MOUNT VERNON — Since 2008, Kate Bennett has worked with more than 300 people in Skagit County to help them develop leadership skills and complete more than 80 community service projects.
Bennett will retire in December as director of Leadership Skagit, a nine-month development program for emerging leaders in the community. She is the first and only person to have held the position.
While a student in Leadership Skagit’s first class of 2004, Bennett said a light bulb went off for her when she realized that leadership was a choice, not an inherent quality.
“Sometimes what can stop us is this idea that we don’t have it all figured out, and we’re waiting for that moment to become a leader, but in fact, that’s the opposite of what makes good leaders,” she said. “Leaders participate, learn and sometimes mess up and go on and take what they’ve learned to get better.”
Career in nonprofits
A native of Portland, Oregon, Bennett attended the University of Oregon for two years before taking a job at Casey Family Programs in Portland, where she was in charge of community relations and recruiting foster parents.
“I was hooked,” she said. “I have never worked for anything other than a nonprofit organization since then, primarily because of the absolute inspiration of working with volunteers.”
Bennett spent the majority of her career working for the American Red Cross. At 35, she became the executive director of a small chapter in Whatcom County, and later led a chapter in Spokane.
She then worked for 10 years as the CEO of the American Red Cross for the state of Hawaii and American Territories of the Pacific, where she was in charge of health, safety and disaster services in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
To coordinate disaster relief, Bennett, who was stationed in Honolulu, talked to colleagues and volunteers throughout the Pacific using an “ancient satellite system.” She said at first the task — to include all in decision-making and reach 100% agreement — seemed impossible.
“We decided from the beginning to make it an even playing field,” she said. “We’re all in this together, we’re all going to respond to each other. Unless we’re all in agreement, there’s more to be done.”
Once a year, the team met in person to form a basis for trust, an idea that is built into Leadership Skagit, Bennett said.
“(Leadership Skagit students) invest some time in knowing each other, and to make sure their work together is values-based,” she said. “Those values are going to guide how they treat each other, and how they treat others in the community.”
Leadership Skagit was founded in 2004 by the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (EDASC), Skagit Valley College and Washington State University. The EDASC Foundation operates it.
The program selects up to 35 students a year, and upon completion of the program graduates receive 17 credits from Skagit Valley College.
Students participate in full-day “challenge days” on different topics once a month, two overnight retreats, and work outside of class to work on a community service project. Project presentations and graduation are held in June.
Bennett said teams have taken on projects that have benefited nonprofits, schools, parks and other organizations.
She said the program is about more than completing a project.
“One of the challenges is taking the time to identify where your strengths are, and also to allow yourself to listen deeply enough to know where the real needs are in our community,” Bennett said.
Veronica Lopez, a 2016 Leadership Skagit graduate who is the Skagit County Children’s Advocacy Center program director for Brigid Collins, said she learned about the importance of connecting one on one with someone, and how to work with those who have different communication styles.
“I think what I got from Kate is that when you have the opportunity to interact with somebody, take a moment to speak to them,” she said. “Every communication she had was very individualized, very intentional and compassionate.”
Lopez said Bennett also helped connect her with Skagit Valley College’s Latinx Leadership Initiative, where she now works as a mentor to students.
Anacortes City Councilman Anthony Young, Leadership Skagit graduate of 2010, said he became instant friends with Bennett and that she helped him feel at home after he moved to the area.
“I’ve watched her reach out to so many and help people become the best they can be, and do their best,” he said. “She really facilitated reaching higher and doing good work.”
Bennett said throughout the U.S. there are hundreds of other community leadership programs. She said the first program started about 50 years ago.
“If you could only choose one thing to invest in in a community that would have the greatest and longest lasting impact, what would it be?” she said. “In my world, invest in leaders. Because everything has to be guided by, worked on, pushed forward by them.”
EDASC is looking to hire a program manager for Leadership Skagit to take over many of Bennett’s responsibilities. The person will work with Skagit Valley College instructor Laura Cailloux, curriculum manager for Leadership Skagit, to oversee the program. This is the first year the program has had a curriculum manager.
“Having someone focused on curriculum is a big step forward at this stage of the program,” Bennett said.
She said the program manager will have more time to recruit students, work with alumni volunteers, and help raise money for the Leadership Skagit “Pay it Forward” scholarship, among other responsibilities.
She said the scholarship, which was started by Leadership Skagit graduates, helps the program have a broader reach.
“The founders of this program saw this as a program that was democratic with a small ‘d’ — for people from all walks of life and of all levels of organizations,” she said.
Bennett said she is most proud of the involvement of program graduates — who volunteer as team coaches for Leadership Skagit — and collaborations with programs such as the Latinx Leadership Initiative.
United Way of Skagit County Executive Director Debra Lancaster, also a graduate of the first Leadership Skagit class, said Bennett has created a strong foundation for the next director.
“The program would still be here without Kate, but it would not be the same,” she said. “It’s her joy and her enthusiasm for the program and her sincere belief in each individual person. That’s what I hope we find going forward.”
Bennett said she has yet to figure out her next move, but plans to stay in Skagit County.
“I never had a set plan,” she said. “I had incredible opportunities to do things that interested me that were rewarding and unexpected. You know that feeling when you are excited but just a little bit scared — that’s a good feeling.”
She said she anticipates she will always be a “leadership junkie.”