Regional Leadership in a Time of Crisis

2020 Challenges

The global community has experienced a crisis unlike any other in recent years: the COVID-19 pandemic. A formidable enemy that has ravaged American cities, brought the U.S. economy to a near complete stop, pushed health care systems to the brink, and exacerbated long-standing racial inequities. The number of infected individuals and lives lost has grown exponentially throughout the world and in the U.S. with no end in sight. In the San Diego region, local leaders across different sectors have stepped up to respond to the various facets of the crisis.

Per SANDAG’s report, Black and Latinx communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic since these communities account for a significant portion of essential workers who continued work throughout the pandemic and have experienced the highest rate of unemployment in San Diego. Reports from The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) show that Latinx residents have been most adversely impacted by COVID-19 in terms of number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Why is Leadership Important in a Time of Crisis?

Across businesses, community organizations, and government, our leadership has been tested by the growing number of unprecedented crises that affect our quality of life: COVID-19, economic volatility, racial justice protests, record-breaking extreme weather with climate change, and political polarization. There is growing recognition that these crises are interrelated – each one compounds the other. 

We can no longer afford to look at quality of life issues in isolation. For example, climate change ushers in more extreme heat and wildfires, which in turn affect air quality and threatens housing in the path of fires. Additionally, these interconnected issues create multiple stressors to frontline communities, in particular communities with high BIPOC representation and living within underserved areas. For example, communities that have poor air quality are at highest risk for respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. 

Within the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences, we believe that adaptive leadership is essential to advancing the transformative changes necessary to confront our current crises. The Nonprofit Institute (NPI) offers a variety of programs to develop adaptive and resilient leaders to meet humanity’s urgent challenges. Given the role of the University of San Diego as an anchor institution in our community, we recognize the value of bringing people and organizations together to align their efforts for positive changemaking.

Across the San Diego region, adaptive leaders are bringing people together in response to our changing environment. They are embracing the interconnected and complex nature of the challenges we face. They are helping to build our collective capacity to solve problems and pursue opportunities for a more equitable and resilient quality of life for all San Diegans.

Adaptive leaders embrace the interconnected and complex nature of the challenges we face. It is not so much their position within an organization as it is their practice of leadership through turbulent times that adaptive leaders can advance changemaking that offers the possibility of a better future. These are people who lead with humility, compassion, and courage to envision responses that address the underlying systemic and structural causes of these challenges.

We want to celebrate these leaders across the San Diego region who are working to sustain our quality of life today and for future generations.

Recent Public Opinion Poll on Quality of Life Issue Areas

In a recent poll completed in summer of 2020, San Diegans expressed their level of concern around several quality of life issue areas. Given the current crisis with COVID-19 and its aftermath, it is perhaps not surprising that public health tops the list of their concerns.

Economic concerns are also top of mind for San Diegans, followed closely behind by housing, San Diego's small businesses, and employment ranked high. Concerns over racial justice and public safety are also front and center as protests and civil unrest have dominated the headlines. The majority of San Diegans still express concern over the environment but less so than other quality of life issues. Traffic, which historically has been a great concern to San Diegans has dropped in importance as more people work from home leaving the roads less congested. There is a clear lack of understanding of how nonprofits support quality of life as it is rated lowest.

Poll Scale

Alarmed: I am very concerned and action must be taken now.

Concerned: I am concerned and think we need to take action but we have time to decide what the appropriate responses should be.

Cautious: I am aware that this is an issue but it is not a top priority for me.

Indifferent: This is not an issue I think about much.

Unconcerned: I do not believe this is an urgent issue.

Unworthy of Consideration: This is not something we should be spending time and resources to address.

Leadership Initiatives During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As the COVID-19 crisis quickly unfolded in the San Diego region, a number of regional leadership initiatives have been especially noteworthy in response-

  • Tracking Regional Data on COVID-19 Impacts
  • Ensuring an Equitable Response to the Crisis
  • Mobilizing Philanthropy and Public Funding to Meet Critical Community Needs
  • Sharing Community Assets to Shore Up Crisis Response
  • Facilitating Community-led, Solutions-focused Conversations
  • This Spring, RISE San Diego launched a weekly series of virtual dialogues with community members, RISE Now. With virtual attendance in the hundreds, the purpose was to come together to examine how COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting underserved communities, given long-standing, systemic inequities. Early dialogues focused on how COVID-19 was affecting Black, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, as well as issues of education, immigration and public safety. Following the killing of George Floyd and ongoing racial injustice protests, RISE Now has continued these time-critical conversations with their unifying threads of social justice, racial inequity, and activism.

    Over the course of these RISE Now conversations, a recurring theme has been that we need more localized data about quality of life issues in urban communities, particularly those most adversely impacted by the pandemic. The saying, “What gets measured, gets done,” has particular relevance. In the coming months, as community leaders, policymakers, funders and other key decision makers assess public policy and investment priorities to advance equitable community recovery and resilience, more data and information are needed that reflect the knowledge, needs and priorities of community residents at the neighborhood level. With this in mind, RISE San Diego will be working with The Nonprofit Institute and other academic partners to gather the State of Urban Neighborhoods (SUNRISE) a dashboard of indicators tracking data and trends influencing the health and wellbeing of urban neighborhoods, including education, employment, health, housing and homelessness, and public safety.


Do you have resources you would like to share with the San Diego community? Email us at