How NLDP is helping community leaders harness their superpowers for powerful change in CLE

You likely know the unelected, unsung leaders in your community. They’re the ones volunteering at local events, spreading the word in online neighborhood groups, leading grassroots initiatives, and giving voice to residents who might not otherwise have one.

But what you—and they—might not know is that there’s a free program dedicated to helping them harness their superpowers and make even more of an impact. It’s called the Neighborhood Leadership Development Program (NLDP), and it’s been around since 2006 when it was founded by then-mayor Michael White and the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation.

Program administrator Sandra Kluk understands firsthand the need for a program like NLDP—after all, she was once in the participants’ shoes as a community organizer back in the 80s for the Buckeye-Woodland Community Congress.

“Back then, we didn’t have [NLDP] as a resource—there was no programming like that being offered in the city,” says Kluk, who started at NLDP in 2012. “The fact that NLDP is now offering these types of topics by quality presenters—plus the fact that it’s at no cost—is extremely important. It’s vital, especially for grassroots leaders who are on the ground.”

More than 200 graduates have come through the NLDP program, which empowers leaders in both Cleveland proper and the inner-ring suburbs. Twenty people are selected each session, with one of four applicants selected for the program.

Graduates of the most recent cohort—which wrapped earlier this month—include Queen IAM founder Dameyonna Willis of West Park/Detroit Shoreway; SWAG founder Waverly Willis of Cudell/Brooklyn; and community organizer Kristian Hunter of Collinwood.

“[These leaders are] diamonds in the rough,” says Kluk. “They’ve been doing this work on their own for the communities for so long. When they come to us, they often feel stuck—not knowing where to go with their program or how to build it. They’re looking to find ways to improve the work they do, and they do it. It’s really quite amazing.”

Topics for the 16-session program include conflict resolution and negotiation; leading through an equity lens; program planning; Cleveland history; and more. “Because our participants are required to have a project when they come in, they can take those skills right back and utilize them in real-time,” explains Kluk.

That was true for Tonya Perkins-Stoudemire, who was part of Cohort IX in 2016 and founded Bessie’s Angels to provide resources, support, and low-income housing to women ages 18-24 who are transitioning out of foster care. “I learned how to stay on track and not procrastinate,” says Perkins-Stoudemire. “NLDP showed me how to frame the work we do and remain within the mission.”

Participants are also matched with a coach in teams of five to do further work on developing their personal and professional potential. “Michael [White] does all of the matching—he has a sixth sense about which participants would make a good match for each coach,” says Kluk.

The education and networking opportunities continue beyond the 11-month cohort for the graduates, who stay connected via Facebook groups, newsletters, skills-building seminars, networking events, and fireside chats with local notables. 

"Recently, I attended a session to hear Margot Copeland (KeyBank Foundation) and Brandon Chrostowski (EDWINS)," shares NLDP alum Maria Campanelli, who acts as executive director of the Children's Museum of Cleveland. "Hearing their success stories was an inspiration."

NLDP is currently accepting applications for its 13th cohort through early August, and the organization also recently moved into a new, larger location that offers workspace for graduates, meeting areas, coaching quarters, and a conference room. An open house event will be held on June 18 to show off the new space and share information about the program with prospective participants.

Perkins-Stoudemire says she would recommend participation in NLDP to anyone looking to better their community and plug into a strong support network.

"NLDP continues to lift me up," says Perkins-Stoudemire. "I gain strength from knowing that I can ask for assistance and get it. We can use the network of cohorts as an army to serve the underserved and change lives."

Jen Jones Donatelli
Jen Jones Donatelli

About the Author: Jen Jones Donatelli

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast.

When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.