Kansas City Ladder to Leadership Fellow Informs Community Health Through the Juvenile Justice System

    • April 10, 2013

The challenge. Tracie McClendon-Cole was a juvenile justice expert and health equality advocate for underserved populations in Kansas City, Mo. But in 2010 she faced a career crossroads: Would she continue as coordinator of the city's justice program, or pursue a doctorate in human development? "I have a very strong core belief in myself," she observed, and "went toward what I thought was the right door."

A childhood steeped in social justice. Social justice, faith-based organizations, and caring about community have been cornerstones of McClendon-Cole's life ever since she was a child. Growing up in Indianapolis with parents who were both educators, she and her brothers were expected to make the most of every learning opportunity.

"We never had a break from school," she recalled. "Even on family vacations, we did schoolwork before we saw the sights."

McClendon-Cole always knew she wanted to study law, and credits her choice of career to the influence of her parents and maternal grandparents. "They had a lot to do with helping to shape my world views on activism and community involvement," she said. "My grandfather shared with me his philosophy, that in your daily walk you meet no strangers. He seemed to know everyone and treated all in his path as a friend."

She and her grandfather also watched Perry Mason, a popular television series about the work of a defense lawyer and the legal system. And she soon read To Kill a Mockingbird, the acclaimed novel by Harper Lee that depicts social and legal injustices in the South. McClendon-Cole realized that she found the justice system " ... exciting. And I always said I wanted to be a lawyer."

From law to city management to social justice. After obtaining undergraduate and master's degrees, McClendon-Cole completed her law degree at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, in 2002. By then, she had worked for years in municipal governments in Missouri, Kansas, and Texas.

"Even though it seems like a big jump from the field of law, I like the city management side of things, and I gravitate toward systems that can effect change," she noted. Besides, she adds, "When I went to law school, I learned very early on that what actually happened didn't meet my ideals from childhood. As an adult and still an idealistic person, I chose to pursue [a career in] public health."

After two years as a municipal analyst in Kansas City, McClendon-Cole became the coordinator of its justice program, where she was able to combine her passion for law and social justice for the first time in her career. She implemented the Street Law Youth Justice Program, a collaboration among schools, police, and the community to improve school safety. She also drafted the 2006 report of the city's Commission on Violent Crime—which in turn spurred her to develop Aim4Peace, a program to reduce gun violence.

Connecting criminal justice and public health. In 2008, while debating her next step, McClendon-Cole's peers suggested that she apply for Ladder to Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders, a training opportunity created for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) by the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C.

"I didn't see a disconnect between criminal justice and health," she observed, as her work entailed tackling the "nexus between health and the rest of society." And although she had participated in several other training programs, Ladder to Leadership appealed to her because it "focused on developing you as a leader not for a specific organization but for whatever you may do."

Ladder to Leadership. From 2008 to 2012, Ladder to Leadership sought to develop a cadre of leaders to enhance the capacity of nonprofit health organizations that serve vulnerable populations, and to cope with an exodus of senior leaders as the baby boom generation retires. The program trained early-to-mid-career professionals to nurture organizational change and work across organizational barriers, develop more constituent-focused services, and adapt innovations from other fields.

The 16-month program included training sessions at the Center for Creative Leadership, one-on-one coaching and mentoring, and a team project focusing on fellows' own communities. Over five years, Ladder to Leadership trained 219 health care professionals in eight cities and regions: Albuquerque, N.M.; Birmingham, Ala.; central New York state; Cleveland, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; Newark, N.J.; eastern North Carolina; and Portland, Ore.

"The program made me think about the person I want to be and the person I could be."—Tracie McClendon-Cole

From 2009 to 2010, McClendon-Cole was one of 29 fellows in the Kansas City cohort, from a region with 8 percent unemployment and a 17 percent poverty rate at the time.

Results and perspective. Ladder to Leadership encouraged McClendon-Cole to understand herself and evaluate her leadership style—and to take care of herself, both personally and professionally. "It made me think about the person I want to be and the person I could be."

Through their work together, she and her Kansas City colleagues also "realized the need to spur local nonprofits working on behavioral health to collaborate—to increase their viability, avoid duplication, and strengthen their effectiveness. When I look at the ultimate outcome of the program, it is about your evolution as an individual, and how you can be an instrument of change in the community."

Ladder to Leadership "far exceeded my expectations," McClendon-Cole concluded. "It proved the importance of a Chinese proverb: 'Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.'"

RWJF perspective. RWJF has nurtured leaders in health and health care since its inception. "The Foundation's Human Capital Portfolio aims to ensure that we have a diverse and adequately trained health and health care workforce," said Program Officer Sallie Anne George, MPH. "The Foundation has a 40-year history of supporting the development of 'human capital.' However, we saw a gap concerning the leadership capacity of community nonprofits. We designed Ladder to Leadership to close that gap."

"We recognized that many nonprofit leaders are so focused on providing services to the most vulnerable that they are not looking to see where they fit into the larger system, and where it makes sense to collaborate," George noted. "We hoped that Ladder to Leadership fellows would gain confidence in their ability to lead regardless of their formal position, to think more strategically, and to collaborate effectively.

"There is evidence that we are strengthening collaboration in communities, and hopefully leading them to be healthier places to live, learn, work, and play."

Tracie L. McClendon-Cole, JD, MPA

Tracie L. McClendon-Cole, JD, MPA
Ladder to Leadership fellow

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#LadderToLeadership trained 29 community health leaders from Kansas City, Mo., including McClendon-Cole

“When I look at the ultimate outcome, it is about the evolution of you as an individual, and how you can be an instrument of change in the community.”—Tracie McClendon-Cole