A hopeful crop of aspiring civic leaders celebrated a Palo Alto graduation last week.
Nineteen local residents -- including a priest, a policeman, a Realtor, a librarian, a student, a doctor and a property manager -- marked the end of a 10-month immersion in all things Palo Alto, from education to health care to business to government to art.
With an oft-cited shortage of volunteers stepping up for city commissions and other community-service roles, the reinvigorated fellowship program known as Leadership Palo Alto aims to help fill the void.
Indeed, one of this year's grads, Abbie Knopper, was appointed mid-year to Palo Alto's Parks and Recreation Commission in March.
At the graduation last week, each fellow offered a two-minute presentation about his or her personal journey and "leadership path." Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, a Palo Alto resident who has served on the City Council and school board as well as in the California Assembly and Senate, listened from the back of the room after delivering his own talk to the graduates about how to learn from one's failures.
Knopper, a former New York City television producer who moved to Palo Alto seven years ago, joined Leadership Palo Alto last fall after a stint as PTA president for Duveneck Elementary School.
When she heard in December about openings on several city boards and commissions, she applied and was chosen by the City Council for service on the Parks and Recreation Commission.
Leadership Palo Alto, Knopper said, gave her a "tremendous" set of connections as well as "experiences that you'd normally, just as a common citizen, never have exposure to," such as a day at Stanford University and an insider's view of the public-transit system.
The just-graduated cohort has gathered for a full day each month since October, meeting with leaders in local government, Stanford, the environmental movement, public and private education, local retailers and entrepreneurs, health workers, artist, nonprofit leaders and officials working on Palo Alto's housing and transportation issues.
Program co-directors Paula Sandas and Lisa Van Dusen revived the long-dormant Leadership Palo Alto program last year under the sponsorship of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce.
Prior to its new incarnation, the program operated from 1988 to 2003, producing 429 alumni, including Van Dusen.
"We want our students to understand how their city operates," said Sandas, who was CEO of the Chamber of Commerce from 2009 to 2011.
Van Dusen, who has worked in a variety of community organizations including 19 years in sales and marketing roles at the Palo Alto Weekly, said the two hope to cultivate a "robust pipeline that supplies our elected and community-wide leaders."
Fellows in the first two cohorts include longtime local residents as well as recent immigrants to the United States, reflecting the global reach of many of Palo Alto's new arrivals.
Nitesh Dullabh had just moved from South Africa to Palo Alto with his wife and two sons to take a finance job in the fall of 2011 when he read in the newspaper about the revival of Leadership Palo Alto and decided to apply.
"It was extremely rewarding because it not only taught me about development within Palo Alto in different sectors -- from the medical to the business to the social in terms of the arts and music -- it enhanced my knowledge of what it is I can do to contribute," Dullabh said.
"I met a wide variety of people from a great spectrum."
Dullabh, who served in Beijing with the South African foreign service before switching careers and moving to the U.S., now sits on the board of the Palo Alto Community Fund, an endowment that raises and disburses money to local nonprofits.
In his graduation presentation, Palo Alto Police Lt. Zach Perron -- a Palo Alto native and Stanford alum -- said he'd learned that "leadership is not a position, it's an activity, and something I need to continually work at and learn from others."
Perron said his participation in the program had led to public-private partnerships and friendships, including plans to work with classmate Becky Sanders of the Midpeninsula Community Media Center on a video about an unsolved homicide case, and work with classmate and property manager Jon Goldman scouting for business partners who potentially could provide venues for police command centers in emergencies.
Other graduates last week included Realtor Nicole Aron, banker Adam Baughman, student Jules Brouillet, arts administrator Elise DeMarzo, physician Archana Dubey, librarian Ruthann Garcia, the Rev. Frannie Hall Kieschnick, Simitian aide Hema Sareen Mohan, "healing-touch" practitioner Julie Morrison, Chamber of Commerce events and membership manager Elizabeth Peeke, hotel manager Jeffery Phillips, newspaper sales representative Matt Podell, fundraiser Aarika Riddle, entrepreneur and environmentalist Peter Skinner and Stanford staff member Siejen Yin-Stevenson.
Applications for Leadership Palo Alto's class of 2013-14 are due July 8. The cost of the program is $2,500, with some financial support possibly available. More information is posted at www.paloaltochamber.com.