Marquis Palmer, commander of Post 951 in Riverside, Calif., is discussing how to use media as a membership tool during a Legion College session led by Mary Jane Fisher. Photo by Henry Howard/The American Legion

California holds successful inaugural Legion College

Marquis Palmer is commander of an American Legion post that is less than a year old. When Palmer, who did two tours in Iraq, took on the leadership position, he sought ways to educate himself about The American Legion.

“I took the ALEI (American Legion Extension Institute) course and that got me motivated as a person who is not only in a leadership position but interested in the history and how we can effectively communicate the history, the traditions and the programs,” said Palmer, commander of Post 951 in Riverside, Calif.

Still, he wanted to learn more and grow in his role and beyond. “Education is a big thing but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t share it. I can’t continue to enact change if I am not a part of it.”

Palmer took the next step in his ongoing leadership training and education when he was among 18 Legionnaires who graduated April 29 from the inaugural Department of California Legion College held at Post 731 in Linda Vista, outside of San Diego. During the three-day Legion College, a dozen California Legionnaires and two members of the National Headquarters staff served as instructors, leading interactive sessions on topics ranging from leadership to Americanism to resolution writing to media to membership.

The leadership positions really spoke to Palmer. “The American Legion needs more effective leaders, those who are going to tell The American Legion story but implement things by example,” he said. “When people see leaders doing great things, they are going to want to join. Engage the community first, and membership will follow.”

Palmer will take those lessons — and others — back to his post and district.

“We’re doing what we can to change the focus of the community of what The American Legion is,” he said. “And ultimately that’s community service — helping veterans, the troops and their families.”

Nearly all of the instructors are graduates of the National American Legion College, including Mary Jane Fisher.

“National American Legion College gave me a great overview of things that are going on with The American Legion,” she said. “Now, at the department level, we are fostering and creating more needs at the post level. Teaching at the department level, we can share that knowledge and be specific with training these students. I’ve been able to develop a specialty and I’m going to share what I have with my heart. Hopefully, they pick up some information and use it at the post level.”

Fisher, the department’s recruiter of the year in 2017, led sessions on membership and public relations. Among the points she emphasized was using active-listening skills.

“It’s important for me to be an instructor at California American Legion College to share my forward-thinking wisdom that I have received and plant some seeds in these individuals who are here so maybe they can get some new ideas and be a little bit more motivated to go forward,” she said.

Departments are encouraged to start and staff Legion Colleges as a way to train its leaders, according to Resolution 50.

“The initial Legion College by the Department of California has successfully provided leadership training to a new generation of leaders,” said Internal Affairs Commission Chairman Robert Newman of Indiana. “We’re excited to see California take this step and look forward to seeing other departments develop their own Legion Colleges that fit their needs.”

California’s Legion College was set up to be practical, as well as informative. Students were coached through the resolution-writing process. Three resolutions created during the college will be routed through the approval process and presented at the department convention for consideration.

Post 161 member Autrey James of Antioch, Calif., went to national college in 2014. “I came back with the idea that we need to do that here in California,” he said. “It took some effort to try and get things going. Everyone supports it but getting the funding is the hard part.”

Class members not only left with knowledge to lead their posts and districts, but also helpful resources. For example, resource materials from the sessions were uploaded to a Dropbox for each of the students.

“The department is moving away from paper; we’re reinforcing that in our future leaders,” James said. “All of their assignments and resources materials are in the students’ Dropbox. Slide shows will also be in their Dropboxes so students can go back to their posts and do training there as well. Everything is in one place.”

As part of the class, both students and instructors are doing evaluations for each session on both the content and the instructor, according to Post 555 member Ken George, who led four sessions. The evaluations will be used to refine future courses, George said, adding that the goal is to have three annual Legion Colleges throughout the state.

He sees the department Legion College as a way to engage members and develop a new set of leaders.

“I hope that everybody is able to take away something,” said George, who is also the commander of District 29. “In this 2½ days of curriculum, they need to weed out what they like and share it with their posts. That’s the biggest thing: share it. You can’t keep it to yourself. In the future, I see more educated Legionnaires, more passionate Legionnaires who actually know what our programs are about. Unless you participated in our programs at your post, district or department, you really don’t understand what is going on.”

Students included those who hold post officers up to area vice commander.

Newly minted California Legion College graduate Jared Morgan is adjutant of Post 123 in Santa Monica. He likens the experience to going to convention — a time to learn, gain inspiration and bond with other Legionnaires.

“It’s a great way to transfer knowledge to build leadership within The American Legion,” Morgan said. “I’m happy to be here with a group of people who believe in me — even though I haven’t been in the Legion very long — and will help me grow in this organization.”

Morgan liked the adjutant training and session about Americanism programs.

“Getting information about the programs was really valuable,” he said. ”We can go to the website (www.legion.org) and read up on the programs. But being able to hear about the programs firsthand gave me some ideas on how I could implement and start up these programs in my post.”

And that fits James’ vision for the department Legion College. From here he sees the students becoming the teachers.

“I want them to leave here with the idea that they don’t have to know everything but they need to know where they can find things,” he said. “We want them to go back and do the same thing in their posts. We want them to go back and tell their post members, ‘Here is where you can find information.’ We want them to begin to move up in their posts and take on leadership roles. We recognize that these folks are going to be our future leaders.”