We were lucky to catch up with Richard Ramos recently and have shared our conversation below.
Alright, Richard thanks for taking the time to share your stories and insights with us today. Let’s jump to the end – what do you want to be remembered for?
I hope my legacy will be one that demonstrated servant-leadership and that in connection with the development of other servant-leaders. Starting with my wife and children, I have strived to be a servant-leader in my home as my first priority. I don’t believe one can be truly successful as a leader if we are only “good” in public but not in the privacy of our own home with those who deserve our love and service the most. Secondly, with the staff in my organization I have tried to be a role model of what a true servant leader is: character, competent, consistent, a clear communicator, humble, a resource and guide…not the “hero”. Thirdly, I have tried to demonstrate leadership as someone that walked in moral authority with my ego in check and continuing to grow my influence as a servant-leader in my community, State region, national and international arenas.
My influence has primarily come about through my speaking, teaching/training, and writing over the years. At the community level I served and touched many low-income, minority youth and families. Some of which were involved with gangs, drugs, violence, and dropping out of school. On a state, national, and international level I have served many in prisons, jails, churches, and school districts dealing with various family, youth and violence issues. I hope to be remembered as a man that loved all people and dedicated my life to serve with the intention of improving their quality of life and investing in them to realize and live in their true potential.
Awesome – so before we get into the rest of our questions, can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers?
I was born and raised in Northeast Los Angeles. Though there are many quality things about this area of LA, it’s an area known for its culture of gangs, violence, and drugs. My salvation from going deeper in that culture than I was, at a very young age, was sports and a disciplinary single mother.
People ask me all the time how and why I do what I do. The simple answer is that I never forget where I came from. Growing up in poverty, a broken home, discrimination, prejudice, and witnessing the destruction of lives in the barrio, leaves one with a particular world view. For me, that world view was one of injustice. Injustice of how my mother, sisters and brother and I lived. Injustice in schools, law enforcement, etc. Those and various other life experiences left me with a residue of anger and a burden to do something about it. I don’t know why. Sometimes I wish I didn’t carry that burden. It’s a lot easier not to care and just “live and let live”.
From little league baseball, football, and basketball my dream had always been to be a professional athlete. Specifically, to play one day for the Los Angeles Dodgers, especially since I grew up ten minutes from Dodger Stadium during their glory days in the 1960’s-70’s. However, after my college baseball career and stint in semi-pro baseball with some of the big-league scout teams, my life took a major turn in a much different direction than I had dreamed of.
I took a job as a correctional officer in the California State prison in San Luis Obispo. I worked there for one year before I transferred to a Federal Prison in Lompoc, CA. I won’t go into all the detail here but suffice it to say that working and witnessing on a daily basis what goes on in a prison is eye-opening and very sad to say the least. But those experiences also contributed to my desire to help transform the lives of the marginalized and less fortunate as I have pondered this question of why I do what do.
Fast forward to my organization today, The Latino Coalition for Community Leadership (LCCL). I founded this organization in 2003 out of a simple desire to meet a need. I was working for another nonprofit at the time as the Director of a teen center for gang members in Isla Vista, CA. I had earned a reputation for helping gang members out of gangs and when approached with the opportunity to work at the teen center it was an easy decision to make.
One day the Executive Director asked me if I wanted to learn how to write Federal Grants and then teach other nonprofit leaders to do the same. I said yes without a hint of where this opportunity would lead to. This was during the Bush Administration (2000-2008) as they were trying to figure out how to bring equity to the inequality of nonprofit funding for faith-based organizations.
During the training one of the women there came up to me and said, “Hey Richard. Did you know that Latino organizations are not receiving any of these federal funds?” I replied, “No.” “Why?” She said, “Because they don’t know what to do, where to go, or how to access these funds. That short conversation sparked something in me. I said, “Well, that needs to change.”
I proceeded from there to suggest to the Executive Director who was providing the training that we have a meeting with him, my Executive Director at that time, and a Pastor I knew who was doing great work with Latino gangs, drug addicts, and other troubled Latino youth and families.
In that meeting I expressed to them what I thought could happen if we created an organization combined of Latino faith and community-based organizations to help meet this need of getting federal funds to Latino-led faith and community based organizations.
As a result of that meeting, we decided to take a poll of the Latino leaders that were at the conference we held to teach them how to write federal grant proposals. We asked them if they felt an organization like I suggested would be of value. The response was an overwhelming “Yes!” That was 19 years ago.
Today the LCCL continues to find, fund, form, and feature nonprofits in marginalized communities meeting the needs of individuals and families. To date the LCCL has accessed more than $44.5m in Federal grants from the Departments of Labor, Justice, and Health and Human Services and almost $53.5m in State funding from Colorado and California. In addition, funding from foundations, corporate and private donors have enabled the LCCL to provide comprehensive grant making, capacity building and technical assistance to community and faith-based organizations while driving money deep into the communities we serve. We have partnered with more than 178 CFBOs in marginalized communities throughout the United States to leverage more than $102.5 million dollars invested into low-income/rural communities and communities of color.
The U.S. Department of Labor, State of Colorado Department of Corrections and other funders have consistently told us that we are one of, if not thee “flagship” intermediary in the country. I attribute that to our excellent staff and the service they provide all our community partners. If I was to point out one thing that sets the LCCL apart from other national intermediaries it would be our servant-leadership mindset. We position ourselves as a resource, guide, and coach to come along side as a partner with the nonprofits we find, fund, form, and feature to assure their success and long-term sustainability.
In addition to my role as an Executive Director, I provide Executive coaching for other nonprofit Executive Director’s. I have developed a leadership Academy for them, and staff members interested in growth on a personal, professional, and organizational level.
I am also an author. I have written three books. Two on gang prevention: Got Gangs?, Gang Prevention and Schools, and a third book on developing Latino youth leadership: From the Margins to the Mainstream – Developing Latino Leaders for the 21st Century. In addition to the books, I have developed a parent leadership curriculum: “Parents on a Mission” (POM), Winning the hearts, minds, and loyalty of their children. I conduct a three-day train the trainer seminar for community leaders to use the curriculum with their community as parent mentors/coaches. I am pleased to see how my POM curriculum has grown nationally being taught through school districts, churches, nonprofits, prisons, and jails and most recently internationally in the country of Guatemala as part of their community violence prevention programming.
In addition, from the Margins to Mainstream, book I developed, a youth leadership curriculum, “Youth on a Mission” (YOM) – The Future of Leadership. This is a two-day training for community youth mentors to teach youth (18-24) how to develop their leadership skills.
The main thing I would want potential clients to know is that my goal is to serve them and help them reach their peak potential personally, professionally, and in profitability.
How about pivoting – can you share the story of a time you’ve had to pivot?
My career has been interesting. I have been in a leadership, Executive, CEO, i.e. “the Boss” for the past 50 years of my life. And yet, I always felt, and knew/know that I wasn’t really qualified for the position I somehow ended up in. The good part about this is the lessons learned and mindset I gained from this experience, which is that I have never stopped trying to qualify for my position, as opposed to an attitude that because of my education and experience that I have somehow “arrived”.
This began in 1982 in my church. I was a new convert with only ten months of membership when the Pastor asked me if I wanted to teach Sunday Bible classes (I was the volunteer church gardener at the time). I figured if he thought I was ready for it, I should accept the offer though I knew nothing about theology, doctrine, or other basic principles one should know if you are going to be teaching from the Bible. But I did know how to study having earned a Master’s of Science Degree in Education and Counseling, so study I did.
A few months after that, the Pastor came to me again and told me and my wife that he was leaving and wanted me to take over the church! Again, being ignorant of what I was getting myself into, I figured if he thought I could do it I should accept the position of the new senior pastor. Imagine this: I knew nothing about administration, budgets, running an organization, discipleship, the basics of building a ministry, etc. I was just a retired “jock” from the world of sports at that time.
I made a lot of mistakes. Conducted radical outreach efforts that got me arrested three times for “disturbing the peace”. Nevertheless, those radical efforts later turned into a street outreach program that became a prominent and well-known evangelistic service every year during the City’s annual “Fiestas” that celebrates the history of the city of Santa Barbara, CA. And, in spite of my ignorance, the church did grow over my sixteen-year tenure. We made a significant impact in the city for a small church. Those were some of the best (and challenging) years of my life.
However, in January of 1993 my wife (and mother of five children) was diagnosed with breast cancer. By November of 1994 she passed away. This was devastating to say the least. At the time my boys were 19 and 15. My girls were 12, 10, and 8.
This threw me into a tailspin and became a real test of my faith. I was confused, broken, and just plain angry at God! I tried to move on and maintain my family, and full-time ministry, but in the end, I failed my children, my friends, family, and church.
I tried to regain some normalcy and meet my needs as a man much too fast. Looking back, I just didn’t allow myself to grieve properly, and remarried much too soon. It was a huge mistake that I regret to this day for all the pain I caused my wife at that time, as well as the church, not to mention my family. It didn’t work out and we ended up getting a divorce after only a little more than a year of marriage.
Due to my indiscretions, I resigned from my church. Now, after sixteen wonderful years, I was out of the ministry, out of a job, lost many friends, and wasn’t sure what I was going to do to support my five children. In my heart I had disqualified myself from holding the position of the pulpit; “the sacred desk” as some refer to it, and knew I would need to look into another field of work.
After short stint in Hollywood as an “extra” in commercials and movies, I found my way to a local community Foundation. I was given a recording of a woman who had spoken at the Foundation Conference. In her message, she exhorted the community foundation leaders in attendance that if they wanted to make a significant impact in their city and see a better return no their investment (grant funding) they needed to include the faith community in their portfolio of funding. After listening to her message, and given my situation of needing a job, plus my faith background, I set up an appointment with the Foundation President.
In our meeting told him I had heard the tape and wondered if there was a way we could develop a way to engage the faith community. He suggested that I reach out to a faith-based organization he knew of at USC and talk to the directors of their outreach program. I did so, and that ended up in my participation in a community organizing training for faith-based leaders involved in the social justice movement at that time (1998).
This led to the suggestion to write a proposal to the Foundation (I knew nothing about writing a proposal). The President was gracious enough to appoint a grant writer to work with me to come up with a proposal of what I would do with the money (I had no idea). But what I did know was that I knew how to serve people, reach out to people, and bring together people around a cause to the benefit of the larger community. I just didn’t know how to articulate it in “Foundation Grant speak”.
I ended up receiving a $50,000 grant to survey the faith-community to see if there was interest in forming some type of faith-based advocacy organization. It was new territory for me as I did not know how to create a survey or calculate the results into a report that would be needed to move forward. The Foundation staff pointed me in the direction of different experts in the community that helped me through this whole process.
The end result was an overwhelming positive response from the faith-community for an organization that would give them a voice at the community problem solving table. Of course, that led to the question of who was going to run such an organization. The Foundation called together an ecumenical group of ministers to discuss this. As the weeks and months went by, I was the only one that kept showing up…and eventually I was appointed to the Executive Director position.
Another pivot, and again in a position that I wasn’t qualified for. Not from the faith perspective. But from the foundation, grant, nonprofit, community organizing, ecumenical gathering world. Yet, through community organizing efforts, the Santa Barbara Inter-faith Coalition made a huge difference in convincing the Santa Barbara City Council and County Supervisors to approve affordable housing projects that they had been against and rejecting for years.
From this role I eventually ended up pivoting again to the Teen Center Director job (mentioned earlier). I had never run a teen center before. The Isla Vista Teen Center was primarily funded by the University of California at Santa Barbara. This thrust me into working with the University Administration because in addition to providing funding they were also staffing the center with their university students that I would now be supervising as the new teen center Director.
It was from the teen center that I pivoted to my current Executive Director position with the LCCL (as mentioned above). Here I was again with no experience with administering Federal grants. No staff. No building. And no knowledge of “government speak” in dealing with Federal agencies and all the regulations that come with receiving a federal grant. Yet (again), despite my ignorance the first Federal grant I received was for…wait for it…$10 million dollars to be distributed in six different cities in three different States over a three-year period.
As I mentioned earlier, nineteen years later, I am still trying to qualify for my job as the Executive Director.
How do you keep your team’s morale high?
There are many lessons I have learned over my career as a Leader of people and building an organization:
- Managing a Team:
– First, know why you exist. Your “why” must always be bigger than your “what”. This helps sustain you during the tough times.
– Establish your core values and principles of operation. Coach your organization or team members how you “act”. How you conduct yourselves with each other and your clients.
– Over communicate your mission. Clarify what you “do”. Be clear and don’t drift from your mission, core values and principles.
– Change your practices, not your principles. Too much focus on your practices will cause you to become irrelevant.
– Determine how you will succeed and sustain your org. This is done by preserving your core and exploiting your foundational principles before you explore new avenues of adventure for growing your organization.
– Learn that you don’t have to be in control of everything to be in charge of everything.
- Team Morale
– Establish a culture of TRUST. Nothing is more important than this. Trust at the interpersonal (staff) level is determined by trustworthy people at the individual level. Trustworthy people possess two things: a) competence, b) character.
– Establish a culture of freedom with responsibility vs. control and demand. If you hire the right people in the right positions what they need from you is context, not control. Tell them what is expected, provide the resources, give guidance and accountability, and then get out of their way to unleash their creativity and genius on how they will get the job done.
– Don’t look for staff to please you but rather to give you candid feedback.
– Get the wrong people “off the bus” as quickly as possible. You owe it to them, and your other staff that want to work with excellence not adequacy.
– Recognize and reward often publicly. Correct privately.
– Promote and demonstrate servant-leadership.
– Get rid of as many useless, senseless rules and policies as possible.
– Give staff flexibility of where and when they work. The main thing is to get the job done on time and on budget. Where and when it happens is secondary.
– Put people over process and policies, innovation over efficiency, and risk taking over security and safety.
These are just a few of the things I would offer to manage a team for high-trust, which leads to high-performance, that develops a high-reliability organization.
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