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Valley Studies : A leadership institute teaches its students about pressing problems of the area, from Pacoima to Woodland Hills.

August 07, 1992|MICHAEL ARKUSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rose Castaneda turned down her first chance to join a San Fernando Valley leadership seminar in 1988. She thought she had nothing to learn.

Then, a year later, when she reluctantly agreed to take part in the monthly classes, Castaneda still had an attitude.

"I thought the other students would think I was from Mars," said Castaneda, a Pacoima resident working as an aide to U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City). "I figured they wouldn't understand me."

She figured wrong. Instead, Castaneda learned that it was she who didn't fully understand the rest of the Valley.

"I found out we all have the same problems," said Castaneda, who still works for Berman. "They have clean-up days in Encino and Sherman Oaks where they wipe out the graffiti. I thought only we had that problem. There are day laborers all over the Valley. I thought they were only on Van Nuys Boulevard."

Castaneda is an alumna of the Valley Leadership Institute. Established in 1988, the institute, a nonprofit group that educates business and social service leaders, celebrates the graduation of its fourth class today at Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City.

From November through July, 15 students met once a month to study the most pressing issues from Pacoima to Woodland Hills. They talked to immigration authorities, inmates at Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, transportation officials, and toured the Valley's most impoverished neighborhoods.

They will graduate with a degree of heightened social awareness.

"I grew up in the Valley," said Larry Smith, 37, an urban designer for Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, a Los Angeles architectural firm. "But I learned so much about the Valley. I learned about the cultural and economic issues that we all face together."

The seminars cost $1,250, requiring an 80% attendance rate for a student to graduate. Most of the 15 students in this class--the institute aims to teach 20 to 25 each year--receive free tuition, courtesy of their employers. Among those with students are the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council, the Latin American Civic Assn., and Texaco Inc. Some companies see the expenditure as an investment in the future.

Bonny Matheson, president of the institute, said the goal is to show students the way agencies and corporations can work together to solve similar problems.

"We want them to know that there are more things going on than just in their normal sphere," said Matheson, who is also president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., a nonprofit business advocacy association that organizes the leadership institute. "This is not a class in how to be a leader. We just want people to get the broad view."

During a classroom exercise in which students were arbitrarily divided into varying social and economic groups, Smith said, he learned the difficulties of trying to find solutions to problems in a world without adequate resources. For the exercise, Smith was placed in the poorest group.

"I always had a family I could rely on in my life," Smith said, "but in this game, I didn't have that. I found what it's like to feel alone and frustrated, with a certain amount of anger. My group was given no jobs, no resources, nothing. I'm an urban designer and we need to understand the communities that we work in. We work all over the Valley."

Public agencies see the class as useful too.

"We're perceived as someone who sells electricity and water and is not interested in the community," said M. Louise Loya, commercial manager for the DWP in Van Nuys. "And that is not true. We're not visible enough, but we're going to get involved more."

Students, many of whom envision themselves as the Valley's new leaders, say they hope to use the class to establish a smoother line of communication between the Valley's disparate groups.

Where and When

What: Valley Leadership Institute.

Location: 21800 Oxnard St., Suite 470, Woodland Hills.

Times: New class will start in October.

Price: $1,250 tuition.

Call: (818) 593-6143.

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