STEP 2015 Leadership Reflection: Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership

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Name: Charles Jacob Perry

Type of Project: Leadership

In June of 2015, I took part in the 2015 College Leaders Program through the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. This is a nationally recognized and highly competitive program on public service and leadership for college students, and is held each summer for two weeks on grounds at U.Va. in Charlottesville, Virginia. The College Leaders Program is based on a Virginia-focused, multidisciplinary curriculum oriented around ethical and responsible citizenship and public service in the Commonwealth.

My view of sound policy making changed dramatically as a result of being a member of the College Leaders Program Class of 2015. I came into the program expecting to learn only about the nuts and bolts behind governance in the Commonwealth of Virginia, my home state, and to gain a better understanding of the technicalities behind writing and pitching legislation. I came into the experience with a hypersensitivity to partisanship, doing my best to detect the political views of my fellow students despite the program’s emphasis on keeping party affiliation private until graduation. I initially saw the policy process in only a game theoretic light, and saw the program as an opportunity to learn how to build on and remain true to my own political philosophy. While I certainly learned a great deal about Virginia public policy, modern issue advocacy, and the underpinnings of partisanship in lawmaking, I came to view the entire policy making process from a new angle. Rather than viewing my fellow students as members of Party X or Party Y, I got to know them as individuals first. The program was intentionally relational, and I spent time learning about leadership and getting to know the other students as we spent virtually every minute of our time together. We came to trust one another as sincere friends, and as the program progressed we were asked to apply our knowledge in legislative simulations or debates. Discussions were so much more productive when they were grounded in mutual understanding and respect without any preconceived notions rather than a bitter clash of arguments and political jockeying. Although I had assumed that the most successful politicians and policies were those grounded only in firm conviction and unshakable on their issue stances, I learned that truly good governance is born out of problem solving from a place of shared commitment to broader ideals and deep respect amongst policy makers. While conviction is an admirable quality in a lawmaker, so too is the ability to wholeheartedly consider the viewpoints of others and incorporate them into one’s own way of thinking.

Connecting personally with my colleagues was the central factor behind my transformation. All 16 of us lived together throughout the intensive two week program, and spent time sharing our diverse perspectives and philosophies with one another late into the night on numerous occasions. By structuring the program in a way that emphasized personal connection with one another, the program staff facilitated the development of relationships grounded in common ground and shared experience as well as the appreciation of a plethora of viewpoints and past experiences. From overtly relational activities like our day at a ropes course together to more subtle opportunities for bonding like suite-hosted meals, the program fostered new friendship and understanding that underscored all other aspects of our time together.
In addition to interpersonal relationships, the opportunity to learn about Virginia government and politics, public policy, and issue advocacy in a relevant way was particularly impactful. We learned about the core functions of state and local governments and related policy issues from seasoned faculty and guest lecturers based on our Commonwealth’s unique history, making what might have otherwise been merely a dull study of textbooks become a practical and incredibly engaging way to understand our political system. From here, we partook in in-depth study of the major public policy issues facing the Commonwealth and learned how legislation is written, advocated, and debated with a focus on student discussions, simulations, and debates. I was elected “Senate Minority Leader” as we worked through legislative committees to promote our parties’ agendas in a mock General Assembly session, and served as “House Committee Chair” in a mock hearing to resolve a fictitious billion dollar budget shortfall in the infamous “Budget Game”. Having learned about functions of Virginia’s government and the challenges facing it, we turned to practical advocacy skills including op-ed writing, lobbying legislators, and employing grassroots campaign techniques. We engaged in workshops with relevant experts to better understand our personal leadership styles and the issues faced throughout the Commonwealth.
With a strong knowledge base, we traveled around the Commonwealth to learn more about policy issues. We studied economic development in Danville, criminal justice policy at Greenrock Correctional Facility, the inter-workings of the General Assembly in Richmond, and best practices in law enforcement at the Virginia State Police Academy. Perhaps one of the most important applications of my experience with the program that influenced my transformation was the opportunity to present a concrete policy proposal to a panel of experienced government and business leaders. Three colleagues and I worked together to research and write a full report with recommendations for our proposed legislation to promote economic development in Southwest and Southside Virginia. We received invaluable critique from a panel that included a prominent state senator, a well-regarded academic specializing in Virginia politics, a vice president from Rolls Royce North America, and the executive director of the Sorensen Institute. Writing and presenting legislation served as a fitting capstone project to apply my skills acquired and honed throughout the program. I was nominated and elected Class President by my peers, and was one of two recipients of the Spirit of Citizenship Award given by the program staff at the conclusion of the CLP as well.

This change in the way that I view the legislative process will undoubtedly shape the way that I approach my career. After graduation I hope to work in a political field that ties together my interest in government finance and public policy- this may include working on campaigns, as a staffer on Capitol Hill, as a liaison for a private company or advocacy group in their governmental affairs division, or in a policy think-tank to advise policy makers and executives. After gaining more real world experience in this sphere, I hope to learn more about what field I would like to specialize in and pursue a relevant Master’s degree in Business Administration or Public Policy. Ultimately, my goal is to one day serve as an elected official. I am confident that in any of these capacities, I will be a more effective advocate after learning just how valuable the appreciation of decision makers’ diverse experiences and backgrounds is to any organization tasked with complex decision making.

Photo Credits:

Panel Presentation, University of Virginia. Personal photograph by author. 2015.Photo taken by Ms. Sarah Lewis (fellow CLP 2015graduate).

CLP 2015: Day 12-Wednesday, June 24. 2015. Newsroom, Richmond, VA.Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. By Sorensen Institute. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.

CLP 2015: Day 3-Monday, June 15. 2015. Newsroom, University of Virginia.Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. By Sorensen Institute. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.

CLP 2015: Day 5-Wednesday, June 17. 2015. Newsroom, Danville, VA.Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. By Sorensen Institute. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.

CLP 2015: Day 6-Thursday, June 18. 2015. Newsroom, University of Virginia.Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. By Sorensen Institute. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.