For five decades the Coro Foundation has been enlisting applicants from all walks of life and helping develop them into community leaders.
"We're trying to prepare individuals to become better decision-makers, to be leaders," said Ken Chawkins, director of recruitment for the Southern California chapter. "The founders were very interested in protecting this thing we call democracy. It's not simple. It needs to be worked at constantly."
Founded on Oct. 12, 1942, in San Francisco, Coro now has centers in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Kansas City and New York.
Through its full- and part-time programs, Coro teaches its students, many of whom are professionals from various industries, how to channel energy back into the community. In its two full-time programs, the nine-month Fellows Program in Public Affairs and the new Neighborhood Leadership Program, trainees work in a series of internships with business, union, government, media, political and nonprofit organizations.
The Coro training helps people in all sectors communicate better, Chawkins said.
"We are training individuals to work in their community. . . . But we are not a political training ground."
Even so, Coro's list of graduates boasts political leaders in every level of government, as well as the private sector. They include former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, Los Angeles school board member Leticia Quezada, and Marlene Garcia, assistant to state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).
And many of those alumni who have stayed out of the political arena professionally are active in their communities.
"Having gone through Coro has given me a broader perspective on public policy issues," said Alicia Amador, a 1986 Coro graduate of the Los Angeles program. "And it's made me more committed in being involved in the public policy process."
A Texas native, Amador decided to practice law in California as a result of her experience in Coro. "I saw that if positive changes are going to be made in the Latino community, it's going to happen here. Latinos in Southern California have made tremendous strides in the business sector, which is necessary for political empowerment," Amador said.
The 30-year-old attorney also met her husband, Richard, through Coro; he was enrolled in the same public affairs training program.
Like his wife, Richard Amador is a business trial attorney and very active in the community. He sees his Coro training as an asset to both his profession and activism.
"Coro underscores that a situation doesn't involve only two sides, but has dozens of perspectives," he said. "The program provided ways of learning this through real-life situations and theories, and that experience is invaluable."
The Amadors last year joined other Latino Coro alumni who formed an advisory group to the foundation. The board makes recommendations for Latino candidates and raises funds to aid Latinos with tuition costs, which can run from $750 to $3,500.
"We are working slowly but surely," said Alicia Amador. "It has been an asset to have Coro on my resume. It carries a lot of clout."
The Neighborhood Leadership Program was started last year with the goal of helping to unite neighborhoods with diverse ethnicities.
"The nature of Coro training is to give a lot of attention to the manner we communicate, the thinking behind the words," said Lydia Lopez, director of the neighborhood leadership program.
Residents meet two evenings a week during a free 14-week session and establish a neighborhood council. Selected members of the council later participate in a free six-month version of the Fellows Program, working in internships that are tailored around their schedules.
Teresa Gonzalez, who is about to graduate from the Neighborhood program, has spent the past year learning about how the Latino, Cambodian and African-American communities in her Long Beach neighborhood can work together to combat problems. "I really worried about the problems in my neighborhood: gangs, drugs, graffiti. I don't want my kids growing up this way," she said.
Gonzalez, who works in food service at a local high school and is enrolled in English as a second language classes, is president of the neighborhood council set up through Coro. The positive strides her group has made have inspired her to recruit more parents in the council.
"At the sessions we learned how to help one another, about each other's moral values, and our different customs," she said. "It's been an improvement to the city."
For information on Coro Foundation programs, call (213) 623-1234.