Q&A / The city is their classroom
Althea E. Luehrsen on Leadership Buffalo
CEO of Leadership Buffalo (LB), Althea Luehrsen
Photo by kc kratt
She calls herself a cheerleader, but the CEO of Leadership Buffalo (LB) is helping to create activists, not just boosters. In her sixth year as head, Althea Luehrsen has fine-tuned the nonprofit organization, “embellishing” its mission of making Buffalo better through community service, civic engagement, and collaborations. LB participants spend one year exploring Buffalo, good and bad, through field trips, seminars, and retreats that cover all aspects of urban life in every neighborhood. Development of programs that foster the service mission as well as diversity, inclusion, and openness to change has increased its reach and visibility. LB—which this year will graduate its thirtieth class—is now in the enviable position of turning away applicants. Luehrsen is quick to credit a hardworking board with that success, but the Williamsville native’s four decades of expertise in various aspects of business and her years of higher education administration may also be helping. She has served as executive director of UB’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership as well as assistant vice president for corporate and foundation relations. She still runs her own consulting business, Strategic Solutions Group, and currently serves on eight boards. A 2010 graduate of LB, steering the organization is Luehrsen’s dream job, one she enjoys so much that “it doesn’t even feel like working.” Her passion colors a view of Buffalo that grows rosier every day, but doesn’t exclude recognition of the city’s shortcomings and failures. Those are problems she would like LB participants to try solving.
You left a successful career in academia to take on the LB mantle. What motivated you?
I like to fix things; I am not so much a creator as a developer. When I learned about the LB opening, I was intrigued; I’d been through the program myself and knew what I could do. So, at fifty-five, I left UB, took a cut in pay and benefits, and I haven’t regretted it one minute. Even my former boss said it was a perfect job for me.
Helping to spread positivity is one way to put what I do. At LB, we talk about making Buffalo better. We represent everyone, taking leaders from every walk of life; getting them to know Buffalo over one year’s commitment. There are four core programs: the original Class Experience for individuals currently serving in a leadership role in business, education, civic, and community enterprises; Rising Leaders, for those who are “up and coming” in their careers; Experience Buffalo, for relocated senior executives (we show them we’re more than snow and chicken wings!); and Youth Leadership, teaching leadership skills and community awareness to high school students from public and private schools all over Western New York.
Each group has a limited number of participants. We also have some 700 engaged alumni, who gather not just for social events, but for continuing community engagement. For the past few years, classes have adopted a project; for example, the members of the 2013 Class are very involved with the Matt Urban Hope Center, helping to preserve the quality of life in an East Side neighborhood. Graduates from 2015 volunteer as adult professional mentors for girls served by Gateway Longview, which provides support to children and families across the region. We do have that expectation that, when you graduate, you commit to doing something, some type of sustainable project in the community.
So, you’re not just training leaders for the sake of success in the professional realm?
The best leaders give rather than take. We encourage LB participants to join a board or deep-dive into a neighborhood project. The city is our classroom. We climb construction ladders. We go to the jail. There is not a corner of Buffalo we haven’t seen. Every month we explore a timely topic, from the environment to education, economic development, arts and culture, health care, transportation. We have a diversity day, devoted to issues of religion, race, and the LGBTQ community. We are now considering the issues of hunger and poverty, recognizing that Buffalo is the third-poorest large city in the country. We try to imbue a sense of responsibility in our LB participants; the notion that it is up to them to do something. This community belongs to all of us. Our goal is to send out knowledgeable leaders with open minds and eyes wide open, and to deploy them wherever they are needed.
You’ve deployed the Mayor of Buffalo.
Yes, Byron Brown is a member of our Class of 1988. We have a 138-page membership directory full of names of local leaders in many arenas. We spit out 175 people a year, all of whom have their eyes wide open. Through collaboration with other leadership organizations—we really try not to compete, but rather to build relationships—we are spreading the word about LB, which is self-funded [through tuition, alumni membership fees, and fundraising], a 501(c)3 stand-alone organization. Our focus is eighty percent community and twenty percent development of leadership skills. I see it as leveling the playing field. We represent everyone. And we focus on one thing, which is Buffalo. And I feel a lot of hope, as Buffalo is on an upward path. As long as people can listen and respectfully disagree, we can move forward. Everyone benefits from a better Buffalo. I’d love to continue to grow this organization, and I love my job, being the public face of LB. I feel like I am making a difference, and not just getting a paycheck. Although I like that, too!
Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.