NSWM Interview with R. Bong Vergara

What leadership qualities do you find to be the most effective in reaching your organizational or career goals? 

Patience, courage, and humility. With enough patience many disappointing developments can be made to turn out just fine. Patience is definitely a quality that doesn’t come naturally; I developed it out of necessity because in this field the time horizon for results can be long. I’ve been through many projects that preliminary appeared to be failures to those who didn’t give good news enough time to happen. We need courage not only so we intervene, or take action, but also so we can function while we wait. When one is in the business of developing leaders and innovators, it helps to think of the work as farming: seeds need some time to germinate and seedlings need even more time to take root. I add humility because that is something that is in my nature, and I have found ways to make it serve me well. I’m not flashy; I’m bold. I naturally think big, and I rely on the power of my ideas to bring me the resources I need, whether human or material. I prefer not to attract attention; I prefer to channel attention toward the causes I work on and the many talented members of my team. Humility is logical in leadership development: we don’t lead when we are alone at the top. We need others who follow, who create solutions, and who commit to the long and winding road ahead. And often, leading means following, too: listening to and hearing good counsel, course correcting, and admitting error — all good things that humility makes easier to do.

How do you motivate your team members? 

When it comes to motivating a team, there’s a difference between cheerleading and keeping morale up; the former requires charm, while the latter requires trust. That’s probably an oversimplification but it resonates with me, at some fundamental level. While there’s value in both, what comes more naturally to me is keeping my team’s morale up. I naturally lean on big ideas in order to engage my team, in order to ensure we create an environment where we have shared values and paired goals. The road to results is long and only ideas big enough are durable to sustain us.

How has networking impacted your career?

Networking led me to two mentors. The first is Glenn Omatsu, a professor in leadership at UCLA Asian American Studies Center and former editor of Amerasian Journal–he was a guiding force throughout my sociopolitical awakening as an undergraduate at UCLA. He was instrumental in my interest in Asian American Studies, my activism in curricular reform. The second is Dr. Leo Pandac, a long-time community leader in the Asian American community, and current director of Pacific Asian Alcohol & Drug Program forSpecial Service for Groups.His interest in my personal and professional development helped push me forward when sometimes it felt easier to give up. Both remain vital members of my personal network.

How has networking impacted your career?

Networking has had a mixed impact primarily because I don’t do enough of it. My friendships continue to provide new opportunities as members of my network gain more professional influence. I wouldn’t have half the opportunities I enjoy today without these friendships.

Do you have an initiative or project you would like to tell our readers about?

CYPHER’s flagship program is the Sustainable Earth Decathlon (SED). Social work and tech-enabled climate innovation go hand-in-hand, especially as climate change transforms how we conceive of ‘social welfare’ in an era of ambient intelligence technology and climate change. I would like to invite your readers to help spread the word to both potential innovators and sponsors.

WHAT: SED2016

WHEN: Fri, Apr 14-15

WHERE: Los Angeles CleanTech Incubator in Downtown LA

SED2016 is a climate innovation showcase for climate-vulnerable communities; it has two parts: a CleanTech Showcase and a Robotic Challenge we affectionately call #cypherBot. For more info, please visit cypher-international.org. Follow us on Twitter@cypheryouth, Instagram @cypher_youth and Facebook at /cypheryouth.

What advice do you have for those beginning their professional journey or who are already in leadership positions? 

I tell my MSW students this: The true measure of a person is the ability to build a life of value without regard to the forces that challenge or resources that others currently control. I write this in emails I send each cohort at the end of the semester. Social work is about making something good out of nothing. If you think about every level of professional practice–micro, mezzo, macro–this is fundamentally what we do: we build on the flimsiest of assets in order to improve conditions for those in greatest need. In micro, we give hope and inspiration to individuals who have lost the capacity to have hope and be inspired. In mezzo, we build capacity in small groups to be stable, high functioning, or transformative. In macro, we create conditions for the innovation inherent in systems to come to life and bring about system change. At the crux of this miracle-making that we do are resources–their identification, mobilization, and stewardship. Our clients–whether individuals, families, small groups, or communities–rely on us to be competent in securing and managing resources. This is something that we don’t do well enough to instill in younger social workers. What do we do when there is no ready list of resources? My own experience tells me we can’t case manage or fundraise ourselves out of situations like this. Being inventive, resourceful, and entrepreneurial are key in drawing in from the outside the resources we need. CYPHER and its #MyKnowledgeCounts campaign is about cultivating this inventiveness, in many ways.

What do you wish you had known before you started your career?

In my 20s and early 30s, I immersed my self in a world of social causes, where the mission and the community benefit mattered the most. I gave work for free, sometimes, as a result. We don’t have to live in poverty to be legitimate anti-poverty advocates. We can do well–and it is ok to do very well–while we are doing good.