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In Rejecting Hermosillo, the City Council Defines What Leadership Is : Governance: L.A.'s 'translators' may be the future leaders who can achieve consensus in the midst of conflict and inequality.

August 29, 1993|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden is a visiting scholar at the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Colleges and author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press)

Xavier Hermosillo, whose controversial bid to be a member of the city's Fire Commission was recently rejected, cried a little, admitted it wasn't the worst time in his life and spoke with some grace when he vowed to be an advocate for the whole city, not just part of it, because that was what the City Council said in rejecting his nomination.

The debate set off by Mayor Richard Riordan's nomination was a defining moment for Los Angeles. It was passionate, pointed and, in the end, a clear statement of what leadership means for us today: building bridges to--not walls between--communities.

Hermosillo was voted down not just because of his intemperate remarks, but also because of the philosophy of his organization, NEWS for America, which contends that being the majority means not needing coalitions. His supporters argued that his views reflected segments of the community, and, therefore, deserve representation. But that is a bit like the Nixon Administration's argument that mediocrity deserves representation on the U.S. Supreme Court. If we have learned anything in the past year, it should have been that our future depends on our ability to come together.

Each era calls for its own style of leadership. Tom Bradley was a consensus-builder who worked behind the scenes. His low-key style contrasted with he flag-waving words of Sam Yorty, who spoke for a dis-established white constituency. Today, we need city leaders who can build consensus and speak openly.

No such person exists, in or out of office. In this transition period, the city has "translators": articulate (particularly important for immigrant groups who have trouble with English), usually young people whose task is to represent their group's interests to the broader world. They are people like Angela Oh, Bong Hwan Kim, Marcia Chu, Brenda Shockley, Karen Bass, Joe Hicks, Jim Browder, Stewart Kwoh, Linda Wong, Arturo Vargas, Frank Costa and Fernando Guerra. They are not their communities' traditional leaders, but they are the city's best--maybe only--hope.

The translators walk a narrow path in trying to maintain both credibility in their community and visibility, mostly through the mainstream media, outside of it. While many see them as models, others are envious, or worry about what they say, because, after all, each community is a complex society in its own right. In many respects, they live in their own world, traveling from forum to forum, sitting on panels, making the same arguments to each other.

Still, the translators play a significant role for both their communities and the mainstream: By describing and explaining their communities' pain and needs, they help design government responses. What they cannot do, however, is deliver their communities.

The city's translators are community-based and build relationships through coalitions. They know they need more help in developing the kind of leadership that reflects the whole city, and they are supporting its development in a growth industry of leadership training programs.

From CORO--the most established leadership training program in California--to Building Bridges, to new programs within communities, they are redefining what leadership means in Los Angeles. Most of these programs immerse their trainees in their communities' needs and strengths, instill in them some skills and help them learn about the city beyond. They look for such traditional leadership qualities as courage, commitment, capacity and the ability to take appropriate risks. And--as important--the ability to build consensus.

Finding consensus in the midst of diversity--in the midst of real cultural conflicts and real economic differences--would be an extraordinary achievement.

That's the kind of leader we need in Los Angeles--in elected offices, and in the neighborhoods--leaders who can comprehend the similarities and the differences, and through their vision, help the rest of us to appreciate them.

The urge for understanding is deeply felt within the city. You can detect it in the audiences at L.A. Festival events. The festival is the one place it is safe for citizens of all ethnicities to come together, to look at each others' cultures, to share an experience. The citizens of the city are coming to the events in record numbers. The leaders--and soon-to-be leaders--need to take the next steps.*

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