Facing the Truth

By: Omar Vargas


With each module, Fellows dig into readings, exercises, conversations, and reflections around a theme. The focus of Module 5 was Leadership.

It was 2 in the morning and I had just come back from a concert. Exhausted, I sat on the closest sofa I could find looking over my phone to upload photos to my Instagram page. In the midst of finding the perfect photo, I came across an album from an event I recently worked on called Temple Street Slow Jams. I can remember the planning and energy put into developing the week-long event, making sure we got our materials in check, doing surveys for hours on end, and coming up with emoji choreography to use on the streets. I took a break from scrolling and laid flat looking up to the ceiling.

May and June passed by so quickly, yet I cannot shake the vivid imagery that surrounded the events, from the first day of the Slow Jam installations at Casa Gloria, to fighting an unexpected rain shower during the final Mother of All Slow Jams. Temple Street Slow Jams started out as a regular task. At the start, I approached my tasks like any regular assignment. Tasks like researching local businesses or writing updates about the project did not feel like part of a greater work. Over the next few weeks, my responsibilities grew. My tasks came together as part of a greater project.

Temple Street Slow Jams was a 5-day series of events promoting street safety and education though community engagement around Temple St. in Historic Filipinotown and Echo Park. The project is unique in that it emphasized giving residents a platform to share their stories and give recommendations on how Temple St. can be safer for pedestrians. Temple Street Slow Jams is part of the greater Vision Zero Los Angeles initiative by Mayor Eric Garcetti that aims to eliminate traffic deaths in LA by targeting a network of streets otherwise known as the High Injury Network (HIN). Vision Zero Los Angeles aims to eliminate traffic deaths by the year 2025.

I was assigned to lead engagement efforts on a specific section of Temple Street; I had to contact community organizations and business leaders to support our project through participation in street installations and/or by spreading the word about the event. I was also tasked to be in charge of the first day of Slow Jam events, which took place at Temple St. and Patton.

I’ve always had trouble talking to people I don’t know. Temple Street Slow Jams had me setting up meetings with local community leaders and business owners, chipping away at my comfort zone by pushing me to gather support from the local community.

At first, my outreach efforts were rough. When I had to set up meetings over the phone, simple tasks, like picking up my phone, were very difficult. I had the weight of seeking community participation on my back, my body sweaty, and anxiety coursing through me. When I got the confidence to call, my voice sounded higher and my heart raced, only to calm down after another 3 minutes. These outreach efforts are what started a gradual snowball effect towards breaking out of my comfort zone.

On May 22nd, the rest of the Fellows, William Warrener, our volunteer at the time, and I, met at Tribal Café to do outreach efforts with our assigned local businesses and organizations. They were assigned based on what part of Temple St. we were in charge of. William offered to come with us if we needed help with our talking points. Knowing I needed the help, I asked him to come with me to my first destination, Asociacion Nacional pro Personas Mayores (ANPPM).

As we walked to the site, we rehashed what we needed from ANPPM: an opportunity to speak with their seniors about Temple Street Slow Jams and to gather support from them and the ANPPM staff. We made our way to the apartment complex under the summer heat with smoothies in our hands, navigating a congested intersection at Temple and Glendale and hiking up the hill between Patton and Douglas.

As we approached the front gate, I was feeling nervous. A cold shiver ran down my spine as my hand touched the number pad. I clicked the buttons and gained access to the building. We knocked on the office door and were brought in by the secretary in the office who told us to take a seat. I looked around the office admiring how clean and orderly it was. Job postings were stapled onto the bulletin walls. The floors were sparkly, clean, and the seats were neatly arranged.

A woman named Liliana, the ANPPM Project Coordinator, came from her office and asked us what we wanted. As soon as she looked at me, I started talking about the project. As I described Temple Street Slow Jams, I thought about the talking points William and I had reviewed earlier, only to realize that my mind had gone blank. I kept repeating information. Liliana kept asking questions on topics that I had no clue about. Tension began to build and my voice’s pitch began to soar higher. Right as I was about to answer, William stepped in to clarify what I was talking about. In an instant, the flow of the conversation changed. I remember seeing Liliana and William conversing about the project and how natural it seemed. It felt as if they were old friends catching up. It looked like a regular conversation.

I was witnessing civic engagement at its core: getting to know people. In comparing William’s and my interactions, the differences were clear from approach to objectives. I was thinking about only what I wanted out of the person. I ignored how to have a conversation and navigate it towards my objective. Ultimately, I needed to have both an understanding of what to say and set common interest in supporting the project.

Temple Street Slow Jams made me take a hard look at myself and understand that I do not know everything there is to know about engagement. While I had some experience with events and outreach before becoming a Fellow, I was not prepared to be in situations where I was unfamiliar with particular questions about Vision Zero Los Angeles or Temple Street Slow Jams. For example, when doing early surveying for LADOT, I would freeze and anxiously pace around until somebody would walk up to me. Having that pressure on my body, despite being out in the neighborhood everyday and recognizing familiar faces, made me realize that I still have to work on how I control my feelings and manage them when doing outreach. Reaching out to local leaders along Temple St. and being around the community got me used to turning strangers into friends.

Despite some setbacks, I learned to not be too hesitant when starting a conversation with folks. I focused on being relaxed and making the experience engaging. I also took queues from my fellow Fellows and followed their example and advice. Having the opportunity to work with people who were more experienced helped grow my confidence in initiating these interactions.

As time passed, I amazed myself with talking to business owners and organization leaders on my own. I found comfort in talking to strangers that ultimately became people I saw everyday, as if they were neighbors. I took notice of this during the 4th Temple Street Slow Jams event and during the Mother of All Slow Jams. The less I worried about initiating the conversations, the more I was able to focus on connecting with people. At the same time, our conversations moved away from pure Vision Zero rhetoric to learning more about their safety concerns around Temple St.

Given autonomy over my portion of the project was a terrifying experience due to the enormous trust placed upon me from the beginning. When I needed guidance on how to overcome a challenge, I looked to the teachings of Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie. In their article “The Work of Leadership,” Heifetz and Laurie discuss the differences in approaching a problem through a technical and adaptive perspective. Technical problems are defined by approaches that can be solved through expertise through systems, procedures, or methods handled by experts that can solve the problem without collaboration. Adaptive challenges are where problems are solved through collaboration and input from different people to reach a solution. I’ve had instances where I had to identify a problem as adaptive or technical and reach a conclusion by moving away from the problem and seeing it unfold. Having these concepts in mind made me more conscious as not only a leader, but also as I switched leadership roles with my fellow Fellows.

One of the most impactful passages Heifetz wrote described what adaptive leadership is: a person who changes their actions when their “beliefs are challenged” and long-time successful values “become less relevant”. He described adaptive challenges as having to change from within, and seeing conflicts as internal conflicts rather than as surface problems.[1]

I realized that I needed to be flexible in my outreach efforts and to be as transparent as possible. Adaptive leadership has been integral in understanding myself from a leadership perspective. I’ve been keen in paying attention to what makes me tick; what works for me and what types of engagement I excel in. For example, one-on-one interactions are more enjoyable for me now because I can spend time getting to know the person I am talking to. Constantly approaching people through a “cold call” approach does not suit me best because of the looming possibility of rejection. Despite this, it is an obstacle I need to work on in the future.

[1] Heifetz, R. A., & Laurie, D. L. (2001, December). The Work of Leadership. Harvard Business Review, 1-14. Retrieved August 1, 2017.

Do I consider myself a leader? Not necessarily. I do agree with Heifetz and Laurie’s definition of leadership because I consider myself a person who leads when needed. To me, a “leader” is someone that does not stay within one position while having the ability to take time to consider perspectives that are not the person’s own. For me, being a leader offers the opportunity to learn and grow as a person from the people below, and acknowledges the remarkable talents behind the scenes. Our common perception of what makes a leader excellent can be said more about our own self-esteem and confidence on facing challenges, which presents the question: What is leadership?

I have a problem how people commonly identify what a leader is, someone who is higher up with a title associated with the word “leader” of any form. For me, the term presents a static depiction of what a person in that position is or has to do because not all leaders are able to examine themselves for the better of their organization. Witnessing the Fellows become fearless in their outreach has reinforced the idea that leadership is fluid, a constant reassessment of our strengths and weaknesses as not just leaders, but as people. It is important to deconstruct our image of the “ideal” leader and emphasize grit, effort, and keeping an open mind as factors to successful leadership. Not all who lead follow. Deciding to lead and follow suits my leadership style the best.

What has been valuable during Temple Street Slow Jams was my growing understanding on how I work best: not being at the forefront of a project. I perform well when I’m doing everyday tasks, observing what is going on and voicing my opinions when I see a problem. My leadership style suits me because I am more able to figure out what is wrong on the outside rather than having the “leader” role. Being in this position makes me more conscious in my interactions with people while picking up skills and techniques that I can use later on. I would rather be aware of my role in the project than looking over without noticing what is going on. The more I continue to know my leadership style, the more I can use what I learn and apply it in the future.



Blog Post #5 // Learn more about Urban Futures Lab.