“Leadership happens best when you combine confidence, competence, and connectedness.”
Katherine Berdy has made a career out of cultivating that kind of leadership among young people—in classrooms, in the community, and now as the new executive director of Youth Leadership Forum.
It’s a mission she embarked upon more than two decades ago. As a teacher at The Altamont School in Birmingham, Berdy emphasized key leadership skills such as listening, communicating, and honoring different points of view in her English, literature, drama, and creative writing classes. She also directed the C. Kyser Miree Ethical Leadership Center, which engages Altamont students in community service and experiential opportunities.
The most satisfying aspect of those roles was helping young people find their voices—“to help them recognize that they can lead, or that they already are leaders,” Berdy
says. She looks forward to doing much more of that through YLF, a program of Leadership Birmingham that has educated, challenged, and inspired nearly 1,200 Jefferson County high school students in community and civic leadership for more than 35 years. And she credits Susie Abbott, the recently retired director of YLF, and her predecessors with creating a successful model that continues to attract and engage students.
“It is vital to educate students for the world they live in now and the one they will soon inherit,” Berdy says. “Leadership education requires self-awareness, community engagement, and experiences that allow one to effectively adapt to rapidly and ever changing circumstances. YLF catalyzes students to become the leaders they will need to be—now, tomorrow, and into an unknown future.”
Berdy believes that the streets of Birmingham are lined with lessons for young people. The city is an ideal “tableau for leadership education, where we can learn what we do well—and what we haven’t done so well—and then figure out ways to solve problems in the future,” she says. One item on her agenda is to reconnect with YLF alumni who are now woven into the fabric of the community. She wants them to remain involved so that they can share their journeys and evolving approaches to leadership with a new generation.
She anticipates learning from YLF students as well. Coming from different parts of the community, they provide a “snapshot of who we are as a city based upon the different ways they see and experience the world,” Berdy notes. “We adults and community leaders can learn a lot from all of their vantage points.” She hopes to build a bridge between YLF and the rest of Leadership Birmingham, perhaps by sharing YLF student insights that could help inform broader class discussions about key issues.
Berdy plans to leverage her national connections in leadership education. She is on the faculty of the Gardner Carney Leadership Institute (gcLi), a national organization that teaches educators to cultivate student leadership, and hosts the bimonthly gcLi podcast. A member of the International Leadership Association, the Association of Leadership Educators, and the Association of Leadership Programs, Berdy wants to seek out other cities with YLF-type programs to learn what works best for them and to share insights from Birmingham. She also plans to enhance the development of “soft skills”—such as the ones she championed in her classroom, along with an understanding of ethics, empathy, and trust—in YLF.
What’s her key advice for the next generation of leaders? Young people should “know themselves, be themselves, and be unapologetic about it,” Berdy says. “They should be proud of what they’re good at and work on the things they don’t do as well. That authenticity will give them an advantage.” But just as important, students must take a leadership role in their own lives and become engaged in making decisions and seeking opportunities that will shape their paths. “Even if it’s looking at a calendar and making proactive decisions about what they want and need for their future,” she says.
Your support is critical to YLF’s success. A gift helps ensure that the program remains free and accessible to students throughout Jefferson County. Learn more and make a contribution at ylfbham.org.