Grinnell College Students Reflect on Leadership and Self-Governance

February 14, 2018

One of the distinctive features of a Grinnell education is its tradition of self-governance, a concept aimed at allowing students to take accountability for their actions. At its core, self-governance means Grinnell students are accountable to each other and the greater community for acting with integrity, honesty and responsibility. With these qualities in mind, there is an intrinsic connection between leadership and self-governance. This year, the Wilson Center for Innovation & Leadership put out an open call for short essays about these relevant topics. Specifically, we asked students, “What does it mean to be a leader in a self-governing community?”

Separately, the winning essays offer glimpses, at times intimate and direct, of individual perspectives and experiences regarding leadership and self-governance. Compiled together, they offer overarching commonalities of these topics, and ultimately, fashion a framework that provides a broader understanding and awareness of leadership in the self-governing community of Grinnell. Some of the themes commonly mentioned throughout the essays included: being aware of the community and oneself; the importance of listening and empathy; the personal nature of leadership; the idea that everyone is a leader at different times; representing group over self; the importance of humility, implicit leadership or servant leadership; leading by example as well as being able to follow.

Among the many submissions received, Yoli Martin ’20, Jonathan Rebelsky ’18 and Yesenia Ayala’s ’18 essays stand out; continue reading to hear more about these students’ takes on what it means to be a leader in a self-governing community.


Yoli Martin '20 | Undeclared

Yoli Martin

“We realize that we need to make decisions without supervision, and that we must hold ourselves accountable when things go wrong.”

I first realized what self-government leadership meant at Grinnell when I was preparing last year to attend a Model UN conference with the Grinnell team in Chicago. I was on the phone with my sister, telling her what the trip was about and the fourth years who were leading it, and then she interrupted me. “You’re going all on your own? No professors, coaches, nothing?” The answer was yes, we Grinnell students were going to go all by ourselves.

Her question got me thinking, and I began to realize the extent to which the Grinnell community is student-run. When I returned to campus after the conference, everywhere I looked, there was a student in a leadership position, whether it was as the SGA president, a leader of the pre-med association on campus, a technical consultant, or a class mentor. As the year went on, I began to see that every student had the potential to take on a leadership role; it was not restricted to a select few. Time and time again I witnessed students having an idea, making a plan, and becoming leaders by organizing talks, creating student initiatives, or deciding to address the student body by tabling outside the dining hall.

We realize that we need to make decisions without supervision, and that we must hold ourselves accountable when things go wrong. Seeing my fellow Grinnellians take on these responsibilities despite the many challenges, I have come to fully understand what we are capable of doing, and that we can initiate change not only on our campus, but also in our world as a whole.

After seeing that students who embrace the ideal of self-governance can and do make a difference on this campus, I decided to take on leadership roles this semester, as a Class Ambassador and as a co-captain of the Model UN team. In doing so, I am striving to follow the examples that have been set by those that have come before me, and to demonstrate to others what I have learned myself: that self-governing leadership is an essential part of this community.

Jonathan Rebelsky '20 | Music & Chemistry Double Major

Jonathan Rebelsky

“Every member of a self-governing community will be responsible at different points in time for leading in a myriad of different ways.”

One cannot define leadership in a self-governing community without first defining a self- governing community. A self-governing community is not an anarchic paradise, where every person is free to rule themselves without any external system of rules. Members of a self-governing community are still responsible for following the relevant laws and rules from outside of the community, so in a self-governing community members hold each other accountable for upholding the rules. A self-governing community is a system where the rules are enforced not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Most importantly, a self-governing community is a community where every member of the community is responsible for leading. 

Now, this isn’t to say that in a self-governing community everyone is equally responsible for leading at all times. What it means is that every person has the responsibility to lead when needed. A leader in a self-governing community is a member of the community who sees a problem and takes action either to directly address the issue or to galvanize others to help solve the problem, Sometimes this may be in a formal arrangement, such as an elected representative or appointed leader of a group. This leader may be responsible for running a meeting, or organizing an event. Other times leadership may come more informally, such as a student noticing other students seeming stressed about a class, and organizing a group to study. It could also be a member of a group deciding to take charge and organize an event on their own volition. A leader may simply be someone seeing a law or rule being broken and taking the initiative to help correct their fellow member’s actions. In this final instance, the real strength of a self-governing community shines through. Just as each member has an ability to lead in the community, each member also has the responsibility to govern and help police the community. 

At its heart, leadership in a self-governing community is nothing more than being a member of a self-governing community. Every member of a self-governing community will be responsible at different points in time for leading in a myriad of different ways. A self-governing community understands that formal and informal positions of leadership are not better and worse, simply different ways of leading for different situations.

Yesenia Ayala '18 | Sociology & Spanish Double Major

Yesenia Ayala

“It involves feeling uncomfortable, educating others, and many times being ignored as a result of power structures. “

Many may wonder, what does leadership mean for a Latina woman of color in a “self-governing” community? Throughout my four years at Grinnell, I have realized that self-governance at Grinnell is different for people of color. Self-governance relies upon the free exchange of ideas, however, in reality only certain groups have the political power to voice their ideas, have them heard, and influence others to act. Some people, like myself, do not come from backgrounds where we have the social capital to speak and be heard. For myself, being a woman raised in a traditional Latino family, it was never appropriate for me to speak for others or myself in the same way as many of my peers. During New Student Orientation, the way self-governance was presented was idealistic and naïve. It disregarded the power dynamics of voice. Through my work with the Residential Task Force, I have learned that my experience is not unique. I heard similar stories from many members of the multicultural groups. This has led me to understand the systemic nature of this problem. 

Therefore as Latina leader, I have been forced to redefine leadership within the context of the need to disrupt the system. My personal experience navigating situations when it was hard to stand up for myself when something was going wrong in the community, guided me to seek opportunities where I could advocate for those like myself. Yet, leadership is a process. Within that process, I sought support from others who could empower me and make me believe in myself first. Empowerment and support from student leaders of the multicultural organizations gave me confidence to transition my anger and frustration of the system into advocacy and leadership. Being a leader for my community both within and outside of Grinnell comes with many challenges. It involves occupying spaces that have traditionally not been meant for me. It involves feeling uncomfortable, educating others, and many times being ignored as a result of power structures. Self-governance, a political structure, has power dynamics that make it difficult for certain groups to advocate for themselves and others, therefore we must evaluate our actions and seek opportunities to empower others. For myself, mentoring and empowering others is a form of leadership, as well as an opportunity to give a voice to those who must redefine what leadership means to them based on their own experiences.

The Wilson Center seeks to inspire and prepare students as innovators and leaders through courses, personal development, and events that emphasize experiential learning.