Stacy Kono | Leading Heart First

Stacy Kono is the Director of Programmatic Partnerships at the Rockwood Leadership Institute. She oversees Rockwood’s trainings and fellowship programs which equip over 300 leaders a year with tools in collaboration and sustainable leadership. She joined Rockwood after having worked for ten years as an organizer with Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) in Oakland.

Stacy Kono has been a social justice activist for the past 20 years. I was moved to learn that her inspiration to work for social justice came from the stories of her family and community’s experiences during World War II.

As a third generation Japanese-American, Stacy’s parents went into the internment camps as children and so were just old enough to remember what it was like to be incarcerated. Just old enough to pass the stories on to her that became the roots of her social justice work. “The stories of [my parents’] and my community’s experiences made me aware of and angry at systemic racism and war. As I learned more about other social movements, I saw the connections with my family’s experience to many peoples all over the world and was moved to commit myself to work towards justice.”

During high school, Stacy marched against the first Iraq war, demonstrated against apartheid, and for ten years after college organized with Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA), an organization which builds leadership and collective action among low-income Asian immigrant women workers for safer working and living conditions.

Throughout her work, her focus has almost always been on peace and justice. Now at Rockwood, as the Director of Programmatic Partnerships, Stacy’s focus has shifted. Sort of. Rockwood focuses on creating powerful, effective leaders in the social justice movement. While that may not look like peace and justice work you might ask yourself, how else do we get peace and justice?

Stacy talked about her own experiences of first arriving at Rockwood and how working there changed how she cared for herself. “Like many leaders and activists who have come through Rockwood trainings, learning about and joining Rockwood was transformative for me. I “arrived” carrying with me that same anger about the systems that historically and continue to repress communities of color, immigrant communities, and working people. And I arrived with habits of working long hours, and not tending to my health and wellness.

“Through Rockwood’s work, I began to see that the powerful leadership that I, as an organizer, had been cultivating at AIWA in our immigrant women members, was important to all leaders. And that while fighting against systems of power was one way of creating change, rooting my purpose and vision in love, rather than anger, was more effective for me over the long haul. I also became clear that I didn’t have to be afraid of power – that I, too, can be and need to be powerful as a leader for change.”

These days Stacy sustains herself through meditation practice (which she does on her own and with folks at Rockwood) and through body practices like swimming, running, and recently through her new found inspiration for martial arts. All of which remind her to be present and remind her, as she puts it “that she has a body.” As folks dedicated to change and transformation, many of us forget that we need to take care of our physical selves if we want to push forth change, if we want to be effective as leaders. We focus ourselves on ideas, plans, intentions and remain in our heads.

Curious about how Rockwood sees the leadership in others, I asked her, “So, what makes a good leader?”

“At Rockwood, we define leadership as “the ability to inspire and align others towards common goals.”  To Stacy, “Effective leaders are grounded in their purpose and power, articulate a mobilizing vision, build lasting partnerships with integrity, and create results that make a difference in people’s lives. We are moved by good leaders to be powerful and engaged with each other.”

Included in her definition are folks who’ve moved her:

“I am inspired by the leaders who participate in Rockwood’s Fellowships  and Leading from the Inside Out Programs such as:

Malkia Cyril who founded the Center for Media Justice with the bold mission “to create media and cultural conditions that strengthen movements for racial justice, economic equity, and human rights.” Malkia has actualized a vision of a national network for grassroots media activism, which works to protect our democracy and access to the media.

Ai-jen Poo, who is the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, calls for us to “organize with love and hope” and has built a national campaign that engages caregivers and their clients. In 2010, as a result of her leadership and the work of the NDWA, the first ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was passed to ensure basic worker protections to nannies, housekeepers and other domestic workers.

Sarah Hodgdon who is the Conservation Director for the Sierra Club, and oversees the national campaigns and programs including the Beyond Coal, Beyond Oil, and Resilient Habitats campaigns. Through the Climate Recovery Partnership she is engaging 1.4 Sierra Club members to advocate for policy changes to prevent further damage to the planet by climate change.

“They are just three of the many leaders who I am so proud of and inspired that Rockwood supports, who lead with integrity, creativity, and commitment creating real impact in our communities and on our planet.”

“But once they leave, how do folks sustain that sense of being powerful? What are some things people do?” I asked.

It seemed as though a lot of what sustained people was what they were able to take away from the programs themselves: Stacy said that, “One woman found that getting really clear on how important purpose is was supportive. (During the trainings participants craft their own purpose statements.) Purpose is the first leadership practice we do and a lot of folks revisit purpose and get a lot out of it even after the training is over.”

She also said me that people take away the practice of paying attention to their own patterns and habits. Through this they come to understand that all leaders have different styles and different habits. This knowledge alone changes how they interact with others, so that they begin to ask themselves how they can better partner with someone who works differently than they do. She said, “It’s both about us accepting who we are and seeing where we can stretch. The work of a leader is never in isolation; it’s in connection with others. It’s hard affecting the change I want to see in the world. But I will be sustained with my connection to others.”

Rockwood has nearly a dozen programs that support people in developing their leadership capabilities. Overall Stacy says they are “building a network of interconnected, purpose-driven, visionary leaders across the country. We’re doing this by offering trainings, fellowship programs and providing support to [leaders] in transforming their organizations and movements.”

I asked her to talk about some of the key things Rockwood is doing in their programs toward helping people cultivate leadership?

She said, “Our retreats, such as the Art of Leadership and Advanced Art of Leadership, create powerful learning communities of social change leaders and the opportunity to step back from their work and engage in challenging reflection on how they are leading. Rockwood Fellowships convene leaders within specific sectors or geographic regions over a series of retreats to deepen their skills and foster partnership.

“[We] invite organizations to bring their teams through our programs so they can gain shared language and tools to partner well with each other. We also are providing organizational leadership programming to support organizations to create cultures and structures that create change.”

I asked, “Speaking of change, how does a Rockwood program tie in things like nonviolence or the internal changes one needs to make on an individual level to the work of sustainability/transformation through leadership?”

“Our approach is built on the premise that awareness of one’s purpose, interconnectedness, and power are essential to leadership. It’s rooted in the idea that Mahatma Gandhi has been so often quoted as saying, ‘We must be the change we want to see in the world.’

“I cannot inspire and align others towards my vision if I am not paying attention to my impact on others. A simple example is when I realized sending emails after work hours was leading my co-workers to believe that I expected them to respond after hours. I subsequently paid more attention to how I communicated with them, putting into practice the personal ecology that I want for them and for myself.

“This also applies to how we lead our work externally. Rockwood’s Fellowship Programs convene leaders within a specific sector or geographic region to foster partnership and collaboration. Our Fellowships are designed to deepen individual leadership – self awareness, communication, personal ecology – and build a strong learning community, so that leaders are better able to “play in the playground” with others in their field. As a result of our Fellowships, leaders are working in new ways – community organizers with policy advocates, or national level organizations with local organizations.”

Given the fact that the Occupy Wall Street movement is still going strong and is leaderless, as have been other movements, I had to ask, “Can we have successful movements without clear leaders?”

“To me, movements occur when groups of organizations and individuals are “moved” to create transformation – like how individuals and organizations combine their actions and voices to make the notion of the 99% become undeniably heard through Occupy Wall Street. Or during the civil rights movement, the sum total of campaigns and boycotts created a shift in the culture and structures in the U.S.

“Should leaders be recognizable? Yes, we need leaders who are seen and acknowledged. They are how we keep our stories and history alive. But I don’t think movements are successful only because of “clear leadership.” Movements require many visionary, collaborative leaders who cultivate more leaders. Movements last because leaders inspire people to join or take action, to take leadership in some way, so that the ideas are no longer rooted in one location or person.”


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