The Process of a Developing Leader

UYLA young leaders with Nikkita Oliver (second from right)

By Nikkita Oliver, Program Coordinator for the Urban Youth Leadership Academy


The Urban Youth Leadership Academy believes that leadership ability is not something we are born with. Instead, we believe the ability to lead is taught, learned, and experienced within a relational context. People grow to be leaders of integrity through methods such as experiential learning, mentoring, and intentional capacity building. One approach, says Perkins Center director Tali Hairston, is to “encourage student to take responsibility for their influence whether positive or negative.”


This empirical approach to learning illuminates the potential that resides within each young person. As an emerging mentor, I have struggled with a seeming inability to move a student down the leadership continuum. In the end, I have had to remember that maturity is a function of time and God’s involvement.


Working with urban youth, I have learned that the term “born” has both literal and figurative meaning when it comes to leadership development. When pondering the time factor, Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet, had similar issues. He asked:


Who has ever heard of such a thing?
Who has ever seen such things?
Can a country be born in a day?

A Long-Term Approach

While a seemingly absurd question, youth workers, like me, can rely on short-term thinking when it comes to our urban charges. Of late, the ability to reap a small harvest has transformed my perspective, rendering invisible processes more visible. My four-year encounter with a young woman from the Rainier Valley allows me to describe what it looks like for someone to grow into their leadership capacity, and with it takes to facilitate that process.


In fact, it looks like D.M., a senior at Franklin High School in Seattle, Washington. The past four years have been critical for her emerging as a scholar and leader. While she continues to struggle to view herself as a leader, she recognizes the value of her membership in the south Seattle community.


I met D.M. three years ago through Rainier Avenue Free Methodist Church. I was on the youth staff and a member of the church asked me to invite D.M. to participate with the youth group. Every Thursday before youth I called her for a year. We would go through our characteristic verbal two-step:


Me: “How are you?”
D.M.: “Fine.”
Me: “How is school?”
D.M.: “Fine.”
Me: “Would you like to go to youth group tonight?”
D.M.: “Sure.”
Me: “I’ll pick you up in 10 minutes.”
D.M.: “OK.”

Finally, an Emerging Leader

Two years after she attended her first youth group, D.M. decided to participate in the Urban Roots Summer Leadership Intensive at the Union Gospel Mission. Among her peers, she remained shy and reserved, and I was unsure if she was getting anything out of her involvement. Little did I know that my persistence would pay off with major dividends.


Each year the Urban Youth Leadership Academy culminates the year’s programming with the Urban Roots Leadership Retreat. This past year, D.M. attended and seemed to enjoy the outing. During an opportune moment, I probed to find out how things were going. “Do you want to talk about anything?” I asked. She opened up, telling me that when I first began inviting her to youth group she hated it. She didn’t want to go. She would cringe when I called, because she knew she could not say “no.”


But this year something had changed; and I sensed D.M. was becoming more engaged as she embraced leadership. Our staff commented that she seemed much more comfortable in her own skin, as well as in conversation with her peers. “I am glad you called because somewhere along the way I realized that it was good for me to be around other young people and leaders,” D.M. confessed.


It has now been three years since D.M.’s first Thursday night youth group adventure. She is still striving to take responsibility for her influence, and is hungry for opportunity to grow and learn. This past October, in fact, she attended the CCDA Student Leadership Intensive with other students in UYLA. She feels that life’s challenges are more intense, but she thinks she can meet them head-on because of the support she has received over the past few years.

When thinking about the mentor’s role in leadership development, the Apostle Paul wrote, “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”


Witnessing D.M.’s transformation has changed my understanding of what it means to mentor urban youth. While she did not grow into a young leader overnight, likewise, I will continue to mature in my own ability to lead youth, my peers, and colleagues. In other words, my relationship with this young woman has allowed me to develop a greater degree of humility, a new calculus for measuring growth, and a reasonable timeframe to gauge my own influence on youth.


Nikkita OliverNikkita Oliver, a native of Indianapolis, Indiana, moved to Seattle in 2004 to attend Seattle Pacific University, graduating in 2008. While a student, she worked in partnership with students, faculty, and staff as the intercultural director and Mosaic advisor to pursue a vision of reconciliation.

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