How does our community invest in the next generation of civic leadership? Ten years ago, Leading From Within took on that challenge by launching the Emerging Leaders Program (ELP).

This week many of the more than 170 alumni of that program marked the milestone with a gathering to Pause, Connect, Envision, and Celebrate. Connecting and envisioning are at the heart of the organization’s ethos, and of its founding.

“The concept of the Emerging Leaders program came to life through a series of conversations,” said Ken Saxon, founder of Leading From Within.

While the organization’s Courage to Lead program was effectively supporting nonprofit executive leaders, Saxon said he and others in the community realized there was a need for something more substantive to elevate mid-level social sector employees.

The Santa Barbara Foundation shared this vision and stepped up to fund what would become the Emerging Leaders Program. The mission of the 10-month program is to equip community changemakers to grow their ability to lead, collaborate, and drive solutions.

The Ann Jackson Family Foundation helped sustain the program by funding the ELP Alumni Leadership network. Ten years later, that network continues to flourish, with over 170 graduates in Santa Barbara County and beyond.

“I’m shocked at the success,” confessed Saxon, who told Noozhawk that he imagined having just two or three cohorts, expecting that it would be difficult to find leaders to participate. Instead, the organization has had nearly double the applicants than available spaces over the last few years.

Graduates from many of those cohorts attended the milestone celebration.

Ashley Costa, executive director of Lompoc Valley Community Healthcare, was one of them and she was instrumental in organizing the half-day event at Direct Relief.

“Leadership is a journey, not a destination,” she said in opening remarks welcoming more than 90 participants. “It’s a gift to be in a shared-space amongst my peers to celebrate our journey thus far and imagine what new journeys await.”

The event included speakers and break-out sessions discussing a variety of topics, such as retention and succession, inclusivity and equity, work/life balance, collaboration, and supporting emerging leaders now and in the future. And like all Leading From Withing programs, it provided time for self-care and reflection.

A shared language, relational trust, authenticity and the willingness to be vulnerable were core tenets of the day and are central to the success of Leading From Within.

“This room is like a gold mine of knowledge,” said Dolores Daniel, employment specialist, Transition House. “Today is a great reminder of how much we can all learn from each other, simply by sharing our common experiences and struggles.”

“We are all teachers, and we are all learners,” added Miles Ashlock, associate dean and chief of staff for student life at UCSB and an executive coach and facilitator of ELP since its inception. “I could not have sustained my professional life without this community.”

Santa Barbara City Council Member Eric Friedman agreed, saying he would not be where he is today without the support of the Emerging Leaders Program. Friedman was transitioning in his professional life around the same time that he participated in the program and said the skills he learned helped him to succeed and take that next step.

“In many ways my cohort knew me better than I knew himself,” he said. And the cohort’s collective encouragement gave Friedman the courage to embrace change. 

One of Leading From Within’s largest participating organizations is the Santa Barbara Foodbank. To date, 13 of its employees have completed one of the four programs offered at Leading From Within.

According to CEO Erik Talkin, “Leading From Within and their diverse array of educational and human initiatives have become a fundamental resource for enhancing the growth of our staff, enabling them to excel in their roles while simultaneously bolstering their leadership abilities within our communities.”

Leading From Within executive director Ed France summarized the success of ELP with a quote inspired by Kurt Vonnegut: “We are here to help each other get through this, whatever this is.”

It seems the nonprofit is doing more than just getting through – it is strategically planning for its future. With four distinct programs and 15 years of success, Leading From Within is looking ahead and poised for change.

A new program called Growing Edge Leaders is in the works, serving established social sector leaders and longtime, influential community changemakers across a variety of sectors.

The nonprofit is also revamping its peer learning groups and now offers a new convening space at its Riviera Business Park headquarters for meetings, conferences, small events and more.

“Reach out, embrace possibility, and see where it leads,” encouraged Saxon. “You are meant to be here and the conversations and connections that you have in this room matter. They matter to you, to your organization, to our sector and to the communities we serve.” 

Sponsors of the 10th anniversary event included the Natalie Orfalea Foundation, Kiva Cowork, and Direct Relief.