“Leader” is sort of a nebulous designation. If you’d have asked me two years ago, “what is a leader?,” or, “what does leadership mean to you?” I’d have probably spouted off, in genuinely heartfelt passion, a balanced list of usual and personal suspects. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mahatma Gandhi. Atticus Finch. John Waters. Ivo Watts-Russell.

Two years ago, when it was suggested that I should apply for the prestigious and notably selective Leadership Long Beach program, I was as flattered as I was utterly confused. At the time, I had made somewhat of a name for myself in Long Beach with two ultra-niche programs – a series of weekly midnight cult cinema screenings at a local theatre, and three “zombie walk” events. Leadership Long Beach was a program that had seen such notable alumni as future Councilmen Robert Garcia and James Johnson, and beloved independent business owners such as Sé Reed and Dana Buchanan. When I considered my proudest moments at the time, they included a unique race down theatre aisles at a screening of the arguably tasteless The Human Centipede, a live roller derby extravaganza at a screening of the arguably worthless Xanadu (a film I am ready to defend to the death!), and of course, the mass assembly of zombie-enthusiasts that occupied Long Beach under the direction of my wild whimsy. A visionary impresario, sure, maybe, but a leader??

So, I applied. However, when I came face-to-face with the cost of the program (totally worth it as it may be!), I got nervous. When I expressed to those that suggested I apply that I may not be able to afford it, they directed me to grant possibilities. I applied to two. I was approved for both.

The plot thickens…

What could a leadership program possibly want with a guy like me? Moreover, enough to where they’d steer me in the direction of funding support? Enough to where that funding support would come through? Who am I?? I’m a consummate dreamer, who’s rarely satisfied, who can’t bare the sight of an empty parking lot without seeing the massive event that could be, who can’t bare the sight of an empty park without seeing the vibrant concert that could be, who can’t bare the sight of yet another first-run cinema without seeing the thriving art house that could be, who can’t bare the sound of a fellow dreamer, lamenting into her third Whiskey Sour the sad tale of her dashed dream, without wanting to launch right away the steps that might make that dreamer’s vision come to pass. Okay, that makes me a passionate man, but how does that make me a leader?

Two grants later – both of which were greeted with my shock and tears – there I was, joining a team of twenty-something fellow “leaders,” in an isolated cabin in the woods. Feeling quite out-of-place to be among luminary city staff-members, big-business representatives, leaders in education … my humility had never forced its way into my skin with more ferocity. That first night, I felt as wide-eyed and baffled as a dim Lotto winner.

Then my classmates and I all got to know each other. It wasn’t long before we realized that all of us were all as baffled and wide-eyed as the next – and that we were all bona fide, balls to bones, natural born leaders.

Why? The more you know exactly what you believe in – what you want to see happen in the world, and how passionately you’re willing to advocate and fight for it – the more people can elect to follow you or move along. If I didn’t consider myself a “leader” before Leadership Long Beach, it’s because I thought my interests and tastes were specific and strange. How specific and strange can they really be if they see such support and longevity? The Mondo Midnight screenings saw over 150 films before they came to a close. Zombie Walk IV, which had made its way to downtown Long Beach, broke a world record – and with quite a struggle to even see the light of day. If I wasn’t in my second month of Leadership Long Beach at the time, I may have shirked away in a sad corner of the world after those frustrations. Instead, the program had already ignited a fire in my voice, and I felt the responsibility to take my experience and apply it towards the hope of activating some much-needed change. What would have otherwise felt like a mere opinion had the weight and urgency of fact, and really, what is the difference between opinion and fact besides the frequency to which an individual responds to it?

To Kill A Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch recently topped AFI’s list off 100 Years of Heroes and Villains as the #1 Hero in Cinema, and as both a literary and film figure, he will always make my list of personal leaders. Here’s the interesting part: he lost his case. He lost his case, and moreover, his client was shot to death. It doesn’t get much worse than that. BUT, he fought. He fought a fight that, by all accounts, he knew he’d lose from the get-go. He would have probably never considered himself a hero, and a revisit to Harper Lee’s novel suggests his humility would have never allowed it. Maybe if he’d have paid attention to the standing salute given to him by the folks in the rafters, it would have stuck. If he’d have known, as a character, how his character would be perceived in history, it certainly would have stuck (how shamelessly meta…).

And here’s the point: I will always treasure, acknowledge, and cherish the vote of confidence given to me by Leadership Long Beach. And by those who suggested I apply – Leadership Long Beach director Jeff Williams, and former Arts Council for Long Beach director Craig Watson. And by the selection committee with whom I interviewed, thick with 104-degree flu and near-voiceless. And by the Board of Directors of Leadership Long Beach and Arts Council for Long Beach, who provided the grants which made the journey possible. And finally, by my incredible team of classmates with whom I shared the tears, laughs, and bruises that have made me look at my dreams and ambitions in a whole new perspective: Sometimes making your dreams come true brightens the lives of others as well.

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” – John F Kennedy