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Transcripts - Episode 02: Elisha Arrillaga

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Episode 02: Elisha Arrillaga

Naomi Castro

Hi, I’m Naomi Castro and this is the Castropod. This season I talked with college president and nonprofit leaders doing deep intense work. I want to learn how they do it. Do what? It! The thing, the big stuff. The stuff that makes life better for the people they serve.

Like, how do we measure the impact of the nonprofit? How do we balance autonomy and unity of vision? Last summer I sat down with one of my favorite people Elisha Arrillaga.

I've known Elisha for years, but I didn't know that her parents were real life heroes in the civil rights movement. I also didn't know her favorite candy, but I do now. When we talked she just been named executive director of EdTrust West. So you know we had our own little celebration. Check it out.

Naomi Castro [June 10, 2019]

Congratulations on your new position! Well deserved.

Elisha Arrillaga

Thank you. Thanks.

Naomi Castro

Can you just tell us how your journey began how you ended up here?

Elisha Arrillaga

Sure. So I'm super excited, Naomi, to be doing this with you and you're right, my journey started actually many, many years ago when I was growing up in Mississippi, actually. And my parents were both very involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

And one day when I was 10 years old I walked into my living room and I was super excited because Yolanda King was sitting there. And for me that was the closest thing I've ever seen to a celebrity, because both my parents were so active in their communities and had done so much civil rights work that I just knew it was a really big deal to have her there.

Now she was there because she my mom went to college together, actually, but I knew that the civil rights that I enjoyed as a kid, were only recently hard won from the blood, blood, sweat and tears of families like hers of people like my parents.

So my dad was one of the first folks to integrate the University of Mississippi Law School and my mom sued the city where she grew up when before I was born, I was born and that loss, resulting in some of the anti-discrimination laws that are still there today.

And so I knew, even as a kid that I wasn't just here to take up space, my parents will say that a lot, you know. But that I was here to serve and serve the community around me. And so I like to say I'm an advocate by blood and a researcher by training. And so I had a career trajectory through several different things, but really focused on research and all of that research focused on how do we use data and put data in the hands of communities to make decisions and changes that they want to see.

And I feel like EdTrust West is a place they really marries that together. I'm able to use my, you know, PhD research background but also my advocacy background and be the think tank for the people that we try to be providing data to really change policy in the state of California.

Naomi Castro

Oh my gosh, that's so exciting and okay and I'm now I'm thinking I met your mom.

Elisha Arrillaga

Yeah.

Naomi Castro

Your mom is like this cute little adorable lady, and now I'm like, wow.

Elisha Arrillaga

Yeah, she packs a powerful she's a powerhouse.

Naomi Castro

She really is and a snappy dresser and adorable and always poised, and a lovely lady.

So another thing that I learned while I was doing this deep dive into leadership is effective leaders are always learning. And so I'm wondering is there a particular book, a podcast, an issue that you're just learning about right now and that you're kind of excited to be in that learning mode?

Elisha Arrillaga

I just totally agree that, constantly, always trying to learn what are the newest, especially ways to think about, I think, for me two things: management and strong supervision, and really being a coach to staff, you know, rather than these more kind of hierarchical models.

And so I always think, actually, is really important, and I've been very lucky, especially in these last few years to work closely with a coach at different periods. To just have that outside perspective and someone to really push my thinking and to suggest great things to read practices to try. Right now I'm reading this book Supervision Matters. And it's great. It's just like 100 bite size ideas to really think about how to improve supervisor relationships, how to really be in that coaching relationship with folks and help them really perform at their best and give them the space to do that.

The other thing I think is really important is being able to measure outcomes. And that's something that I'm always trying to think about and look at folks who are doing that work. So we just did some work with ORS Impact it has a lot of work around measuring the impact of advocacy, which, you know, is always a hard thing to do. But I think really important because if we aren't at the end of the changing outcomes for young people in the state, then we we're not doing our jobs. We're not meeting our call, for a why we all sit here in this building.

And so I think being able to say you know, set a North Star goal and then be able to track our progress toward it and make sure that we're actually making a difference is super important to in leadership.

Naomi Castro

That’s fantastic. I know when I when I used to run, kind of small, grant programs at a community college, I would tell my staff, we need to do something sustainable here. And you know if the grant was for $20,000 and it was only serving, you know, 20 students, our impact needs to be greater than if we just gave each one of those students a thousand dollars because otherwise we're wasting money.

Elisha Arrillaga

I totally agree Naomi.

Naomi Castro

Alright, yeah, We’re on the same page.

Another question, and I think this is probably the main question that made me think of reaching out to my network of wonderful leaders, that I've been really wrestling with is our work is very mission driven. And are, the folks that work with us on our teams are mission driven. And so usually that means they need a lot of autonomy. They need space to do what they're good at. At the same time, we've got an organization that has an approach, a philosophy. You know, like, a way of interacting with partners with yeah, with the communities that we serve. So how do you, how do you strike that balance between having like this unified maybe approach, and what like I guess in the business world, they'd call it brand and still having folks have that autonomy and that, you know, self-motivation.

Elisha Arrillaga

Yeah, I mean it for me. I think that's where it's really important, and one of the things that I've been focusing a lot on these first eight weeks in the role, is starting the process at least I'm getting even more clear about our vision and what it is that what our strategic plan includes. So really what we do and what we don't. Because I think when everybody is super aligned around, hey, these are the four or five buckets of things that we work on, and these are the objectives, we're trying to achieve, you can give people a lot of space and autonomy about how you get there. But when vision and goals are sometimes a little bit more ambiguous I feel like that's where, you know, more micromanagement can come in because people can be unclear, like where is it we're trying to go. I thought we're going east but everybody's going west, you know, or I thought that if we met the objective in this way, we were achieving success.

So I think like coming to some shared understanding and a very tight and cohesive way about what it is you're trying to achieve, who you're trying to achieve it for, what success looks like, being super clear about that up front is super important.

So actually, one of the things that we're doing in about four weeks now is, is one of the initial pieces of me taking over leadership of the team, we're all going to go as a whole team, all 22 of us, to Alabama to the Equal Justice Institute and spent about three days there. Both touring the Equal Justice Institute saying the lynching memorial. And while we're there are going to be doing some work re-grounding re-rooting in our mission, vision values.

And I think that's going to be really important because that that experience, one is going to, I think, serve as a tool, both to just re-emphasize why it is we do the work that we do. And also to have some space apart and outside of our usual environment to really get super clear and grounded in why we're doing this work why our mission is what it is. And then use that process as a jumping off point actually for our strategic planning and thinking about our objectives moving forward. And so I'm hopeful that, you know, that process can do some of what I'm talking about in terms of get super clear on our goals and objectives and then give people to space and the autonomy to get there. And to do that.

Naomi Castro

That sounds fantastic. Although in the summer, really? No, I’m teasing.

Elisha Arrillaga

I know, the team said the same thing. July it’s super hot.

Naomi Castro

You’re from Mississippi, I’m from Louisiana. Alabama is our neighbor.

Elisha Arrillaga

Today is just as hot as it is there, here.

Naomi Castro

Not as humid though.

Elisha Arrillaga

Right, this is true

Naomi Castro

But for California, though, this is humid.

Elisha Arrillaga

Exactly.

Naomi Castro

But, you know, this does actually bring up another question too. We usually form questions about making tough decisions in terms of compromising and being creative, but sometimes you can't. Sometimes there's parameters. So if you have to choose between two things you can't smush them together and make something new, and they're both really good, how do you make that decision? Or equally, so if you have to choose something and you're not happy with either of them, and that you can like, I don't like this one, I don't like that one, but you you're forced because of whatever parameters, you have to make that. How do you make those hard decisions?

Elisha Arrillaga

Yeah, I mean, it actually makes me think about, we are going to have some of those decision points, I think in the fall, kind of, when we start to do our strategic plan. I mean we've worked on some things historically for a really long time. We've been around next year for 20 years or moving into a year of celebrating our 20 year anniversary. You know, in my mind, that's actually the point to pick up and say, kind of go up to 30,000 feet and say, hey, you know, where is the world right now? Where can we really make change? And where can we likely have a little bit less impact? And they're gonna have to make some decisions about what we do what we don't do.

And those won't be easy decisions to make because, you know, there may be some people externally, who are wedded to as having done that for a long time, or even internally that same thing. But in my mind, the way that we make those decisions is we have a limited amount of resources, both in people, funding and other things. And so where can we actually move the needle? And that's where we have to make the hard calls and that doesn't make it any easier to kind of have some of those conversations, but if it’s about impact like at the end of the day. That's how, at least to the extent of knowledge that we have, about where we can make impact at the time, that's how I go about trying to make those types of decisions.

Naomi Castro

Okay, that sounds good. When I have to make decisions like that, I’m gonna call you up. We’ll talk it through.

So I've got a couple of questions here that are a little bit more random but they're all they all relate back to leadership.

Is there, is there a you mentioned Supervision Matters, is there a book in your life in general, not necessarily recently that you find yourself giving to people over and over?

Elisha Arrillaga

You know there this book that I read recently someone else gave it to me and I've recommended it many times in the last few months, and it's called Leadership and Self-Deception. Is a classic book. I mean, it was written, I mean, not that long ago, but not recently either. And it's just a powerful I mean, it's a quick read, but it's a powerful story of how sometimes we can create our own narratives about people about their situations and then how that can creep into our leadership style and in hence the title Self-Deception. We deceive ourselves about kind of what's actually going on and our role in it. And the book is really about just like owning your own stuff. Owning when you make a mistake, being clear and transparent with other people about when they do those things, too. And it tells it through, kind of these fictional characters, but also these points along the way. And I think it's one of the most powerful leadership books that I've read.

Naomi Castro

Okay, I've got two so far now. I got a long list. Thank you for that. Thank you.

So do you have any morning or evening. Evening routines like that, you just tried to do to help you start the day

Elisha Arrillaga

Yes, so I was ever biggest morning routine I have is exercise. So at least five or six mornings a week I have, and it's been great, we've created kind of a little cohort of some myself and some of my neighbors to go and workout whether it's running or doing weightlifting at like this local gym. But getting up around 5:15 - five o'clock and doing that, first thing just helps clear my mind and call my spirit for rest of the day.

So I think that, and then I do like some period of prayer and meditation. Those two things combined. I can tell the difference in the days and maybe those one or two days when I'm not exercising the other ones when I am. But it really helps to center me for the rest of the day.

Naomi Castro

Yeah, I know when my son was younger I used to walk him to school his school was so close. And it was I think it was both the exercising of just taking a brisk walk as well as just having this wonderful conversation with this young person. Yeah, like eight from eight to I don't know 11. Yeah. And it was so it really put the world in perspective. Yes. Like that budget or that project scope of work, you're writing up. It's not as important as this little kid.

Elisha Arrillaga

Exactly, that’s so true.

Naomi Castro

Thank you for that.

Okay, so I have a couple of rapid-fire questions. So don't think too much about it, but we can go into any one you want.

Coffee or tea?

Elisha Arrillaga

Coffee.

Naomi Castro

How do you take it?

Elisha Arrillaga

With cream, no sugar.

Naomi Castro

Oh, yeah. Beatles Rolling Stones?

Elisha Arrillaga

Beatles.

Naomi Castro

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Elisha Arrillaga

I'm chocolate chip cookie dough.

Naomi Castro

Oh my gosh. What's on your playlist right now, or is there a song you have on repeat?

Elisha Arrillaga

Oh, what is we're listening to a lot of Sam Cooke right now. My son loves seeing it. I grew up singing his greatest hits album and now my son has a karaoke machine, and he’s singing many of the songs Twisting the Night Away, What a Wonderful World This Could Be. Those are often on the rotation in my house.

Naomi Castro

That is so positive. I'm just imagining your, your little boys singing.

What's the best $100 you ever spent 100 or less.

Elisha Arrillaga

Best 100? You know, I was for many years, when I lived on the East Coast, I worked really closely with the students there and we met there was a college access program and I was a mentor in the program and she and I became, you know, really close. And we, you know, did homework went to events together and her mom passed away, and I became close with her family in that process and we kept in touch the whole time was on the East Coast.

And then I moved out here and I was back on the East Coast a couple years ago and I was close to Philly were she was living and I just rented a car for the day and drove down to have lunch with her and that investment in that rental car and that time with her was a pretty powerful thing to see like the great work she's doing now, she's working with young people for the city of Philadelphia and just like driving. And it was just so powerful to see her success and you know how she has grown into this amazing young woman. So I would say that $80 or whatever it was for that rental car for the day was like a pretty great investment.

Naomi Castro

Nice, nice. Thank you for that.

Last question, although you can have a chance to say anything else you want. Um, what's your guilty pleasure?

Elisha Arrillaga

Skittles and jelly beans. They are so my guilty pleasure. Yeah.

Naomi Castro

Fantastic.

Elisha Arrillaga

I’m a sugar person.

Naomi Castro

Me too, but I don't work out five days a week, so I need to watch it.

Anything else, any other pearls of wisdom, any, any things that your coach has dropped that you're like, Oh, I gotta share this?

Elisha Arrillaga

Let's see. I mean, oh yeah, I guess the biggest thing that's been just super helpful, you know, to know but to hear over and over again is like, don't be afraid to make a change.

Don't be afraid to, even though something's been done one way for a long time, to say, hey, let's just let's experiment with doing that differently. I think that's really powerful and then I mean, that's where real change and outcomes can come from the only thing differently, are trying to think out of the box and push ourselves to do that. So yeah.

Naomi Castro

Thank you so much. This has been an absolute pleasure and one of my guilty pleasures is coming up with excuses like this to come see you.

Elisha Arrillaga

I love it. Well, I love that guilty pleasure.

Thanks Naomi.

Naomi Castro

Okay, so yeah we giggled. A lot. Elisha is a totally joyful person to be around. If you want to find out more about the books she mentioned and so far I'm like, halfway through Supervision Matters or if you want to take a peep at her organization EdTrust West, listen to a Sam Cooke song. It's all in the show notes. You can also check out the transcripts castropod.com.

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