Leah Roddenberry: “Don’t let age be a barrier”

Encourage youth to get involved earlier on in community organizing and politics and show them that they can make a difference, by showing them HOW to make a difference. Empower and equip young people with the tools to utilize their potential and serve their communities. Whether this be after school resources, access to technology, or […]

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Encourage youth to get involved earlier on in community organizing and politics and show them that they can make a difference, by showing them HOW to make a difference.

Empower and equip young people with the tools to utilize their potential and serve their communities. Whether this be after school resources, access to technology, or mentorship.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leah Roddenberry.

Leah Roddenberry is the current Miss Tampa 2020, author, and “Be a LeadHER” Founder. A senior at University of Florida (UF), Leah is a member of the Florida Blue Key, the oldest and most prestigious leadership honorary society in the state of Florida, and she founded the UF chapter of IGNITE and currently serves as president. She is a 4-year member of the UF Dazzlers, member of the Alpha Delta Pi Sorority, Rock the Vote Florida state ambassador, Brand Ambassador for Real Talk, and the ServiceVote 2020 Fellow for Youth Service America. Leah founded and currently serves as president for UF IGNITE, a movement of young women who are ready and eager to become the next generation of political leaders. Leah is the author of “Leah Goes to Washington” — a children’s book meant to inspire elementary-age children, especially young girls, to learn about civics in a fun and interactive way. Leah served as Miss Florida’s Outstanding Teen in 2013 & 2015 and currently serves as Miss Tampa 2020/2021, where she uses her title to volunteer for female-oriented organizations and community hospitals. Leah recently received the University of Florida 2021 Outstanding Leader Award.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Leah! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I am the youngest in a large family with five children. My household is a comedic action movie most of the time; it’s never quiet, it’s always full, and there’s a ton of craziness. There’s also a lot of love and comfort. My favorite memories are of the road trips the family took in our suburban van that we dubbed the “loser cruiser” since it was so outdated. We would enjoy all the different outdoor landscapes that beautiful Florida provided us, it’s where I grew up and still live. One of my favorite outdoor hobbies is fishing with my dad and brothers. I was lucky because I was able to grow up exploring different hobbies, but my favorite, which I grew extremely passionate about, is dance. I started dancing at the age of three and it became something that I naturally loved doing and putting time and effort into. In general my childhood was extremely busy and through high school, I was always running from one place to the next. I would finish my school day, head straight to cheer practice, then racing to dance lessons, and finally going home to eat dinner with my family and then work on homework until 1 AM. I think creating a busy lifestyle at a young age taught me that I don’t have to sacrifice everything and that I really can do it all if I work hard and never quit.

You are currently leading an initiative that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

I created my social impact initiative entitled “Be a LeadHER: Igniting the Spark Within” to encourage young women to use their voices, cultivate their passions, and ultimately to believe in themselves and their potential at a young age. I work to elevate the next generation and teach them how to value themselves, be confident, take healthy risks, and discover and develop their strengths. Young women deserve to be taught the foundations of leadership and courage so that they can learn how to tackle any situation they may face. These are things that society works to teach the boys at a young age but often overlooks teaching young girls. It is critical that more females rise up, whether that be in their schools, communities, politics, or careers and take on positions of leadership. I want all young women to unapologetically be themselves, and have the tools and the inspiration to go after their dreams. My goal is to lead by example and ignite the spark within every young woman I encounter by providing them with the opportunity to dream bigger and pursue goals they never thought possible; just like I am doing today.

One way that I have done this is by writing my book “Leah Goes to Washington” which aims to inspire elementary-age children, especially young girls, to learn about civics in a fun and interactive way. As a spin-off of the Flat Stanley project, kids are encouraged to take the “Leah” character cut out and take her with them as they complete acts of service. They can take pictures doing community service or being an engaged citizen with “little Leah” and share with family or post on social media platforms using the hashtag #LeahsLeadHers.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

As a young girl, I was very shy and followed the lead of others. I lacked the confidence to stand in my own light and be who I wanted to be, as I was fearful of what everyone else would think. I steered clear of anything that would require me to use my voice, share my opinion, or that could potentially result in a loss or failure. As a result, I missed out on multiple opportunities because they could have led to disappointment or judgment. I specifically remember in high school when I got accepted into the University of Florida, made the Dazzlers dance team, and was serving as Miss Florida’s Outstanding Teen — everything seemed to be going right in my life. All of my hard work was paying off, and I was seeing my dedication play out through my achievements. However, I had a few people or “haters” that for some reason were not happy for my successes and spread rumors saying I didn’t deserve it or ‘got lucky’. While I knew this wasn’t true, I believed the words that I wasn’t good enough or didn’t measure up in some way. Looking back, I lacked the confidence to advocate for myself and use my voice. While I felt alone, the reality is 7 in 10 girls believe they are not good enough or don’t measure up. Thankfully, as I grew older, my family consistently helped me step outside of my comfort zone and inspired me to try, even if failure was an option. I learned to stop worrying about other people’s opinions of me, and since then, I have been able to confidently speak in public venues to thousands of individuals, run for political office on campus, and share my passion for service with my peers. While I was fortunate to have a supportive network, I realized that many young women do not. This inspired me to take action and help others build the confidence they need to find their voice, take on their dreams and become leaders on campus, in their communities and across the nation.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

After graduating high school and dealing with negativity surrounding my successes, I realized I could not let the outside noise stop me from pursuing my goals. When I first stepped foot on campus at the University of Florida, my eyes were opened to vast opportunities available to make an impact if I pursued my goals head on. I would say the day I walked on campus at my university was the day I truly decided to believe in my potential to not only uplift myself, but also to gather young women along the way to use their voices and confidently pursue their dreams. In high school I played small, but in college I was ready to play big. I am proud of myself for stepping outside of my comfort zone. It wasn’t easy, but when one door shut, I either found another door to walk through or built my own.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

The first thing I did was realize I was not the only girl that struggled with self-esteem and using my voice. After realizing this, I knew I could make a difference to help numerous women utilize their potential. I then decided to simply go for it. I researched organizations I aligned with and how I could impact my community. Through this, I connected myself with numerous organizations to help young women and the younger generations realize they can make a difference and that leadership has no age. When I started college, I realized there was a huge opportunity to organize civically oriented and politically ambitious young women on campus and provide my peers with the chance to become more engaged, learn valuable leadership skills and prepare for their futures. As a result, I have become heavily involved with IGNITE, a national nonprofit organization that provides college programming to address the barriers that impede political ambition, and offers young women a like-minded and passionate community from which to learn and grow.

I founded the UF campus chapter which has helped to instill a sense of confidence in those who participate by building their leadership skills and deepening their expertise around policy issues. I learned from thought-leaders across the country when I traveled to New York City to attend their national conference so I could implement best practices on campus. I coordinate monthly workshops with community leaders to expose our participants with the possibilities their futures hold while learning valuable lessons for their careers. To expand our reach, I created social media campaigns highlighting influential women worldwide. I organized and hosted a women’s march on the UF campus to encourage more young women to run for political office and created Galentine’s Event at Girl’s Place, Inc. to emphasize the importance of self-love and to build confidence among the next generation of female leaders. Additionally, I authored a resolution that honored the progress of women for Women’s History Month, which was passed by the UF Senate. I outlined who my target audience was, what we wanted to achieve, and worked hard to make it happen. The biggest obstacle I had to jump over was realizing that it is easy to doubt yourself, but if you have a vision that can impact those around you, you need to go for it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

One thing I find very interesting through leading my social impact initiative is how easy it actually is to speak to elected officials. In 2019, I decided to take a small trip to D.C. to attend an event called Moms in the House Caucus that had various elected officials, including Representative Jahana Hayes and former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, speak as both congresswomen and mothers, and they spoke about the daily difficulties between running campaigns and families at the same time. While I was in D.C. to attend this event, I decided it would be worthwhile to try and meet with other officials while I was in town. By reaching out via email and by phone, I ended up sitting down with numerous congressmen and congresswomen in their offices to speak about my social impact initiative and how to propel women in leadership roles. While it took some coordinating with various schedules, I was glad to see how willing and excited the officials were to speak with me and welcome me into their offices. This experience showed me that many public officials do want to hear from constituents and the general public to discuss how to meet their needs. Even if they are busy, it’s always worth an ask!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

During COVID times, I’ve learned how to pivot from talking to influential businessmen and women face to face to utilizing zoom and online networking platforms. When COVID hit and I could no longer interact with people face to face, I decided to utilize zoom and created a segment entitled “Tuesdays with Miss Tampa” in which I interview various businessmen and businesswomen to share their journeys and advice for younger generations. I quickly realized there were a lot of external distractions and obstacles I had to deal with when conducting these interviews online. One particular time I was interviewing the Mayor of Tampa and my brother walked into the room and asked me if I would cook him dinner. Luckily, he wasn’t seen or heard in the interview, but I learned to lock the doors in the house whenever I used zoom (especially when my siblings were home). Another interview I did, I had everything set up perfect and ready to go. About 5 minutes into the interview the yard workers decided to show up and start mowing the lawn right outside the window during the rest of the interview. While these external forces were frustrating to deal with at the time, I’ve learned to give myself grace over the little mistakes and trials and know when to laugh at myself and the situation.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I owe everything I have achieved to my mentors that have recognized my potential and championed me throughout my journey. My mentors have believed in me through the ups and downs, and helped me to believe in my own power to make a difference in my community. There were many times along my path where I was just about ready to give up on myself and my passions because of the obstacles in my way. However, my parents and my mentors encouraged me to find ways around these obstacles and keep pushing until I finish the race. I am so thankful for the individuals that have believed in me since day one. Because of the influence of my mentors, I know that I want to mentor those to follow my path. That is why I believe it is critical for young women especially to have mentors to look up to and guide them throughout their own journeys.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

A young girl named Jada comes to mind. I spent a lot of my time in college mentoring young girls and volunteering at Girls Place Inc., a nonprofit organization and afterschool program that teaches young girls important life skills. When I first entered the fifth grade classroom, all of the girls were playing games with their friends. However, in a corner by herself, I saw this pretty young girl coloring all alone. After making my way around the room talking to the girls, I went up to Jada and started talking. I soon realized she was shy and insecure about making friends. I told her I would be her friend, and I believe that is exactly what she needed. I saw some of my younger self in Jada — a girl who let her fear of what other girls thought of her inhibit her from living confidently as herself. I started small talk with Jada and learned more about her. She came from a broken home and had a history of abuse in her family, and she has moved around from family member to family member. I grew a lot of empathy for her as I realized how hard it must be for her to make friends. I also learned that Jada was a curious girl, always asking me questions about things around her. She loved to dance — a bond we connected over. I had a lot of discussions with Jada about her future and continuously told her she could achieve anything she set her mind to if she worked hard and always believed in herself. I started seeing a transformation in Jada as she began to believe in herself and gain confidence. For the first time, I was seeing a spark in her eyes that was not there the first day I met her. Little by little, I introduced Jada to the other girls to play games and have fun. By the end of that summer that I spent mentoring at Girls Place, Jada was friends with every girl in her classroom and certainly had no trouble using her voice and laughing with her peers. I felt fulfilled seeing the difference that my mentorship made in one young girls’ life and was reassured that my social impact initiative of Be a LeadHER was not only important but also necessary. Because of this experience and many others while mentoring girls, I continuously give back to Girls Place. Currently, IGNITE at the University of Florida is running a mask fundraiser in which we are selling two different styles of masks with female empowerment quotes on them and the funds are going back to Girls Place to ensure young girls are given opportunities to grow, just like Jada.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Engage young people, including young girls, in leadership and political processes. Mentorship enhances the possibilities they see for themselves and their futures, and provides them with a unique understanding of things, whether it’s civic duties, community organizing, or running a business.

Encourage youth to get involved earlier on in community organizing and politics and show them that they can make a difference, by showing them HOW to make a difference.

Empower and equip young people with the tools to utilize their potential and serve their communities. Whether this be after school resources, access to technology, or mentorship.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Don’t let age be a barrier. You can make incredible things happen, even at a young age.

You don’t have to do it alone! In fact, you should use the support of others where available.

Anything is possible if you’re willing to commit and do the work; Never settle for less than you deserve.

Drown out the naysayers/haters.

When you think you’re done, dream bigger. Committing to consistently chasing the next dream opens up endless possibilities.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

If they see a need for change or have a vision for a better world to live, they should find their gifts and utilize them to make a positive and lasting impact on society. Personally, I strive to live a life filled with significance, not simply success. Success is finding achievements through one’s own personal gain, however, significance is using your achievements and gifts to better those around you. Young people should realize the impacts of their actions for generations to come. Through hard work and perseverance, every person can make an impact on this world, and I want every person to know that leadership does not start at a certain age. Rather, leadership is developed through continued habits that culminate into the characteristics of a strong leader who can uplift others along the way.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I adore Reese Witherspoon. Of course, I think she is an amazing actress, especially as a prospective law student… Elle Woods is an icon. Beyond that, she is vocal on female empowerment and gender equality, especially in the entertainment industry. She started her company Hello Sunshine which shares female-driven stories and she speaks about having genuine female friendships that cheer on one another. I love the fact that she created her book club which highlights female books each month, and it would be a huge honor to have Reese read my book “Leah Goes To Washington” which promotes young women to become politically ambitious.

How can our readers follow you online?

Website: leahroddenberry.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/leahkrodd/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/leah.roddenberry

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/leahroddenberry/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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