Everybody has something to contribute. The challenge is finding that space where you are so passionate that you can really invest in growing your skills and knowledge. On today’s podcast, Alicia Couri interviews Daniella Levine Cava, the current Miami-Dade County Commissioner for District 8, and a lifelong public servant. Daniella shares how she gained the confidence to lead in politics and talks about the programs she’s created, highlighting the importance of giving back to the community that serves you.
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Confidence To Lead In Politics With Daniella Levine Cava
My special guest is Daniella Levine Cava. This woman is a remarkable woman and I’m going to tell you why. Daniella Levine Cava at present is Miami-Dade County Commissioner, a Yale and Columbia educated lawyer and social worker who has spent the last four decades in South Florida being a force for good through nonprofit and government service. She has always been a committed advocate for children, underprivileged groups and the environment. She is running to be Miami-Dade’s first female mayor on a platform that emphasizes recovery from COVID, transportation, environmental protection, and government accountability. Welcome, Daniella Levine Cava.
Thank you. I’m excited to be with you. I’m ready to step out boldly.
We met at a Black Owned Media Alliance symposium, and you were gracious when you came to speak to us. I said, “I want you on my show.” You said, “I’d love to come on,” and now here you are. I’m excited that we were able to make the time in this not only challenging because of the election coming up, but it’s challenging because of the pandemic. There are a lot of moving parts happening. One of the first questions I want to ask you is what is your concept of leadership?
I was thinking about it from a developmental perspective like what did I think of it as a child and how did I relate to it as I have grown and now in this particular new role is how I think of it. Everybody can be a leader. I believe that firmly. Everybody knows things from their own experience, from what they’ve learned at home, what they’ve learned in the community, what they’ve learned from important role models, mentors, and teachers.
Everybody has something to contribute. I think that the challenge is to find that place, that space where you are passionate that you can invest in growing your skills and your knowledge so you could grow your confidence. Some people say, “We can tackle anything.” Yes, but you do need to have knowledge and experience to be able to move forward oftentimes in challenging situations. You have to start with the thing that you care and passionate about. People need to see it in you and cultivated it in you because everybody does have it.
Unfortunately, as young people, we’re taught that you don’t have anything to contribute, that your opinion doesn’t matter, or you’re not worthy instead of being valued. Not overvalued, not like you’re always A-plus or you’re always the winner. No, but that you always have something as you’re learning and growing to contribute. I think it starts young when people believe in us. I’ll tell you a little story about that. I started a number of leadership programs at my former nonprofit, Catalyst Miami, which was human services coalition.
One of the programs was the parent-leadership training Institute. I scan the world for leadership programs that could be brought back to benefit our community and I learned about this program that works every day with parents and adults and there was also a children’s component, but with parents and adults to help them come up with ways to improve things for children in the community. It’s got a lot of experiential activities and one of the activities that they start with is to imagine you are born.
You’re coming into the world. Who is in the world? Who is there for you when you come into the world whether physically in the room or emotionally? What are their hopes and dreams and expectations for you? Imagine those people. What are they thinking about you as you’re born? It’s such a powerful thought. For many, they had to say, “People thought I was nothing, that I would amount to nothing, that I had nothing to contribute. I could not succeed.” That was the thought from the moment they came into this planet.
That’s not true at all.
Imagine what have they done to overcome that in their lives, that low expectation. We know it’s often said that teachers send a message to a child whether the expectations are low or high and if they set a high expectation, the child is much more likely to achieve it instead of coming into a low expectation environment. I was born into a world in which the people that were in my family and my community thought I could do anything I wanted to do. I was like, “No, I’m not ready.” I found it powerful to think about the differences in people’s expectations from the moment they’re born.As you're learning and growing, you always have something to contribute. Click To Tweet
That is a powerful thing to think about because as we start growing up and things start getting on top of us because this show is about how do you tap into that confidence and create that unshakable feeling that you can do anything. If you feel like those expectations are either too overwhelming, you will shrink from them or if you feel like nobody’s expecting anything of me, then you won’t live up to anything.
That’s why mentorship is important. People that see that talent and passion and nurture us and calibrate for us. I’m going to throw a statement that comes out of the disability rights movement or multi-ability which is, “Nothing about me without me.” Nobody knows your inner life but you. We have many situations in which people tell us what to do. They tell us what’s best for us and who we should be without taking the time to listen and learn where we are. That’s another way in which we deny people and deny their leadership capacity. I’ve taken that message to everything I do that people have to be at the table who are the ones that are part of the decision-making. They have to be part of it because it affects them. I’ve seen many examples in our society where we assume that people have nothing to contribute and we tell them what they have to do.
The journey that you’ve taken from being a lawyer, where did it come from for you to jump into service? I was on the PTA for many years with my children and that is a special giving to jump in to be that leader that is leading in service of others. Where did that come from you?
I was born into a life of service. People seem to think like there’s a moment in which it turns on or off. That’s my mother, my father, my grandparents, and everybody was involved in community and service. It was not a choice for me, it is part of my DNA. From an early age, I was helping my mother with community service. My children were involved with me in community service. There’s a Jewish tradition to heal the world, tikkun Olam and tzedakah, which is charity. I taught my children from an early age. Interestingly, and I think it is important, there’s a difference between charity and justice.
There’s a difference between giving people what they need at the moment because they do need things like people do need food or they need assistance with their housing or job and there are many challenges. The difference in changing the conditions, and creating justice so that there are more opportunities and overcoming the disparities that have existed. That’s on the justice side. We have to do both. We can’t forget that people have immediate needs but we also have to change the conditions that have led to their being in the circumstance that they’re in.
Similar to me with the service because I’ve served at my church for twenty-something years and when my children were tiny, they came and they were helping along. When I was serving in the PTA, they were helping along whether they’re in a stroller handing out napkins but they were always there. Everybody has a role. I don’t care if you’re two years old and you’re sitting in a stroller, you can hand out a napkin. I’m teaching them early that it is important to always give back to the community that serves you. You have to also find a way to give back and you’ve created a lot of programs.
I have created a lot of programs and you asked me what was my motivation. Even though I was born into a life of service, I have the opportunity as a child to see how fortunate I was, and how I lacked for nothing. I had two loving parents. I had enough always for my basic needs. I got to travel the world. My dad has an international business. We lived overseas in Brazil, Chile, Canada, Chicago, and many places. I had the chance to see that many were not in the fortunate condition as I was.
I determined early in my life that I wanted to make sure that children had the opportunities to thrive and prosper as I had and to discover their potential. I believe in the American dream, but I also believe in people’s personal potential. I had a lot of experience working in childcare centers and the Big Brothers Big Sisters’ programs and different things to mentor young people. My undergraduate degree in Psychology focused on child studies, and then my graduate degrees in Law and Social Work were also geared towards investing in children, families, and strengthening families so they could be the vehicles to make sure that their children did well. That was my underpinning.
Also, it was what guided you throughout your career far. I don’t know if it’s a connection I can say between the two of us because we know Tony Lesesne. I’m playing a character in one of his movies that’s a city commissioner and is running for mayor. I’m not as great as you are. I’m not as cool as you are in the movie. I’m a horrible person in the movie. Maybe this is some research from my character. What made you take the leap to decide to run for mayor?
I think that women approach leadership sometimes differently from how men approach it. For me, it had to be a calling, or I wouldn’t do it. I was not interested in being in the office.
It’s not an ego thing.
Not at all. It’s quite the contrary. When you run for office, you get beat up a lot. If it’s about ego I’d rather stay, thank you for doing my community service where I can be appreciated for what I do instead of being criticized.
It is a tough thankless job.
It has a lot of rewards, but it also has a lot of pain because people are frustrated and people are angry and impatient and they generalize. If things go bad with government, then all government is bad. They can’t stop, “Maybe this person did something good.” I believe passionately in our democracy that it is critical that people have confidence and trust in our democratic institutions. After working a lifetime to try to make the government more responsive, more accountable to people, it was time to go inside so that I could be inside receiving public participation, public voice, and public involvement.
That is why I stepped up. There was an opportunity because the person that I was running against was going in the other direction. I was able to, in that time of my life, step up to this leadership role. I did it the way I always do it by building a strong coalition and made the massive changes that I’ve been able to as commissioner. That was great for six years, but I’ve been frustrated that I cannot effectuate the bigger changes that are needed.
We are at a huge inflection point in this county with issues of affordability, equity, environment, traffic and transit, and violence. There are many critical issues. As 1 of 13 commissioners, I’ve not been able to effectuate the change that is needed to build a better future so that our young people can afford to live here and so that they’ll choose to live here so that others won’t have to work multiple jobs to get by. In the midst of this pandemic, and the challenges around policing, racism and society broadly that we’re talking about in an important way, this is the opportunity to step up and make changes that will guide us.
Miami-Dade County is the seventh-largest county in the nation. This is a huge responsibility because we’re diverse in cultures because people come from the Caribbean and from all over. We are truly a melting pot here in Miami. How do you as a Jewish woman see your role in bringing together all these cultures that are here in Miami?
I think I can play a unique role. I explained to you that I grew up overseas. I had an opportunity from an early age to be broad in my view and appreciative of many different cultures, nationalities, races, religions, and creeds. I do embrace them all. I think Miami-Dade is the best place on earth because of that diversity, that dynamism and I think people love it.
I want people to learn that from you because I know that that is something that’s your heart, bringing all these cultures together. Anybody who’s reading and thinking, “She may not understand me or she may not get it.”
There’s always more to learn. I don’t know it all by any means but every time we turn around, there’s something new coming into, I’ll call it the salad bowl. They like to talk about the soup or the everything coming together, a melting pot. I heard a long time ago that we’re not a melting pot. We’re a salad because each individual ingredient, the radishes, the carrots, the garbanzos, the nuts, whatever, it tastes much better altogether but each retaining its unique flavor.It is important to always give back to the community that serves you. Click To Tweet
I think we’ve gotten into identity culture a lot. People are embracing their heritage and that’s what also puts us on the map but we haven’t done enough to lift it up. For example, for the visitors, for the tourists, they don’t just come for the weather and the beaches. They come because we have delicious food, wonderful art, culture, and music. We should be having micro tours of the different neighborhoods and learning what’s their background? What’s Bahamian culture, Haitian culture, Cuban culture, and all the different cultures.
Imagine how exciting it is. I’ve been part of national conferences back when we had conferences that brought together philanthropists and things from all around the country or the world and that’s what they wanted to see. They got these tours of different neighborhoods to understand what’s the totality, what makes us click? That’s what we have to reflect in the county government, in our government, our leadership, our business, and our tourism. I’m excited to be the top cheerleader for Miami-Dade’s cultural millage 101.
I want to ask you, looking back at your career and your life and leadership, what has been one of the biggest mistakes that you’ve made that made you shrink back a little bit? How did you recover from that?
I got to county government not knowing what could I do as a County Commissioner, only knowing that a change was needed. I got there and I discovered that I could do many things that had not been tried before. I could take on pay equity for women, promoting citizenship for legal permanent residents, banning styrofoam, banning fracking. Banning the box when people apply for a county job that they don’t start off by admitting that they have had a criminal record which assists if you don’t have to check a box on an application at the outset. Encouraging people to report fraud, waste, and abuse in government affairs, which has saved us a lot of money. Reporting campaign finance requiring that pack money be reported. These are a few of the highlights of the things that I’ve been able to accomplish.
What I learned early on is that not everybody was that excited about me taking on these things. There was a sense that I should slow down a little bit and more or less listen to my elders. I always try to be extremely respectful because I know that others had been there before. I was never trying to put myself in front of anyone else. I was bringing my ideas and experience to the table. I got beat down a little bit but then I would find another way around. I guess what I would say in general is to have your goals, have your dreams, don’t give up on them, but remember to be always respectful and strategic.
Not everybody is going to buy into it especially if it’s going to change the status quo if you’re coming in to disrupt.
People don’t like change as they say.
If you’re going to disrupt something and turn over the apple cart, it’s going to ruffle some feathers and it may not always land too well on you.
I was talking to one of our department directors in the county about the future and how to improve the culture of the county hall and make it more open to innovation and change. I was telling him about the psychology of a woman named Carol Dweck which is open and close mindsets. An open mindset is when you are willing to take a risk, and possibly fail, and then treat that as a learning opportunity and then you have to be thoughtful about it. You can’t willy nilly and try things that will be harmful, but I think not risking to avoid offending or upending the status quo is not acceptable because otherwise we never grow and learn. The people that are more fearful that want to always perform and color inside the lines are not the ones that are driving the change that we need in society.
You’ve touched on something here because that’s part of the work that I do is in building strong teams and understanding the strengths of each person, each individual and some people are wired more to innovation and thinking outside the box and coloring outside those lines. There are people who are wired more to rules and regulations and let’s follow this path and everything. How do we make all that work together? As you’re talking about open mindset and close mindset, is there a way in county government to harness and understand the strengths of people who are in the teams and then fitting them together like a puzzle piece so that we do move forward and we don’t have this clashing because now each person understands each other?
That’s what I’m working on. I’m thinking about exactly how to do that and I do have my lifetime of experience to draw upon, but that’s the riddle to be solved. That’s the challenge because we have 28,000 employees. They’re used to doing things a certain way. I am not planning to come in and upset the apple cart. The buses and trains still have to run on time. The water still has to flow and the airplanes to land.
What I do want is to empower people to be part of making meaningful change. We’re going to need to look at ways we can do things more efficiently. We’re going to have to make do with less money in the coming years because of this pandemic. We’re going to have to look at ways to invest in people that will have lasting change, businesses that are going to be struggling that have many shuttered, and hopefully can come back. There’s so much that we have to do to deal with the challenges at hand that we can’t continue with business as usual.
I interviewed a guest who was brought into the Mississippi Delta to change that whole system around because they were the poorest and the most uneducated. He said there were many systemic problems there. His way of approaching it was through inspired leadership. He said that they needed a vision for everyone to buy into to start moving things into that direction. What is your vision for Miami-Dade County?
I completely agree that that is what motivates people is if they see something that they can feel that they can work towards and that they have a role to play in achieving something greater. That is definitely what I’m planning to move forward with. My own vision is that we can be a place that is more equitable. We can be a place that is attractive to our visitors and our investors, but that turns that investment into something that will benefit us and our quality of life here locally. That we can be more resilient to deal with climate change and sea-level rise extreme weather challenges that we are facing and a place where young people feel that they can have a future. I believe that that’s what we all want. We don’t want to be here just to serve the visitors. We want to make sure that our quality of life is improving and elevated and that our children and our grandchildren will want to and can afford to make a life here.
You mentioned that going into the public office can be brutal at times with criticism and personal attacks. How do you maintain your confidence through something like that?
In my case, being about to turn 65, that helps. I think the wisdom and the calm that comes with age are useful, but you could be calm and wise at a younger age. It took me a little longer.
I’m still working on it.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I was not a person that liked criticism. I’m not a combative or argumentative person at all. I like peace, consensus, and calm. The decision making that we have to do means that not everyone is going to be satisfied. However, that to be said, I do believe in participation. I think the maximum participation, the maximum communication for people to feel at least that they’re heard, not ignored, not irrelevant, not like somebody else is pulling the strings, but that public perspective has been considered from every angle, that’s what I aim to bring.
That’s what I’ve brought as a County Commissioner. As Mayor, I’m looking for participants for budgeting. I’m looking for people to learn how to meaningfully contribute, to learn the issues they can truly be better heard. I’m always about speaking up at the County level to hear your concerns. Government is about customer service. Customer service is people are paying their taxes and they’re electing their leaders to take care of business. People want to know, “How are you taking care of my business?” It’s not like, “I’ll tell you later. I’ll make you do things a certain way, and you have nothing to say about it.” That’s not good customer service.
You spoke about speaking up at the county level and I wanted to ask you about women speaking up more. What are your plans to give women more opportunities to speak up and have that seat at the table?An open mindset is when you are willing to take a risk and possibly fail, and then treat that as a learning opportunity. Click To Tweet
We have a great piece of legislation that I championed. We’re the first County in the nation to adopt the UN convention against discrimination against women in all forms. That has led to an annual report on the status of women. It has led to some important changes, a rewrite of the sexual harassment policy for the county, greater ability for women to advance in county government through disclosure of any educational credentials that they have, better preparation for victims of domestic violence who come through our shelters or through our jails to arm them with what they need to be protected outside of those institutions.
Also, ways that we’re advancing women for pay equity in our contracting. That’s not enough. We must do more because like we need implicit bias training around race which we do have in our police department, but we need to double down and give it throughout the county. We need to have that training around gender bias too. When you make things explicit, that’s when people are forced to acknowledge their own bias.
There’s a great book called Blink by Malcolm Gladwell that talks about when they discovered that women were not getting a fair shot at being selected to perform in major symphonies because they were always picking the men, then they started doing their auditions behind a screen and they picked the women. That was an important lesson in how we have to make these biases explicit and work hard to overcome them.
You mentioned your two children. What do you teach or have you taught when they were younger about leadership and being confident in what they do?
I have two wonderful children. My daughter who’s 35 and my son who’s 32. I have two beautiful granddaughters. They are 1 and 3. I wanted to tell this story about my daughter when she was in third grade and they were decorating the classroom door for Martin Luther King Day. She was put in charge of the committee to decide what would go on the door. They all got together, whatever number of little kids, and each one had an idea about how they should decorate the door. My daughter came home and said, “Mom, what should I do? I don’t know what to do.” They don’t give you that day in school to know how to facilitate the discussion and the decision-making about the door decoration.
We talked about it and talked about how to incorporate ideas from each of them and try to build a consensus. She went back and they came up with whatever was the door. I always remember that first of all, because she asked me. It fills me with joy that she knew that this was something I had some experience with. I was able to give some guidance that assisted her to move forward. She’s now an environmental leader. Both she and my son are active civically. I don’t know if they got it through DNA or whatever, but it worked out well.
Thank you for giving us your time to share. I wish you all the luck in the elections coming up and hope to see you as the next mayor of Miami-Dade County.
I’ll be back. Thank you.