Marlem Landa-Gonzalez with common threads background

MHSA Student Implements A Person-First Management Style

Marlem Landa-Gonzalez doesn’t think managers should keep all institutional knowledge, power, and decision-making capabilities to themselves. Instead, this student in the Master of Human Services Administration program is working as both a student and as a leader in her workplace to find ways to empower other natural leaders in teams and trust them to support workers.

This passion is partly inspired by her own experience as a middle manager during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was working at a municipal Housing Authority Bureau in Southern California at the time, and as the shape of the emerging pandemic became clear, she realized that her organization did not have a plan for how to safely work in the midst of a pandemic. Everything felt out of control, but she knew that it was her responsibility to keep her team safe. So she started making a plan. She knew some people would have to stay in the building, even though it was a health risk. But then she did something many managers wouldn’t: she asked everyone what they would need to do their jobs. Together they came up with a plan. And then she wrote the plan up as a memo and sent it to her director. 

The memo went out on a Tuesday. In short order, the director approved it. On Wednesday, many workers began picking up their equipment to work remotely. On Thursday, there were fifteen people left in the office. By Friday, there were five. 

This approach—taking charge, bringing everybody’s voice together, and collaboratively resolving a problem—is one that is typical of Landa-Gonzalez’s work. And it’s something that she is specifically refining and working on today as she nears completion of her study for a Master of Human Services Administration at Antioch. “I always think there’s an opportunity to be better, to do things in a better way,” she says. 

Developing Her Own Leadership Style

The workers who stayed in the office during the pandemic sent everyone else to work from home were left with an eerie feeling as the office emptied out. This seemed to Landa-Gonzalez like another thing that a good manager should worry about. “I would check in constantly to see how they were doing,” she says. Stress was high, especially because people on her team had children, were married, or needed to take care of elderly parents at home. She developed a management model that supported the emotional capacity of her team, rather than their productivity. I couldn’t expect the clerk to take the same amount of phone calls when her dad is in the hospital,” she says. 

The leadership she modeled led to a recognition award from the municipality she works for, as well as a promotion. It also led to a realization that she could bring a new style of management that challenged pre-existing cultures of leadership, which had historically often been white and masculine. She found she could meet her team where they were at. “That’s what made me successful during the shutdown,” Landa-Gonzalez explains. “I showed kindness and graciousness, and saw people being human.”

This experience has led Landa-Gonzalez to develop a clearer understanding of how she wants to lead in the future. She wants to foster less top-down structures in work environments. Her ideal style of management looks a lot more like mentorship. Good leaders give their employees the tools they need to do their jobs and make their own decisions. “Then you support that decision,” says Landa-Gonzalez. “And if it doesn’t play out the way you thought it would, you take a step back and do some reflective thinking.” 

Returning to School for New Opportunities

The path to studying at Antioch has been a long one. Eight years ago, Landa-Gonzalez was intrigued by the way Antioch incorporated different focuses, like social justice and environmentalism, into a wide variety of fields. She considered applying to the MA in Urban Sustainability or the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. But it didn’t feel like the right time. 

Still, Antioch had a strong appeal for her. She remembers the way she felt drawn to the school and sense of community. “They love what they’re doing,” she says. “They’re passionate about what they’re talking about, and I very much feed off of that energy.”

“Fast forward to 2019,” she says, and she thought to herself, “you know, maybe this is the time.” She had on several occasions been told by potential employers that she didn’t get a job because she lacked a formal higher education. A return to school would help advance her knowledge and also help move forward this career path. So Landa-Gonzalez looked into programs at Antioch that would support the work she already loved. She ended up enrolling in the Master of Human Services Administration program at Antioch Online. 

This has turned out to be the perfect program for her. The classes she’s taking have not only helped her better understand systems but also to understand how to advocate for herself.

Today she is working in a new position, and her studies directly impacted her onboarding. Right when she was starting out, she felt prepared to explain to her manager, as she says, “all the things I needed in order for me to be able to apply these concepts in the workplace.”

She also has clearer language to explain what needs changing—and to convince others of the urgency of making these changes. “I can see the holes, but [previously] I couldn’t describe what the holes look like,” she explains. “I didn’t know the language that I needed to use to help fill in that gap.” From taking classes in her master’s, she can now reference what other organizations have done, or she can point to articles she has read that offer examples for new possibilities. 

Being Mentored and Being a Mentor

At every juncture in her life, Landa-Gonzalez has had mentors who helped her navigate school and work. And she knows this is another important way to leave a legacy. 

The importance of mentorship goes back to her own childhood. In the early ‘90s, when she was nine, she immigrated with her family from Mexico City to Los Angeles. The family arrived in their new city only to find that it was on fire—literally. She experienced firsthand the civil unrest that occurred in 1992, after four police officers were acquitted for the brutal assault of a young Black man, Rodney King. Then in 1994 the Northridge Earthquake killed 57 people and destroyed many houses. And all this time her community lived with the constant anxiety of potential raids targeting immigrants. Mentors helped her navigate things like applying for college, how to fill out W-2s, and writing grants to support her goals. 

Even though she came to the United States at a young age, she still had to learn about the cultural norms in institutions. “People assume that I am not an immigrant,” Landa-Gonzalez says. “But I still very much feel like one because there’s experiences that I didn’t grow up with.” 

This gives her empathy that led her to start her own mentorship program when she was an undergrad. She ended up setting it up to aid new students from the city acclimate to a rural area and learn professional skills. 

Landa-Gonzalez is always willing to share whatever knowledge she has to help other people. One example is that she likes to share professional skills, like how to interview for a job. “A lot of those skills weren’t taught to me,” she explains, “because my parents couldn’t help me with that.” 

Today, Landa-Gonzalez is still exploring how to bring mentorship into the workplace. Helping people who didn’t learn how to navigate professional and bureaucratic systems at home remains central to her future goals. She is trying to make her current workplace an incubator for other employees to grow their skills and confidence. “I definitely want a place where it’s supportive of the development of people,” she says. “Not just the managers or the analysts, but everybody.” 

This is leading to specific plans to empower others. “I want to start an internship program,” she says. This might look like high school students working with a refuse operator—a mentorship that might lead directly to well-compensated employment. “It’s the opportunity to get money to the communities that don’t have money,” she says. “This is a real job with security.”

A Position that Supports Her Passions

Today, Landa-Gonzalez is working with leaders who model the kind of dynamics she thinks are effective. “They trust that you can do your job,” she says. “So it’s not a matter of, ‘Can you tell me a list of things that you’ve done today?’ It’s more like, ‘How’s that project going?’”

And she has a lot of projects to work on. Her department handles municipal waste, which is seeing some big shifts. Her city is working to meet state guidelines around organics and recycling to support the Zero Waste initiative in California. This is going to mean educating people, providing organic waste receptacles, and building a new organics processing plant. 

Only about 50% of recyclable material is actually recycled, currently. The rest goes to an incinerator with other trash. When too many tons of garbage are burned in a day, the rest then goes to a landfill. Before knowing all this, what happened to her trash was an out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem. Learning more about waste management changed her perspective a lot. “The hippie in me died the first week I started working there,” she says. As it stands, driving the organic waste to a new facility will actually cause more greenhouse gas emissions than burning it. It’s a complicated problem.

But working to solve it means Landa-Gonzalez materially sees the ways her work makes a difference. One example of this is supporting the procurement process by aligning with the city’s commitment to equity by providing maximum opportunities for small, disadvantaged, minority, women and Long Beach business enterprises to compete successfully in supplying the needs for products and services. 

Although this might not seem like the most interesting job to some people, the details fascinate Landa-Gonzalez. And she gets to do work she cares about. She loves that this job connects the work she’s doing to helping the environment. “I love the outdoors,” she says. “I won’t camp but I absolutely love the outdoors.” This gives her a sense of purpose. “I feel that some people want to leave their legacies as their kids,” she says. “I want to leave my legacy as the world being in a better place than it was when I came in.” Through her studies, her work, and her leadership, she’s doing her part.

Mair Allen is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Antioch University, Los Angeles. They live in a little house, with a big cat, in Minneapolis, MN.

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