Fellows Journey Reflections, Six Months In

Class three fellows enjoy a welcome dinner at the National Museum of the American Indian.

In February 2024, WKKF Community Leadership Network class three fellows came together in Washington, D.C., for their second in-person gathering. Six months into the fellowship, we asked fellows to reflect on their journeys thus far — how the fellowship has impacted their approaches to leadership and what they are looking forward to in the next year.

The impact of personal clarity

Alexandra Melnik sharing her reflections.

Many fellows reported a renewed sense of personal clarity, noting the unique opportunity to not only learn about leadership, but to also learn more about themselves as individuals.

Alexandra Melnik is the communications director at Operation Shoestring in Jackson, Mississippi, producing year-round programming for children and families who have historically been underserved. “One thing I have appreciated is how much more aware I am of my patterns of behavior and how I can use that knowledge to empower others to show up as their fullest selves.” 

Mississippi fellow Raymonda Delaware agrees. Raymonda is the founder and executive director of Dream Innovators, a workforce development organization that is transforming rural communities by giving access to the technology and resources people need to advance. For Raymonda, “These last six months have taught me so much about myself. While I understand myself as a visionary, the fellowship has helped me learn how to better translate my vision into actionable directives for the people I lead.” 

Raymonda Delaware shares her experience.

Gaining practical tools

Lisa Leverett laughing about their group’s experience trying to solve a puzzle.

With personal clarity as a foundation, fellows have also gained actionable tools and resources to guide them in their leadership work on a daily basis.

Lisa Leverett describes herself as a “provocateur for radical change.” Based in Detroit, she leads the Community Connections Grant Program that centers participatory grantmaking as an equity-driven approach to philanthropy, civic engagement and leadership development. In Lisa’s experience, “The Trust 360 exercise allowed us to see ourselves through the eyes of our peers and community. This has helped me personally analyze and improve my leadership style from different perspectives in real time.”

For Rachel LaZar, a major takeaway has been the power of active listening. As the co-founder and executive director of the New Mexico-based El CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos, an immigrant and civil rights organization building grassroots power, Rachel admits that multitasking is an easy trap. “Like many of my peers in smaller nonprofits, I wear many hats. However, this fellowship has reinforced the importance of slowing down and being as present and intentional with my attention as possible.”

Accountability through partnership

Blanca Adriana Ontiveros (left) and Rachel LaZar (right) enjoying a break together.

A central tenet of the fellowship is collaboration. As part of the program, each fellow chooses an accountability partner to serve as an ongoing source of support and inspiration. These relationships are already yielding fruit in the fellows’ walks together.

Aysa Howlette visibly lights up at the mention of her accountability partner Kim Lanoy-Sandoval from New Mexico. Aysa herself is based in New Orleans, where she serves as the director for the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families to support systems change and resource management as it relates to the city’s young people. “I love Kim! She is simply a joy,” she gushes, “Kim is a major powerhouse in New Mexico, ensuring that policy is rooted in community values and equity. Working in the government myself, it’s really nice to have a partner who is both deeply in community and experienced in the realities of operating in the political space.”

Lisa has two accountability partners: Warlance Chee from New Mexico and James Forte from Mississippi. “Warlance is a medicine man, a traditional healer, and a central force in his community. James is a powerful and transformational leader. They both bring passion and a healthy critical eye to the work. They are so different from each other and from myself, but they are exactly what I need. It has been so stimulating to learn from them both and see the work from their unique perspectives.”

Alexandra’s experience with her accountability partner Mari Kempton of New Mexico echoes this. “It’s been amazing to make a new friend from a completely different walk of life, and still have that deep level of connection with someone who profoundly understands you.”

Looking forward

Aysa Howlette shares highlights from the gathering.

As the fellows continue through the program, and look to the months ahead, they shared what they are most looking forward to.

For Aysa, the path is bright and exciting. “I feel this space is constantly exceeding my expectations. I’m excited because there’s no telling what I’m going to learn next.”

Raymonda looks forward to further collaboration. “I can’t wait for more connecting, growing and leading. When I’m here it’s all so real, we are all genuinely walking the walk, and I look forward to leaving with all the knowledge we share with one another.”

As Rachel anticipates the upcoming challenges of an election year, she says, “Given what’s on the horizon, I am grateful to have this opportunity to carve out time for listening and curiosity while taking action at the same time.”

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WKKF Community Leadership Network