When Harvard Kennedy School was approached by the Victory Institute, a national organization supporting openly LGBTQ leaders, to create an executive training fellowship, no one imagined the lasting and profoundly positive result of such a collaboration. Twenty years later, more than 200 LGBTQ state & local leaders from all over the U.S. have come to Harvard Kennedy School through the program.

“When we started, there might not have been an openly LGBTQ person in the room,” said Michael Fleming, executive director of the David Bohnett Foundation.

Annise Parker, President of the Victory Institute, builds on that point. “LGBTQ people hold just 0.2 percent of elected positions in the United States and an even smaller proportion are in high-level elected positions.  Our partnership with the David Bohnett Foundation and collaboration with HKS Executive Education aims to change that by providing LGBTQ leaders with the tools and knowledge necessary to climb the political ladder and advance equality in the halls of power. The people in this program are our future big city mayors, members of Congress and governors.”

The original idea came from Fred Hochberg, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations. A longtime LGBTQ activist, he brought the idea to the Victory Institute after attending the HKS program, Senior Executives in State and Local Government in 1996.  The Victory Institute teamed up with the David Bohnett Foundation, and a long and beneficial collaboration was born.

The Senior Executives in State and Local Government program offers senior civil servants and elected officeholders the chance to hone their skills with HKS faculty and accomplished peers. “The program began in 1978 and today you can’t go into any significant city or county in this country without meeting one of our alums,” said faculty chair David King.

The Bohnett fellowship began in 2002 sponsoring three participants to the HKS Executive Education program, which runs on the HKS campus twice a year. Fleming, who completed the three-week program in 2005, recommended the Bohnett Foundation become a significant player.  An initial $500,000 in seed funding has now grown to $2.7 million investment to date. The Foundation provides the funding and the Victory Institute vets and recommends potential program participants.

David C. Bohnett, chairman of the David Bohnett Foundation, saw the HKS Executive Education program in leadership training as the best way to work for the civil rights goals he cared deeply about, specifically marriage and family equality.  “If these past twenty years of investing in the state and local program have taught us anything,” Bohnett said, “It is that representation matters, and matters deeply.”

Marty Linsky, HKS faculty.

“The LGBTQ community is completely different now, and that’s a wonderful thing. And it has been transformational for the program as well.”

Marty Linsky

Representation in the judicial community is important to Judge Tara Flanagan, and the prime reason she applied to the program for the June 2022 session. Flanagan, a Superior Court judge in Alameda County, California, is also the president of the International Association of LGBTQ+ Judges. “I think as a diversity judge, the issues of leadership and governance are ongoing and something that require my attention and my commitment to making things better for all judges,” said Flanagan. “But most of all, I have a special affection for all judges who don’t meet the norm, who are a little bit different, who historically have been left out of the justice system. When I think of the Kennedy school, I think of that famous speech by John F. Kennedy and asking what you can do for your country.”

Sam Park, also a 2022 participant, applied to deepen his understanding of public policy, so he can better serve his community. Park, in his fourth term as a Georgia State representative, faces several legislative challenges, including on hot-button topics such as healthcare, public education, and voting rights. He also works as a nonprofit attorney for Positive Impact Health Centers, working to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Georgia. “I look forward to applying the lessons I learned at HKS to navigate the challenges I’ll face as I work to elect a new governor in Georgia, build a new legislative majority, and serve my constituents,” he said.

For Ian Mackey, a Missouri state representative and a 2022 participant, it was a particular moment around an LGBTQ issue that led him to apply. “A colleague in the House proposed that students should be forced to play on sports teams that corresponded to the marker on their birth certificate,” Mackey explained. “He was the chair of the Education Committee. We were friends, but I was very disappointed that this was the issue he was prioritizing when we had so many other educational challenges.” Mackey knew of the HKS program from other alums in the state (State Senator Joan Bray and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones among them) and applied as a Bohnett Fellow to connect with others facing similar issues in their states. Mackey found his experience with HKS therapeutic. "It started with validation. Then the professors gave me a different way of thinking about how I was viewing leadership and how I was engaging as a leader in the political space,” he said.

Debra Iles, senior associate dean of HKS Executive Education, reflected on how this collaboration strengthens the program cohort. “For nearly 45 years, the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program has been a flagship of HKS Executive Education. The Bohnett Fellowship helps us assure that we are creating a classroom of diverse leaders from around the country – leaders who can learn from each other away from the glare of politics and local pressure.”

Annise Parker headshot.

“The people in this program are our future big city mayors, members of Congress and governors.”

Annise Parker

David Bohnett agreed. “By making sure our voices are part of that dynamic classroom conversation, we elevate the knowledge of every decision maker in that room,” he said.  “We continue to be honored to play our part in making the Har vard Kennedy School Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, the gold standard of community activism and engagement.”

Essential Elements of the Program

Faculty Chair David King assembles a powerful team of faculty to lead the program. For example, from Lecturer in Public Policy and Leadership Robert Wilkinson, participants learn about leading while listening and empathetic leadership. The Harry Kahn Senior Lecturer in Social Policy Julie Boatright Wilson covers using evidence to drive policy and organizational change. Senior Lecturer in Public Policy Kessely Hong leads the group in negotiation strategies via hands-on simulations. And Professor of Public Policy Todd Rogers addresses how behavioral science can inform better policies that have more successful outcomes.

But ask Bohnett Fellows who attended this program in the last 20 years who, or what, they remember most, and Marty Linsky comes up. Described as authentic, relatable, and generous, Marty’s teaching is based on his groundbreaking work with Ronald Heifetz.  He pushes them to dig deep, exploring their own motivation for leadership, their ability to stay focused on the big picture, and the price of being out front while leading social change.  “What I bring to the classroom is experience. I draw on examples from my real-world work and I ask them to do the same. I think attendees appreciate that.” His experience includes editing a newspaper, obtaining a law degree, and serving as chief secretary to Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld.

Both David King and Marty Linsky share admiration for the positive influence of the Bohnett Fellowship. “It was a wild and crazy idea in the beginning,” Linsky said. “The LGBTQ community is completely different now and that’s a wonderful thing.  Having the Bohnett Fellows in the classroom has been transformational for the state and local executive program as well.”

Photos by Emily Webster, Natalie Montaner, Lydia Rosenberg, and Martha Stewart.

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