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Denise Fase


GRIL U Teen Leadership Program

PO Box 7865
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49510
Denise Fase recognizes that we often instinctively look at the weaknesses in others. As Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Initiative for Leaders, Fase makes it her job to fight that impulse and view troubled urban teens as prospective leaders with unique gifts and skills to offer their community. 
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you? 
Grand Rapids Initiative for Leaders Executive Director Denise Fase: Being a leader means using your influence to empower people to make a positive difference in their lives. A few years back I had the privilege of meeting and mentoring one of the young ladies in our GRIL U Teen Program. She was a junior in high school and had already been suspended at different points in her high school career for fighting. She began our leadership program in the fall and once again had been suspended for fighting at school. I called her when I heard about it and asked her to come in to meet and talk. Right away she put up a wall and said, “This is me and who I am. Go ahead and kick me out of the program.” I had no intention of kicking her out but instead challenged her as a young leader. 
As she and I walked through the next few months of defining herself as a leader, she began to carry herself in a new way and often shared with her friends and family what she was learning. She was empowering others as she was being empowered. As we began to work on defining her purpose by writing her personal mission statements and one-, five- and 10-year goals, she once again struggled in this area and put up another wall. It was a struggle for her to dream about the future and define her purpose. She felt that her purpose was just to make it through the day. Dreaming and defining her impact wasn’t
Being a leader includes recognizing the influence you have. When a leader leads to serve others and to promote their success, people follow.
something she was “supposed to do.” It was easier to deal with today than to hope for the future and have it ruined. We often had to end our times together with “we’ll talk about this again next week.” Week by week she began to see herself and her life in a new way—hope rose within her.
Since that fall she completed the rest of her high school career without any fights or suspensions. She is now in college studying social work and is volunteering at her church, serving as a teen small group leader at a local youth organization, taking on a key leadership role with her nephew, and is learning everything she can about the issue of homelessness. I am proud to have her as my mentee and am excited to see her continued impact in the future as she works to impact those in her world – our community!     
What is your dream for kids?  
My dream for kids is that they see themselves as leaders with hope, living out their dreams for their futures. I believe a positive future would be filled with hope for their tomorrow and today, not only for themselves, but for their families and community. It would be a future where they have a voice and use it because they know it is needed and valued. Even when confronted with a failure, they would see it as a bump in the road to overcome rather than a roadblock that shuts them down. A positive future would be a life of servant leadership no matter what position or role they play in their home, job, church, or community.
Being a leader includes recognizing the influence you have. When a leader leads to serve others and to promote their success, people follow. I often hear teens talk about how their peers ask them to teach them what they are learning. They see the teens walking in their giftedness and in their purpose. When we walk and lead in our giftedness and purpose, we lead with joy, and we are able to bring out the best in others. Influence happens naturally and has long lasting impact.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan? 
It is important to empower teens to get involved in community leadership as justice fighters. When working with youth, it is important to help them understand who they are—their God-given talents, their strengths, their learning styles, their personality and wiring, and their purpose. As they begin to see who they are, especially in a period of life where the norm is to be like everyone else, they begin to see and value their own uniqueness. As this happens, they begin to lead and operate
Our responsibility is to walk with teens as they see their sphere of influence, open the door for them to influence in a positive and impacting way, and hold them accountable as young leaders.
in who they are and are challenged to see and do the same in others. Included in empowering teens is creating safe environments for teens to fail, making sure that the failure is not severe but rather is one where they can learn and grow.
A justice fighter is someone who recognizes their role in the community, who sees others before themselves, who then begins to recognize wrongs or injustices, and finally begins to stand up against those injustices. Often our greatest community justice fighters are our youth as seen in the Civil Rights Era.  It is time to challenge, equip, and walk with our youth to make a difference! Two of the justice fighting organizations we are partnering with are the Micah Center and Justice for our Neighbors. 
How do you know you’re making progress?   
We are seeing growth in the number of teens involved in community leadership, and they are committed to leadership as they grow into adulthood. We are measuring growth by surveying our teens after they complete the program to see what and where their involvement is in leading in the community. Today, of the 104 teens who have graduated from our GRIL U Teen Programs, 90 percent are still actively involved in leadership in their communities. You might see them serving on different boards in Grand Rapids, on the Mayor’s Youth Council, or volunteering at different churches, ministries, and youth serving organizations. Some are taking on leadership roles on their college campuses such as student body president, Bible study leader, or freshmen orientation leader. Many are also returning to give back to GRIL in leading the next group of teen participants by serving as mentors, coaches, and trainers. 
What are you most proud of?
We have done a lot of work in identifying and empowering teens as leaders; teens are understanding and pursuing their purpose in life, as well as working towards justice as young leaders.
Personally I love walking with teens who don’t believe they are capable of leading, but who are coachable and willing to try. We define leadership as influence—everyone has influence in some way. Our responsibility is to walk with teens as they see their sphere of influence, open the door for them to influence in a positive and impacting way, and hold them accountable as young leaders. I think of one young man who was involved in things in his early high school career that our community would not be proud of. As he began to see who he was as a young leader and had opportunities to lead in his giftedness, he made the necessary changes in life. He is in college and will drop everything in a minute to help us and others as needed. I think of another set of siblings who went through GRIL U and often talk about the difference they have made together in their family as a result of understanding their leadership in their homes. 
During the summer of 2011, teens were working on one of four areas of injustice:  bullying, health and wellness, racism, particularly Internalized Racial Oppression, and education. They led various silent demonstrations around Grand Rapids to increase awareness in these areas. The bullying group created a play on bullying, performed it, and led debriefing sessions with teens in Grand Rapids. 
During the past school year the teens learned about the injustice of Wage Theft and Pay Day Lending through The Micah Center. They also participated in silent demonstrations this past May. This summer teens will also work with partnering organizations dealing with issues such as homelessness, immigration, environment, and health and wellness.
In speaking with younger people who are interested in careers in the social sector, what advice would you give? 
Understand who you are and see those around you as leaders with gifts and skills to offer the world. In our culture we instinctively look at the weaknesses in others, sometimes to make ourselves look and feel better and sometimes because that person makes it easy to see their weaknesses. It takes more effort to see what that person is good at or what they bring to you or to a group. When we begin to dwell on those strengths, it is easier for us to enjoy the person we are leading, which causes them to want to utilize and grow their own strengths. 
It is intentional work to see the strengths or the good in people. I know I often have to sit back and think or write about what I see in that person. Sometimes I need to be intentional in asking others about what they see in them. Finally if the setting allows for it, there are many different assessment tools such as DISC Personal Profile, Strengthfinders, and Leadertreks that exist to specifically identify strengths. No matter how you need to identify their strengths, do it! See another person for who they really are, grow them in that way, and then challenge them to do the same with others! 
The more we understand who we are, the easier it is to be us. When we are able to understand what our strengths or gifts are, life is less stressful. When we are in settings where we are not using our gifts and strengths, we need to work harder. This often causes stress in ourselves and others. I know at the end of those days, I am not proud of my impact. When we work in a setting that allows us to use our giftedness, we have more joy. Joy is a catchy thing. We are fun to be around, we smile more, and our influence is greater. 
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