You care deeply about making Miami a better city. You may be actively working towards improving our environment, contributing to a nonprofit, or bettering business conditions in the city. Or maybe you’re simply wondering how you can make a difference.
But unless you’ve done a lot of work to build your network, or been blessed by the social gods, you may find yourself driving down US-1 wondering, “Where are my people?”
You are not alone.
Just in case you need a little guidance in finding your civically minded peers, we sat down with Ana J. Colls.
Currently Assistant Director of Parks and Recreation for the Village of Key Biscayne by day, Colls is also helping lead two thriving communities of civically active young professionals: in her free time she serves as Co-Director of the New Leaders Council (NLC) Miami Chapter and Director of Operations of Women’s Movement Now (WMN). She’s here to share a bit of her journey towards finding community, and open the door to the groups she’s helped build so that you too can step inside.
You grew up in Miami, left for a while and returned. What were you hoping for in terms of community when you came back?
During a graduate internship in Coachella, California, I was inspired by a group of recent college grads returning to pursue positions of civic leadership in their hometown. I kept thinking about how wonderful it would be if that was happening in Miami. If we had young professionals who were actively engaged in shaping the future of our community.
When did you return? What was it like to come back?
I returned in 2008 after finishing graduate school and discovering a passion for public service. At first, I felt isolated and disconnected — I was literally working on an island. I struggled to find my people here. It took almost three years to realize that I had to play an active role in building the kind of community where I felt like I belonged.
I credit the Miami Fellows, a leadership development program offered by the Miami Foundation, for being the catalyst that introduced me to a group of people who also wanted to see a better future for Miami.
In 2011 I connected with people who were helping start the New Leaders Council (NLC) Miami chapter. Once I learned that NLC would help connect, prepare and train the next generation of civic leaders in Miami, I knew that I wanted to play an active role in building that community. This year I’ve taken my NLC leadership to the next level by serving as Co-Director with Kubs Lalchandani.
What’s are the defining characteristics of the NLC community?
Vision, passion and motivation to unlock Miami’s potential.
What does NLC do?
New Leaders Council Miami is a chapter of a national non-profit, non-partisan organization that prepares and connects the next generation of civic leaders. Our main focus is a 5-month leadership development Institute that identifies a cohort of talented, young, local professionals, equips them with skills to accelerate their civic engagement, and provides them with access to a powerful network of peers and mentors.
Is there space for people who are not in the Institute to get involved with NLC?
Yes! The NLC Institute is limited to 20 Fellows each year, but we are committed to providing opportunities for Miamians to build community and become more civically engaged. To that end, we host a variety of community events in partnership with organizations like the Good Government Initiative, the Red Cross, and, this year, The New Tropic. We also offer a speaker series focusing on local issues. At one meeting, for example, we discussed the implications of climate change for Miami. We announce all activities on our Facebook and LinkedIn pages.
Tell us about WMN.
Women’s Movement Now (WMN), the Miami Chapter of the Younger Women’s Task Force, is a grassroots group of women in their twenties and thirties who seek to create and maintain a space for the engagement and activism of younger women. We have a very active Facebook page where any member can share ideas, request assistance or propose activities. In the past, members have organized volunteer days at local women’s shelters and organized to support female political candidates. We also have a vibrant book club, potluck brunch discussions, and civic-minded networking events. If there is a cause you want to take action on, we’re here to help.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to help build a better city, but isn’t sure how to plug into community here?
There’s the obvious of coming to NLC, WMN, or similar events. I also suggest reaching out to people who are passionate about the things you care about. Whenever someone wants to discuss my passion for civic engagement and community building, I make myself available. I think many changemakers in Miami are happy to help others connect to the work they’re doing.
By the same token, I encourage those wishing to be part of something bigger than themselves to contribute in their own way. I believe that if Miami can cultivate a more generous culture that values a collaborative approach to improving Miami, then our city will truly prosper. I dedicate so much of my free time to WMN and NLC because these groups attract the Miamians who understand that approach.
What has given you hope for the future of civic activism in Miami?
The way in which NLC and WMN have flourished the past few years. Since NLC was established in Miami, we have built a strong and growing community of emerging leaders. Close to 200 people engaged in NLC’s recruitment process for the 2015 Institute. This tells me that many young professionals in Miami are looking for opportunities to serve. The WMN Facebook page has also swollen to 650 members and our gatherings usually draw 20-30 women searching for meaningful connections.
Do you feel like you’ve found your community now?
Absolutely. I found my community by playing an active role in creating it.
Rachel Davita Harris is a writer and Miami native, passionate about helping people and places tell their stories.