Photos by Marie Ketring + Words by Lisa Dahlberg
Intrepid members of YNPN Twin Cities braved icy roads to attend a recent Leadership Breakfast at Minnetonka-based Opportunity Partners. The reason for the trek? The chance to meet and network with Armando Camacho, a fixture in the Twin Cities’ education and nonprofit communities. Formerly the CEO of Neighborhood House in Saint Paul, his first foray into the nonprofit sector, Camacho joined Opportunity Partners in late 2013. He began his career in special education, and from there went on to become principal of a Minneapolis elementary school. Within four years, he turned the school around—from the lowest-performing school in the district to the highest. In the early morning hours, Camacho shared with attendees his origin story and his thoughts on leadership.
We are whole people, not our “work selves” and “personal selves.”
“It’s hard to separate your personal life from your work life, even though sometimes our employers tell us that your personal life is your personal life and work is work. But I’m a firm believer that who we are as human beings is really dictated through our own experiences from the day we were born. Maybe even the day before we were born. So it’s important, I think, for us to have a better understanding of what our backgrounds are, where we’ve been, because for me, that has translated to my career path in the nonprofit sector and education.”
When people invest in you, invest in yourself too.
“I was born in Puerto Rico and my grandparents raised me. I came here with my grandparents at the age of six years old. Saint Paul’s West Side had a large Latino community; that’s where the Latino community in Minnesota started, in the area between West 7th and the downtown airport. If you were Spanish-speaking in 1980, chances were you’d end up on the West Side if you wanted to be around people that looked like you, spoke your language, etc. So I moved here at six, and then my grandparents decided to move back to Puerto Rico when I was in middle school, then I came back up here on my own at fifteen. So I often get that question, you know—“What drives you?”—and it’s that I’ve always had so many people helping me along the way. I had to find a new place to live every year when I was in high school, so I never had the luxury [of not being drive]. If I wanted to eat, I had to work. But luckily I got involved in athletics through the school system, and teachers started helping me. And I think I figured out at a young age that if you ask people for help, they will help you. I feel that as human beings, innately, we’re built to help people.”
You have to do the work AND create the culture.
“The biggest thing we were able to do at Whittier [Elementary] was transform the culture, and that was by trying to bring about community. At that school, my philosophy was to believe in people, to empower people to be authentic, and to focus on the important things. The first day I was there I actually took everyone, all the teachers, on a school bus and we went to Camp St. Croix, which is a place for adventure learning. I knew that we needed these teachers to learn together, to trust each other, and learn how to communicate. They were pissed as hell that I made them do that! It was their first day back, and teachers want to be able to be in the classroom when they first get into the school. But when we got back everyone was feeling great. From there, I worked with a consultant on communicating, conflict resolution, building community. So it wasn’t a drive-through workshop, something you experience only once—it was something we worked on over the years, continuously. We worked on that, but we worked on curriculum at the same time. Culture has to be integrated into everything that you do. You still focus on your work, but you have to build that community at the same time.”
It’s not about power. It’s about influence.
“Things don’t have to be crappy at work. There are people who work in really challenging, stressful environments with plenty of challenges who still love their jobs. Usually that is because the person who’s the leader, who’s been given that authority, creates a place where you can still be challenged by the work itself, but it’s a fun place to work. There’s a good culture there, people are engaged. So for me, I found out at an early age that leaders can really influence an organization. If I’m the president of a nonprofit, I can influence a whole community. So that’s the way I viewed my leadership, and that’s how I view my leadership at Opportunity Partners. I can influence over 600 employees, who hopefully in turn will influence some 2,000 people with disabilities, who then will influence other organizations and the government. It’s not about power and authority, it’s about influence. There are people who I work with who know more than me, who are smarter than me, but I have a role in supporting them and serving them. Leadership is about empowering those you serve.”
It doesn’t take a title.
“I’m passionate about leadership and about improving people’s lives through leadership. All of you are leaders in your respective organizations. You don’t need a title to lead. The challenge becomes that if the organization doesn’t empower its employees, then they’re really not taking advantage of the skill sets of their people.”