Cosette Nazon-Wilburn (CLA'19)
Cosette Nazon-Wilburn (CLA'19)

Seven years ago, Cosette Nazon-Wilburn attended a luncheon headed by the then-head of DCFS, Erwin McEwen. In his speech, McEwen said, “My students, my kids don’t have social and emotional competence.” This sentence stuck out to Nazon-Wilburn, who had been searching for a way to make a difference in her city. She scheduled a meeting with McEwen, and only six months later they had a program that evolved into a non-profit: the Love, Unity & Values (LUV) Institute. 

The LUV Institute focuses on college and career readiness and developing social and emotional learning tools. The non-profit is directed towards young men and women of color between 11 and 24 who have experienced some level of trauma. For the LUV Institute, that means young people who are wards of the state, justice-involved, from economically challenged parenting teams, or just in need of support. They serve around 500 young people a year in five separate programs.

“At the foundation of our work, we have social and emotional learning. We use brain-based strategies and restorative justice tools as our education-based tool that helps us to do that,” Nazon-Wilburn said. 

Nazon-Wilburn said they found that 70% of the young people that they serve have experienced some level of trauma by the age of 16. She says that the trauma these kids face takes the shape of sick family members, loss of a parent, homelessness, unemployment, or abuse. They have discovered that their students need different kinds of support to be better prepared for the workforce.

She attributes the rise of young people unable to succeed in school to the lack of buffers in place to help them. 

“We automatically discount kids and suspend them because of their acting-out behavior,” she said. “Actually, 90% of them are dealing with some kind of trauma that has been unresolved.”

The big issue the LUV Institute tries to address is getting kids to graduation and prepare them for the workforce. Nazon-Wilburn says they try to “interrupt youth unemployment and youth poverty.” She knew this task would require her to be well prepared as a leader, so she applied to the Civic Leadership Academy. 

Three key incentives encouraged her to apply: the opportunity to build her leadership skills, the chance to network, and the platform to get LUV’s name out into a broader community. CLA accomplished just that. One of the greatest takeaways from the experience was the friendships she made with other members of her cohort. 

“I got these wonderful friendships with people who support me and help me be successful. Being a leader can sometimes be lonely, but to have a group of people who are your champions, and who will take your phone calls, and who will say, ‘Hey, how can I help?’ That's huge,” Nazon-Wilburn said. 

This strong network Nazon-Wilburn has found encourages her to be bold in moving forward with the LUV Institute. She now has meetings on behalf of LUV with people in disciplines she had never considered. The organization applies for grants they originally shied away from, because now she knows one of her CLA colleagues maybe part of the organization.

“I feel a lot more confident in what I can contribute to my community,” she said. “I have learned how to stand my sacred ground and really stand for what I believe is right.”

Nazon-Wilburn’s experience with CLA became very personal when her father passed away partway through the program. She said, “CLA was part of a very important time where I needed more courage, more confidence to navigate the terrain ahead.” As a result, Nazon-Wilburn said she finds herself to be a more compassionate leader, a better listener, and have a willing to stand for what she believes.

While she often considers herself to be a timid person, Nazon-Wilburn learned that it is possible to be both quiet and powerful at the same time. Courage and confidence are what she gleaned from her time at CLA.

Now that she has graduated from the program, she says it feels like something is missing when the cohort doesn’t meet on Fridays. Nazon-Wilburn says those Fridays of the program stretched her mind to a different level and gave her new ideas to bring into her workplace on Monday.

“I’ve seen myself grow as a leader in a way that I don’t think I planned for,” she said. 

Join the Civic Leadership Academy

Applications for the Civic Leadership Academy are now open. Apply by October 1st for a January 2020 start.