, there is a call to recognize inherent traits of leadership that not only transcend language, culture and systems but are also firmly rooted in our Latino traditions of family, spirituality and celebration of life across the diversity of our people: Mexican American, Afro-Caribbean, Latin American and Indigenous roots. Nine key assumptions are proposed to form a conceptual framework for building transformative leadership for engaged institutions. These nine assumptions are based on the integration of three critical dimensions of leadership – community consciousness, commitment and skills. The assumptions follow.

Visionary. Transformative leaders possess a clear picture of the scenario they wish to pursue. They are clear about the condition of education which must exist if Latino students are to successfully compete in this society. Their actions are data-driven and based on a clear view of reality. They are aware of the community’s needs and involve the community and families in the establishment of the vision.

Transformative leaders promote the community’s “blueprint for change.” The vision for a better reality is ever present until it becomes a reality. The leader, the constituents, and the context are transformed with this type of leadership as together they partner to develop the future scenario and hold themselves and one another accountable for creating and realizing it.

Community Consciousness. Transformative leaders have a sense of “community consciousness” that transcends whatever profession they may undertake throughout their lives. For these engaged leaders, their community and the welfare of its families are at the core of their responsibility. Language and culture are indispensable and protected elements that define the values and beliefs of that community. Within this broader view of community every attempt to invigorate the community is significant because of its potential to create opportunities of growth for students, individuals and families.

Power. Engaged leaders recognize that power comes from within (knowledge, desire and commitment) or can be acquired externally through position or political status. When it is acquired internally, it cannot be taken away. Power is a choice of thought. Furthermore, when we can accept that we are continually evolving as a people, and as individuals, we recognize that our power is in our “now.”

Not only is it crucial to understand and use our power judiciously to influence change, we must also analyze the power base of others who can also influence the outcome. Moreover, not only is it acceptable to have unfulfilled desires, it is powerful to have unfulfilled desires. Why? Because these evoke the creative force within us and the will to engage with others to accomplish new goals. It is in struggling and striving that our focus is heightened on our goals. Our goals must remain clear and our focus true.

Life Experiences. As individuals and as a people, many of us have survived difficulties: poverty, isolation, racism, and fear. This first-hand experience is a powerful one that has left lasting impressions that foster an urge to take immediate action. The very contrast that many have experienced is an extraordinary opportunity to focus more clearly on what we do want.

Much has been written and studied about evaluating the negative contrast of where we have been. The new leadership of transformation through engagement propels us to be brief in our examination of this present contrast and move forward. We can take negative experiences as a place from which to launch ourselves to our goals. Our concentration as leaders can shift from observer of the contrast to dreamers and executors of a new reality for our students and for our communities.

Imagination. The leadership of engagement and transformation is based upon the power of imagination. Imagination is born from a state of mind that is unrestricted and focused. Within this new focus, there are burgeoning beliefs and the ability to create future realities that lie within our capabilities. Engaged leadership is determined to expand thoughts and ideas beyond where they have been before.

This leadership is not only knowledgeable of the realities around us, but also chooses to focus more on what could be rather than what is. Reality, seen in this light, helps transformative leaders sift and sort what they want to create, rather than remain stuck in old ways of thinking and doing. This is creative leadership at its best, recognizing that each of us has choices and that we are guided and inspired at many levels within an ever-changing path toward a better future for our youth.

Reflection. Engaged leaders are those who periodically reflect on their accomplishments and can thrive in any circumstance because they feel empowered, are fully committed to change, and have a vision of justice and fairness. Transformative leaders do not get caught up in a cycle of victimization. They always have the context of how far they have come. They are an integral part of their communities and families, honor their language and culture, and learn from the special circumstances they have lived.

Rather than be trapped on the negative side of the struggle, they recognize and celebrate that their current position is a tribute to their resilience and commitment to their communities. They seize every opportunity to encourage others to do the same. They seek educational equity and accept nothing short of excellence. They encourage others to become empowered. They strive to make the educational system accountable by equipping our young people with academic skills and inculcating in them the thought that they are “thrivers” and “doers” who belong and have a responsibility to strengthen their community.

Catalysts. Transformative leaders are catalysts. They recognize the interconnectedness of our families, communities, and educational systems. Engaged leaders are highly conscious of their connectedness with others. They are comfortable knowing that they have an impact on the welfare of the community and sow seeds that others may harvest; that is part of the cycle of life. The greatest gifts they offer are encouragement and joy, inspiring others to believe in themselves.

Catalysts analyze information around them while keeping their eyes on the prize. They emit positive energy, which others are automatically drawn to and respond. The mantra of the catalyst leader is “Believe in yourself and in what you can accomplish.” Engaged leaders who are catalysts understand that sustainable change takes time. They are determined but patient with themselves and with others. They recognize that we are all interrelated – each person is a student and a teacher.

Valuing Perspective. Transformative leaders come from an abundant valuing perspective that begins with themselves. There is no room for a scarcity mentality or deficit thinking. As they give of their leadership skills, more will come forth.

These leaders do not spend an inordinate amount of time in laborious self-examination that can be detrimental. They do not dig deeply into what they do not want, rather, they dig into what they do want. They see that if something is worth doing, everyone can participate. Everyone has direct access and contact to this type of abundant leadership. Through the clarity of their examples, others are drawn into the process.

Because this type of leader is the “captain of their ship,” they empower others to be this way as well. They take responsibility and share accountability for their collective actions. Because they easily ask for assistance from others, they are also ready to give of themselves and let go of their limitations for the greater good.

Inspiration. Engaged leaders recognize that they are co-creators of a new reality. Their work is enriched by a deep understanding and belief in the community in which they work. They are eager for what is “becoming” and for what they are helping to mold. These leaders are acutely aware of the spiritual aspects of being a part of such important work. Because of this, they maintain a sense of connection with their own spirituality. They ask for help and guidance and reach for uplifting thoughts that can affirm they are not alone. They often ask themselves, “What’s next? What is desired? What is becoming? And what might be?” Spirituality is a strong central element of inspiration in the lives of transformative leaders.

At their core, they can bask in the energy of well-being because they stop often and recognize themselves and others as beings that live together in the creation of life. These leaders take the time to tap into their “inner-guidance.” They find satisfaction with an ever-evolving situation because they are comfortable with themselves as part of a broader perspective. Joy and laughter come easily as a natural part of celebrating and easing the tensions of life. These leaders not only rely on their five senses to guide their lives and their work, but they also see with an inner eye. They savor the now and use it to launch a tomorrow because they have hope that is inspired from knowing they will help to create the future.

These assumptions embrace ideas that we firmly believe are critical in developing sustainable and community-conscious schools that provide opportunities for Latino students to succeed, graduate and exercise an abundance of options that are not limited by inadequate schooling and lack of academic skills.


In the past, educational leaders have often been accustomed to imparting their expert knowledge to relatively passive listeners in neatly-packaged meetings or lectures. Transformative leaders will be asked to facilitate a dynamic process of learning whereby diverse groups of educators and community members come to decisions on their own time and in their own way. They will be expected to use this new community base as an environment to achieve certain changes, while simultaneously involving and serving its constituents. They will be asked, in a sense, to see the community as a partner in change, a resource and as a client. Not all can be planned beforehand. Sometimes as situations arise, the new transformative leaders must be willing to use that situation, seize that particular opportunity and capitalize upon it for transformation to occur.


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Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., is the division director of the IDRA Division of Community and Public Engagement. Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is the division director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at

[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June- July 2001 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]