To Harvard and beyond
Councilor Avila dishes on elite training experience
By Faith Miller
The Southeast Express
In June, Southeast’s City Councilor Yolanda Avila attended a prestigious leadership training program at Harvard University. She had the backing of a competitive grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which paid her tuition.
In all, 55 local government leaders from around the country (along with three people from Ireland) made up Avila’s cohort to Harvard’s Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program.
While Avila was the only city councilor from Colorado who attended, she says there were a handful of county commissioners who hailed from other parts of the state, along with a Colorado lawmaker and school board member.
Avila couldn’t share all the details about the program — she says some moments are confidential, because leaders were encouraged to tell personal stories. But the enthusiasm she exudes when recalling the training, and when musing on the future of Southeast, suggests a life-changing three weeks.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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What are your general thoughts on the training? What was it like?
It was an intense program that challenged me intellectually, emotionally and physically. I’ve heard of other people saying that they’re going to go and they think it’s a conference, and then they’re just going to kick back in the evening. Not the case at all.
What was really great about this program was that it consisted of persons who are in public service — whether that’s an elected official … a chief of staff, or a city manager, or a chief of police, chief of fire. We had department heads of sanitation from New York, people that worked in public utilities, with different political and philosophical persuasions.
During the whole course of this training, we were given exercises, or circumstances that we were required to do as a group, and if we couldn’t come to a consensus or an understanding as a group, then the whole group would fail. So it taught me how to work with persons who think the exact opposite of how I do. And there were groups that were never able to come to consensus, and therefore did not finish exercises. But it was fun, too. … There was a part there where we did singing as a course, where we learned to harmonize together.
Do you feel like you’ll keep communicating with some of the people you met there?
Absolutely. I know that I have made some lifelong friends.
One of the projects that I think this has helped me with is, I want to get an Urban Renewal Authority project in my district [to provide tax increment financing for redevelopment]. And with some of the tools that I’ve gained from the class, I can see it coming to fruition.
Do you know in what area of your district there might be some possibility for that?
Well, we have an opportunity zone [an area designated for tax incentives to draw long-term investment], off of Academy and Fountain [boulevards]. That would be a practical place to put it.
Was there anything you learned that changed your perspective on our local government here?
Mostly, I’d like all of my colleagues to attend this program — so that we can work more as a team, because there’s team building. And what I would like to see with City Council is for the nine of us to have a retreat where we could go and have that team building, and really understand where we are, where we’re each coming from.
As it is right now, I do feel like we have a respect [for] one another. But taking it to a different level … we can help each other get what it is we want for our districts, our constituents.
So do you feel more inspired now and excited, or are you also a little tired?
It gave me like, a shot in the arm, but I feel inspired. I feel like I was with a high caliber of individuals that wanted to do the best they could do … to learn and to go back to give to their community. I wanted to learn, and I did — I learned a lot. And to come back and be able to serve my community in even a broader capacity.