Arleana Waller is the founder and ShEO of ShePower Leadership Academy, and the founder of Circle of Life Development Foundation/MLK CommUNITY Initiative. Waller is also the author of numerous books, and as a professional speaker and leadership expert has presented for numerous universities, community organizations, and Fortune 500 companies. Waller serves on multiple executive boards including the Forbes Coaches Council, Black CEO Women Council, and Kern County Sheriff Advisory Council. Waller is the recipient of multiple awards such as the Congressman TJ Cox Valiant Award, CSUB Inspirational Award and Diversity Award, Senator Shannon Grove She Honors award, Woman of the Year Award, and has been nominated for the Beautiful Bakersfield Humanitarian Award and California SBDC Small Business of the Year Award.
GE: You’re the founder and ShEO of ShePower Leadership Academy. What is the mission of ShePower, and what inspired you to launch this organization?
AW: ShePower is a girls only leadership academy. We work with girls through mentorship, personal development, and diverse leadership opportunities. The mentorship part is about creating a safe space where girls can be exactly who they are in that moment. Through the mentorship and the power circles, they’re able to see other girls in exactly the same space that they are, and it’s perfectly okay. It’s okay to not be okay. Through the personal development, we bring in speakers who cover various topics—leadership really being a key component. Through the diverse leadership opportunities, we try to partner the girls with situations that will allow them to be comfortable in power, and to walk into leadership owning their ShePower.
I’ve been working with women’s empowerment for about thirty years. But when I lost my niece Brooke, outside of my mom, that was the first time I had lost someone young in my life. I grieved immensely. For days I would sit on the couch and not move. So I did what I call “whatever space”—where you can be in whatever space you need without having to understand or explain it. During that time, I was soul-searching. Could I have done more? What could I have done differently? I loved her; she knew I loved her. From that moment, something birthed inside me—to start reaching girls younger, before they become women. I was afraid because I wasn’t that hip. I didn’t think young girls would connect with me. But that backstory really pushed me to launch ShePower Leadership Academy and start building girls early, so that when the woes of life come, they can bounce back faster.
This was also healing for me. Every Monday that I would go in and work with our young leaders, I was being healed. That wound—I didn’t know how to process it; I didn’t know how to bounce back from it. I just went into myself. I didn’t know how to process that kind of pain. So every day that I have the opportunity to build these young leaders, I feel alive in a way that I hadn’t felt prior to my loss.
GE: You’re also the founder of Circle of Life Development Foundation/MLK CommUNITY Initiative, which helps lower socio-economic individuals navigate through various disparities. What is the mission of COLDf, and how did it come about?
AW: ShePower is all about making the wrongs right, being disruptive leaders, being transformational leaders. So we were brought to the table by the Frink Firm to do listening parties in the southeast area of Bakersfield, California, which is a double digit unemployment community. We organized these to be able to hear what the residents wanted as it relates to affordable housing. That was all we were supposed to do. When we got out there, though, 75-100 people would show up for the meetings at Jerusalem Mission Church, and that’s in a community where you were usually lucky to get seven people. People were hungry for hope, and we couldn’t turn away from it.
So we started the MLK Community Initiative, and it grew organically as we started addressing different disparities that the community had. It’s a food desert, so we partnered with Isaiah Crompton and the Community Action Partnership of Kern to do food giveaways. In our first year we have given out over 300,000 pounds of food to over 5,000 families. We realized that we needed to form a separate nonprofit just to deal with this economic development. That’s how Circle of Life Development was formed. Since then we’ve partnered with the City of Bakersfield on a transportation project. It just has taken off in one year with the help of over forty community partners.
COLDf is really healing the trust, because the trust is so divided between the city and the community. It’s healing trust between organizations that don’t typically work with each other, because we’re bringing collaborative partners together. It’s healing the needs that are out there as it relates to health. We’re in the process of bringing a COVID truck out there, bringing a shower truck out there into this community. These things just have not been done effectively for this community.
So honestly, you know what I feel like in this moment? Because I was raised in that community, and I left for years, but I have had so many experiences that allowed me to come back to this community and help. I feel like Esther from the Old Testament story; like I was prepared to go away and come back to help my people. It’s humbling to be trusted with people’s hope. Hope fuels a revolution. If we can get you to hope again, we can create change together.
GE: What effect has the COVID-19 epidemic had on both organizations and the people they serve?
AW: For ShePower, it’s really been hard. The magic sauce in what we do is being in the same room, building that trust, and feeling each others energy to know when I can say something and when I cannot. It’s about being present in that very moment with her, so that she knows I’m fully committed. With COVID, you can’t do that. If you’re on Zoom, parents are being nosy, so girls are not going to open up as much. Or you’re not really connected because it’s not personal. But with the COLDf MLK Community Initiative, it really has launched in a way that I could not have imagined, because COVID-19 has ripped the band-aid off of so many issues in our society. So we’re there addressing as many needs as we can.
GE: In addition to dealing with COVID-19, the United States is also wrestling with racial justice issues in a time of great political polarization. What insights can you offer as a transformative leader regarding healing and racial justice?
AW: Those issues are very heavy, and very disheartening, as an African-American woman with two African-American boys and an African-American husband. It’s very hard to stand on the side of love, which is where we have to be in order to navigate this, and to see your race politicized, legislated, demonized in a way that you know is not what you and many of your friends are about. My son goes to a private Christian school, and recently we just had a display of some racial stuff on Zoom. I broke down and cried, because you want to put your children in a space that’s safe, and they’re still having these conversations.
I think we need to have these really direct, honest conversations on how to lead through this. How do you as a leader step up and create a change, just a little bit of hope? If we can keep that hope going, eventually we can change. Take our work at COLDf, where we’re having to respond to these disparities and heal these communities. Every race has come to the table to help. Every race! That’s really what America is about. If we all can step back and look through someone else’s eyes, we can start the healing.
Bio: Arleana Waller is the founder and ShEO of both the ShePower Leadership Academy and the Circle of Life Development Foundation/MLK CommUNITY Initiative. Waller is also an author, professional speaker, and leadership expert who has presented for numerous universities, community organizations, and Fortune 500 companies.
Bio: Gabriel Ertsgaard is the Interviews Editor for The Peace Chronicle. He earned his Doctor of Letters from Drew University with a dissertation on environmental themes in a medieval legend. He previously taught university English courses in the United States and China. His criticism, poetry, and fairy tales have appeared in various print and digital publications.