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Leadership Institute's Big Year of Change

by Aida Kajs

As we all know, the past year has turned the best laid plans of mice and men completely upside-down. Leadership Institute, one of YNPN Chicago’s flagship programs, was no exception. At the beginning of the pandemic, the program had only just begun for the 2020 cohort when they had to suddenly shift to an online setting. Almost a year later, the 2021 program has seen some major adjustments as it remains fully virtual.

Leadership Institute has two major program components: a leadership development course, and a mentorship program. Both have been altered somewhat for the current circumstances, but some of the changes are here to stay, according to Leadership Institute Chair Stacy Gilmer. The curriculum itself is seeing somewhat of an overhaul, but that has been in the works for over a year now. “The objectives of the program are to define your personal leadership journey and to develop your professional network. That is becoming more formalized this year,” says Gilmer. She says that the changes to the curriculum were based primarily on feedback from members of previous cohorts.

Additionally, this year brought some other changes unrelated to the pandemic that Gilmer has been planning for a while, like the introduction of a sliding scale model for program fees. In previous years, Leadership Institute had a constant fee, and participants could apply for financial assistance if they were unable to pay. Starting this year, Leadership Institute has a cost dependent on the professional development budget of the individual applicants and their organizations. According to Gilmer, this system has allowed for more diversity within the program, attracting folks who might have been unable to pay the higher cost before, and taking the burden off of individuals to request assistance.

Some changes, of course, were brought about by the pandemic. Gilmer says that they have had to be “more intentional about community building” in the virtual landscape. For example, at the beginning of their sessions, they have a check-in where cohort members can share updates about how they’re doing. Gilmer says that this was a lesson they learned last year after the shift to online: that folks really need that time right now.

Another change intended to help build community is the introduction of “accountability groups,” which are small groups within the larger cohort to allow for deeper relationships to form between participants. Elianne Bahena, a member of this year’s cohort, shared that she and her accountability group have already started to get close. “I don’t feel so alone,” she says of her group.

Bahena says that she originally applied after hearing about YNPN from a coworker, and learning about Leadership Institute soon after. She has done other leadership development programs before, but she likes the specificity of Leadership Institute focusing on the Chicago nonprofit sector. “Everyone there understands the landscape of Chicago,” she says about her cohort. After the first virtual session, she says “I was like, ‘I’m in the right place.'”

She also feels a strong sense of connection with her mentor, Kim Hunt. “I haven’t had a mentor, and it’s something I’ve been seeking.” says Bahena. She said that she feels a particularly strong connection to Hunt as a fellow woman of color. “You need those spaces to connect and for people to understand you.”

Hunt has been a mentor for Leadership Institute for several years, originally having been asked by one of the founders of YNPN Chicago. She says that she serves as a mentor because “When I was early in my career, I didn’t have a mentor, and didn’t understand how important it was,” and wants to be that for others. As a queer woman of color, she says she also wants to help younger professionals who are “learning how to be comfortable in their own skin.”

The mentorship program looks very different from in the past, primarily because of the shift to remote networking. All of the meetings between mentees and mentors have been virtual this year. “Our mentors have been so adaptable,” says Gilmer. Gilmer says that, due to the program being online, she has also been learning a lot about equity and accessibility of the program, and has been brainstorming ways to make the program more accessible when it is held in-person once more.

While forging relationships online isn’t always easy, the payoff for those involved has been worth it. “Even virtually, the program is a great opportunity,” says Bahena.

You can learn more about this year’s cohort here, and you can learn more about the program itself here.

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