Stories of Change - Leadership Foundations

Behind the best work, the greatest impact of any city is a leader who makes it happen.

Great cities are built on the foundations of such leaders. These are the stories of these leaders, the change agents who make cities better.


These are leaders who understand their cities because they are committed to them and the people who live there. Who get that change has to involve both the social AND the spiritual renewal of the city. Who know how to navigate through all the systems and channels – government, business, the church – and to bring together those who can make the greatest difference.

LF makes cities better through a host of “programmatic interventions,” a fancy phrase for things like job training, youth mentoring, food programs, etc. But behind every effective program is an effective leader. And that’s what we do at Leadership Foundations: we help create and build up effective, whole leaders.

Here are the stories of just a few of them…


A Return on Personal Investment


They met in a gym at Lincoln High School on the corner of 38th and G Street on Tacoma’s rough eastside 30 years ago. Two men, one older one younger, one white the other black, one retiring and introverted the other demonstrative and extroverted. In spite of these differences – or maybe because of them – they developed a relationship that would echo down through the years and not only change each other, but the cities they now serve through the Leadership Foundations.


Cornelius Williams was raised on the east side of Tacoma, primarily by his mother. He dripped of potential: personality that seemed to have no limits, athletic ability that would eventually pay for his college education, and an inquisitive and lucid mind. Cornelius had the potential to do anything he put his mind to however he had one problem: the lack of a mentor that would walk him through the process of growing up.


Dave Hillis became Cornelius’s initial mentor. Placed on the east side of Tacoma through the ministry of Young Life, Dave began to build relationships with young people by hanging out on basketball courts, volunteering as an educational tutor, and simply making himself available. One of the relationships Dave had the good fortune to build was with Cornelius Williams.


Beginning in 1981, with Cornelius as a 15-year old whose world was increasingly becoming a series of collisions between his potential and his reality, Dave was able to help build a platform for his future. This in turn allowed for three things to occur: the discovery that he was not alone, a growing confidence in his abilities, and a path to becoming a leader. Through the years, a number of events have taken place that have further knit these two together: a scholarship to attend college, employment, marriages, children, and commitment on each other’s part to keep showing up.


A few years ago Cornelius called Dave to describe his restlessness with the current ministry and work he was providing for young people in the greater Atlanta area. While thankful for all that was taking place, Cornelius was increasingly sensing that the divide between the spiritual and the social was artificial and impeded the kind of work he felt led to do. Cornelius called Dave who then introduced the younger man to the Leadership Foundations. Cornelius instantly recognized that this was the organization that could allow him to further fulfill his charge as a leader and, even more poignantly and intimately, would allow him to return to others what had been offered him through Dave so many years ago. In short, an opportunity to cultivate an organization that impacts spiritual and social realities of individuals and cities so more “Cornelius’s” could be developed.


Today Cornelius is the president of the Metro Atlanta Leadership Foundation (MALF)—one of 74 throughout the world. After leading the Northwest Leadership Foundation in Tacoma for 15 years, Dave is the current president of Leadership Foundations, which oversees the global movement. Who could have ever imagined such a journey that began on the eastside of Tacoma and now engages cities around the world? But that’s the beauty of Leadership Foundations: We bring together the most unlikely of leaders to make cities – their cities – better.


Apartheid Conquered By Love


Stephan de Beer grew up in downtown Pretoria, South Africa in the midst of the country’s brutal system of apartheid. As an Afrikaner, it would be years before he realized that he lived on the privileged side of one of the most racially segregated societies in the world. This realization, along with his growing love for the inner city, led him to study theology with a focus on community development and the urban poor.


In Stephan’s final years of study at the University of Pretoria, he and some other students started an overnight shelter for homeless black boys in Sunnyside – the first of its kind in this predominantly white community. The shelter was meant to provide these boys a home and a safe haven from the harsh realities of street life. Tragically, arsonists took this oasis along with the lives of 8 of the boys. Stephan turned to police and government officials, only to encounter corruption and racism. The local Church that was engaged in charitable work around the city quickly showed their discomfort with issues of social justice. Even as Stephan’s sense of pain, loss, and frustration grew, he believed that there had to be a way to engage the overwhelming issues of inequality and injustice that he saw all around him in a holistic way. It sent him on a journey to find a model that could help him and others reengage their city with confidence and hope.


This journey led Stephan to finish his studies and take a trip to the US to see if such a model existed. He had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Ray Bakke, one of the world’s leading experts on urban transformation. Ray immediately introduced Stephan to the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation and Stephan found what he was looking for: a methodological approach to cities that keeps both the individual and systems that impact these individuals squarely within its focus of work. With this model in hand and with his wife Wilna, who is also a dynamic leader, the Tshwane Leadership Foundation (TLF) was created. Since its beginning in 1993 – a year before apartheid ended – TLF’s work as a community ministry has continued to grow in reach and complexity.


Today TLF employs an array of strategic initiatives to empower the most economically challenged people of Pretoria in the name of Christ. They offer technical training and resume preparation help to the homeless and unemployed. They get children who have been “trafficked” – used as under-age prostitutes – out of that hell and into homes where they are cared for and helped put back in school. They partner with churches and government to build affordable housing that is beautiful and well-managed. They serve people with AIDS, given up for dead, and see over 90% of them recover and get back to home and work. TLF’s vision is simple: “We see healthy and vibrant communities flourishing in God’s presence.” You can take a deeper look at their website,


The journey that literally began in ashes as a result of a tragedy has now taken wings as a phoenix of hope. Not only for the city of Pretoria, but cities throughout the African continent and the rest of the world. Leadership Foundations led by countless leaders like Stephan and Wilna are making a lasting difference.