Salem Business Legacy: CTEC Principal Rhonda Rhodes and Kroc Center Executive Director Tony Frazier receive the 2024 Groundwork Leader of the Year Award
Salem Keizer Public Schools (SPKS) Career Technical Education Center (CTEC) Principal Rhonda Rhodes and The Salvation Army Kroc Center Salem Executive Director Tony Frazier emerged as this year’s Groundwork Leadership Institute top award winners, graciously receiving the “Captain” award, which is voted on by the 90 alumni who have participated in one of the four annual cohorts since 2020.
Rhodes and Frazier have gone above and beyond to demonstrate their commitment to Salem by attending to its soil (cultivation), seeds (innovation), and weeds (transformation), which are Groundwork’s three catalysts for transformational change.
Both award winners reflected on their Groundwork journeys in interviews with the Salem Business Journal and how each of their unique paths has a common thread of building a legacy through investing in the lives of young people, sharing valuable leadership insights and lessons they’re learning along the way.
2024 Award Winner: CTEC Principal Rhonda Rhodes
Rhodes said she ran straight from work to the Groundwork awards banquet and was shocked to find herself honored by 90 celebrated leaders from all different sectors of Salem and surrounding communities. “There are tremendous leaders in our community that represent the Groundwork alumni, and I wasn’t expecting to be recognized,” she said. “I would have gone home and changed clothes after work if I thought I would be standing at the podium.”
But Rhodes’ whole DNA is rooted in the idea that anything is possible, and people are capable of more than they think – like when she chose to do a crazy 3,000-mile bicycle ride through Canada with a small budget on her summer vacation.
“You plan the route. You keep making progress in a forward direction. Coasting will not work in the Canadian Rockies,” she said. “I have had many different life experiences that have given me the confidence to try new things, but not because I am the most gifted. I know I won’t stop pedaling until I get there.”
Rhodes – How can I change the system?
Rhodes started her career as an SKPS math teacher, worked for Boston Public Schools, helped open a Salem at-risk youth program, and eventually found her way back into education leadership as an Assistant Principal at McNary High School.
Throughout these years, she asked, “How can I change the system from the inside out?” She found herself burdened by seeing kids fall through the cracks, running into them in young adulthood, and seeing them struggle. Rhodes recognized how easy it is as a leader to get “analysis paralysis,” which happens when people take their eyes off the vision and only see barriers to problems. She said people on her team often hear her quote, “You can’t turn a parked car.”
The CTEC principal position gave her a unique chance to find forward-thinking ways to change education from the inside out. Rhodes joked that sometimes she feels sorry for her friends and family because she loves to talk about CTEC so much, which serves 1,000 SKPS juniors and seniors who participate in one of 10 programs for two years to earn college credit or industry certifications.
A pivotal moment happened for Rhodes when she wasn’t assigned to the Groundwork problem of practice she wanted. Founder and Visionary Leader Chris Pineda assigned real issues in the community like homelessness, mental health, city livability, and developing a future workforce that they workshop together in groups.
Rhodes wanted the workforce development group but was assigned to the mental health group instead. She said she likes to tease Pineda and tell him that “he really screwed up with his group assignments.”
But Rhodes didn’t dwell for long, a testament to her positivity and futuristic strengths, and said, “What do I have to give? What value do I have to add? I may not be a mental health expert. But I have built powerful CTEC programs.”
Rhodes – Hypothetical Problem Solving Turns Real
When Rhodes’ Groundwork group was trying to solve mental health issues, she simultaneously celebrated the expansion of the CTEC Aviation program to a Salem Airport building. She was considering what the future CTEC program needed and what should go into their now-emptied space on Portland Road.
Together, in the fall of 2023, her Groundwork group helped her launch a first-of-its-kind CTEC Behavioral Health and Human Services program for high school students who want to jumpstart their careers in the counseling, psychology, sociology, and social work field, which filled up as soon as it opened.
Group member MAPS Community Foundation Executive Director Kim Hanson believed in their solution. So, she turned to her organization and obtained a $50,000 donation to the new CTEC program because SKPS didn’t have the money to outfit it. And Dallas School District Superintendent Steve Spencer was also a group member who championed its success.
“Do you see why I didn’t go home and change clothes for the awards banquet? Such a high-level group of people in Groundwork could have won. Our group was small but mighty,” Rhodes said enthusiastically, speaking of her group members.
Rhodes said that other CTECs in the nation have begun looking to her because there is no existing model anywhere else being done.
“No one has focused on mental and behavioral health, yet it is the greatest workforce deficit affecting every aspect of our community. And it’s hitting us in education, too,” she said. “We have the unhoused, addiction, violence, and K-12 issues. We can help fill jobs and even help people find a counselor.”
Rhodes – “You have got to get on the road.”
Rhodes said as she shared her future dreams to continue to build the 10 CTEC programs through powerful industry partnerships. “I think that one of my biggest pet peeves in leadership is when someone says there’s nothing you can do,” she said. “If you’re maintaining, you’re going backward.”
Rhodes said that looking for reasons not to do something is easy. People around her encouraged her not to start the CTEC program for fear of it being too soon, but she stuck to her principles. “If you wait for things to be perfect, you’ll never do anything. There are pieces we don’t have yet. I call it 75% done,” she said. “But it’s still the best educational experience these students have had. And we would have missed the crop of kids.”
She credits having a fantastic team, courage, faith, and perseverance to do imperfect, incredible work. “You can course correct and refine your vision along the way,” she said. “But you have got to get on the road.”
2024 Award Winner: Salem Kroc Center Executive Director Tony Frazier
Frazier said the awards night also felt like quite a shock to him, having worked closely with many Groundwork alumni and knows “how well-deserving all of the alumni are and what an honor it is to be chosen.” He equated being chosen for Groundwork in 2020 to “being on the junior varsity team and getting invited to move up to varsity.” Someone else dropped out, and he was offered the spot.
Frazier graduated in 1992 from Corban University, formerly known as Western Baptist, thinking he would move out of Salem but never really left. His early days in construction and business took him down an unexpected path into nonprofit work when he realized his love for teaching young people construction skills. He built Habitat for Humanity houses, started a training program, and put him on the nonprofit radar as “a kind of a youth guy.”
A self-described “leadership junkie,” one might not guess that early on, Frazier shied away from the notion of leadership. He recalled being in his 30s trying to tell people, “No, I’m not a leader. I’m not a leader.” But he hit a fork in the road when a mentor helped him discover his leadership style and challenged him to become an avid reader. He began accepting the responsibility and weight of the influence that comes with leadership.
“I counsel young leaders today and explain that you have power and need to learn to control it. You’re going to influence the world for good or for ill. You might be a good communicator, but the nemesis is manipulating people into getting what you want,” he said. “I hold a deep sense of responsibility when I look into the eyes of my managers. I know that I am dealing with people’s livelihoods.”
Frazier – “Kind of a Youth Guy”
The “kind of a youth guy” went on to Willamette Workforce Partnership, formerly the Workforce Development Board, and built out their Career Achievement Network, garnering half a million dollars in funding to give youth real-life work experience, providing 200 work experiences with 40 employers in four counties.
You can find him at the Kroc Center, casting a laser-focused vision to give young people pathways to succeed. He is excited that he and his team recently won two state grants for the Kroc Center totaling $440,000 to build their internal workforce development program. He recently spearheaded Chemeteka’s GED partnership with the Kroc Center in September 2023, with three students having completed their GEDs and a fourth almost done.
“What if we remove the barrier of trying to finish your education somewhere and put the GED Center inside the Kroc Center? And it’s just starting to unfold so beautifully,” Frazier said with passion in his voice. “I don’t have to tell a kid here at the Kroc Center to go across town to Chemeketa, find building two, go to the second floor, find Mr. or Mrs. So and So to help you get started. The likelihood of that happening is slim to none.”
Frazier – Find your Why
Frazier takes everything back to his why, which drives him. “If you’re driven by your why, what you do doesn’t matter much.” And he is on a mission to “build transformational spaces with like-minded individuals.” His method is “building mutually beneficial relationships wherever I go,” and he will “find and develop great people, give them the tools they need to do their job well, remove barriers for them, and stay out of their way.”
He recited these statements as someone who has dialed and refined them as a core leadership practice that guides his ability to say no, stay focused, and ultimately define himself by who he is and not what he does.
His advice to young leaders is to put more time and effort into developing the core of who you are, understand your calling, and do the hard work of getting those things down on paper. He said opportunities like the Groundwork Leadership Institute are also geared toward this critical foundation process.
When asked what has caused him to grow the most as a leader, he said it was a yearlong job after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, working with youth from around the nation to learn construction skills. He moved his family far from home and said he learned the reality of “encouraging others when times are tough and how to keep people focused on the cause.” Personal values must align with organizational values – because “in tough times, your values have to drive you. And if that’s not what’s driving us, we might be in the wrong place, right?”
Frazier – Become who you are. Not what you do.
Looking ahead, Frazier plans to continue inspiring people to challenge the status quo at the Kroc Center until they “think he’s crazy, and it’s time for him to move on.” He will continue to follow his “why” wherever he goes because no one can take away your why.
“I’ve met folks who have retired, where for 30 years they’ve been able to tell you what they do. But when they retire, they don’t know what to say anymore. It’s sad and breaks my heart,” he said. “And that’s because they were what they did. They didn’t know who they were.”
Frazier challenged people in all careers to let who they are, not what they do, guide them. “The most freedom you can gain from figuring out your life vision is the ability to say no,” he said.
Groundwork Leadership Institute
The Groundwork Leadership Institute offers a year-long growth journey led by Founder and Visionary Leader Chris Pineda, including leadership education, mentorship, and real-world application.
Pineda’s work history in leadership and philanthropy at the Arbinger Institute and Mountain West, his educational background in intercultural peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and negotiation, and his Ph.D. in Psychology have all shaped his desire to see communities transformed.
His dissertation is a case study on Salem’s Groundwork Leadership journey. It is timely research that shows how Salem is changing through “consistency, vulnerability, deep relationships, a safe space for people to learn and practice, and a common language and purpose.” He is driven by the transformational stories that have happened professionally and personally in participants’ lives.
The Institute was initially started by Mountain West Investment Corporation, where Pineda was formerly in charge of philanthropic endeavors. He developed the Institute with fellow Mountain West colleague Dr. Salam Noor. Eventually, the Institute branched out to become an entity of its own led by Pineda and now a separate community partner of Mountain West.
The Groundwork journey costs approximately $15,000 per person but is generously sponsored by Mountain West to make it free. To participate, a person has to be personally nominated by an alum for the following year’s cohort.
“We’re bringing people together, sharing a common language, using evidence-based curriculum, and following the conditions for community transformation,” said Pineda. “It all started philanthropically, and nobody’s trying to make money off this. That’s the fun part. It’s people trying to make a difference.”
The “Captain” award is given annually and celebrates community transformation efforts from its alumni who have gone through the yearlong program. They are given an armband and jersey and will be critical voices in 2024 and beyond.
To learn more about Groundwork, go to https://www.groundworkleadership.org/