Q&A With Urban Leader Omar López

NLC Alumnus Omar López was recently honored as an Urban Leader Under 40 by the Urban League of San Diego County. Here, Omar answers questions about the honor.

Q: How does it feel to be honored as a young leader in the San Diego community?

Omar: It is an absolute honor to be included in this group. My dedication to improve the well-being of our urban community began when I was hired as a case manager in a family and self-sufficiency program at the age of 19 by the Chicano Federation. It was obvious to me that I had found my niche and that I would pursue a career that would facilitate my passion for serving and helping others. As a social worker and educator, this award is a nice affirmation for the work I have valued the most during the last 15 years of my professional life.

Q: What are the Urban League's criteria, how did you meet them, and what are some of your biggest (or proudest) contributions?

Omar: Among several criteria for the award, the Urban League looks for young professionals who demonstrate leadership through active participation in an organization in San Diego County and show commitment to positively influencing the urban community.

At this point of my career, my biggest (and proudest) contribution that encompasses the criteria of this award is my seven-year (2002-2009) activism in the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) – membership of over 2.1 million – during my county government employment. I was elected and appointed to several leadership positions within my Union. Through that leadership, which included a chapter presidency, I was able to advocate and fight for the rights of working families. I was a member of two contract negotiation teams, an executive officer, a Steward that represented my Union brothers and sisters in the workplace, a delegate to the State Executive Board, a representative to the San Diego-Inland Empire Counties Labor Council, a member political organizer, and an active participant in SEIU's historic merger of its California membership of 600,000 into new mega locals. A byproduct of that merger is today's Local 221 in the San Diego-Inland Empire counties region.

Q: Why is it important to start leading from a young age? What are some of your best leadership qualities?

Omar: Young leaders provide new perspectives and fresh ideas to any working group. In a democracy like ours that relies on the active participation of its citizens, young leaders have the responsibility of stepping up to the plate to induce responsible change. Leading from a young age allows the individual to learn about her/his leadership style and to identify strengths that can be matched to the right context. An increased self-awareness coupled with the right exposure to leadership activities will undoubtedly enhance the young leader's confidence and development of concrete leadership skills. I am very fortunate to be in a position where I can teach and motivate young and upcoming leaders in the social work profession. For the last two years since my arrival to USC, I have taught the leadership course to MSW students in San Diego. As field faculty, I also get to work with them in other academic contexts. Those responsibilities provide me with additional opportunities to educate and mentor our students. It has been an absolute pleasure to see their growth in the program and in their early careers out in the field.

The StrengthsFinder book from the Gallup Press and its related material have all been extremely helpful tools in my leadership development. According to these tools, my top five leadership skills are: 1) Maximizer, Relator, Activator, Arranger, and Self-Assurance. I was introduced to this material during my county employment and I was happy to see that it is part of our curriculum in the aforementioned MSW leadership course. I value relationships and I take the time to establish and nurture them. This is one my best leadership qualities.

Omar López is a Clinical Assistant Professor at University of Southern California, School of Social Work, and was a 2011 NLC Fellow. To see his full SDLA/NLC profile, click here

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