Building leadership from the inside out

Posted: September 1st, 2017 | Features, Top Story | No Comments

By Joyell Nevins

Relationships. Impact. Sustainability. Excellence.

These are core pillars of the RISE San Diego nonprofit, founded three years ago by professionals, politicians and community activists Tony Young and Dwayne Crenshaw.

RISE Urban Breakfast Club recently met on the topic, “Immigrants, Refugees, and San Diego’s Urban Communities.” (Courtesy RISE)

Both men grew up in southeastern urban San Diego, and between them, they’ve held major leadership roles on the San Diego City Council, San Diego Pride, American Red Cross, Coalition of Neighborhood Councils, the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, and various other government entities.

The year RISE began, 2014, marked both the campaigns for the special mayoral election between Kevin Faulconer and David Alvarez, and the shooting and protests in Ferguson, Missouri. One of the underlying tensions in the city of Ferguson was the disconnect between the color of its leadership and the color of its population: The percentages didn’t match at all.

In San Diego, those percentages didn’t match either — while people of color make up about 54 percent of the population, they only account for 23 percent of the city’s leadership, according to Crenshaw.

In the 2014 mayoral election campaign, “neighborhoods first” was a recurring theme: building leadership and change from the ground up in communities.

In their unofficial Starbucks “office” — the real RISE office now sits on Euclid Avenue, just north of where Imperial Avenue crosses under 805 — Crenshaw and Young sat discussing the percentage problem and wondering whether “neighborhoods first” could be more than just a platitude.

“We were both concerned with, ‘How real was that?’” Crenshaw explained. “We started talking about how to go from lip service to reality.”

Thus, RISE was born.

RISE San Diego offers monthly trainings and technical assistance and one-on-one support for nonprofi ts and small businesses (Courtesy RISE)

The organization is dedicated to building leaders of color and leaders of urban neighborhoods to affect change in their own neighborhoods first — and RISE does it from the inside out.

“Leadership is challenging,” Crenshaw said. “We love to build a leader up in America, but we love to tear them down even more.”

So RISE focuses more on who someone is as a leader — their character and their motives — rather than their tactics or skills.

“Our desired outcome is not achieving a certain position or title, but affecting community change,” Crenshaw said.

One of the ways RISE accomplishes this is through their flagship program, the RISE Urban Leadership Fellows Program, in collaboration with the University of San Diego’s Leadership Institute in the School of Leadership and Education Sciences. The program is also modeled after the Executive Education program at Harvard Business School.

The Fellows meet for three full days each quarter and work with a business leadership coach throughout the year. They also have to complete their own CAP, or community action project.

Some of the completed projects have included On the RISE, a youth version of the RISE fellows program, and a senior citizens center for the Filipino seniors in Paradise Hills. For decades, this group of senior citizens had been promised funding for a new center by the City Council, but it was never actually put on the budget. The RISE fellows organized a bus trip, took them all down to City Hall, and secured $500,000 in funding for a senior center for their neighborhood.

“For more than 20 years, they were promised funding, and now it’s in the pipeline,” Crenshaw noted proudly.

That idea of community spirit drives each of the Fellows. The program is open to any resident of San Diego County over 18 years old, but they must have completed high school and show at least a five-year history of community involvement and/or activism. Aside from that, the Fellows have run the gamut of races, creeds, and sexual orientation.

“Our classes have mirrored the population of San Diego County,” Crenshaw said, adding that RISE is intentional about its diversity.

Through both the Fellows program and the Urban Breakfast Club — RISE’s recurring civic engagement breakfasts with “resident expert” panelists — the organization wants to promote civil discourse.

And Young and Crenshaw know experientially how to move past (or through) conflict: They ran against each other for the District 4 City Council seat in 2004, and now here they are, business partners acting on a common belief.

“Our civic discourse in this country is so toxic,” Crenshaw said. “We want to get beyond the politics and rhetoric and promote productive, systemic change.”

The last program offered by RISE is nonprofit partnership. Going into its second year of doing so, RISE offers monthly trainings and technical assistance for nonprofits and small businesses in areas such as organizational management and marketing strategies.

RISE also picks 10 organizations every year to work one-on-one with, and this year 20 different groups have already applied. The Fellows program is in even higher demand — there were 103 applications last year for 23 open spots.

While both programs are free to the trainees, it is a significant cost to RISE to conduct the training (the Fellows program alone is $3,500 per person). As such, the organization is seeking businesses that would like to sponsor a fellow, and they are always accepting private donations as well, be it $5 or $5,000.

In addition, Crenshaw and Young welcome the community to celebrate their three successful years at the upcoming RISE San Diego Anniversary & Inclusive Leadership in Action Awards luncheon.

The luncheon will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 9 at the Joe and Vi Jacobs Center Celebration Hall.

For more information about the luncheon, programs, or to donate, visit or call 619-531-RISE (7473). You can also follow their community and leadership building on Facebook at /risesandiego.

—Joyell Nevins is a local freelance writer. Reach her at or find her blog Small World, Big God at

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