As one of the selected 2022 Presidential Leadership Scholars, Aila Malik ‘01 invests her time in learning about bipartisan solutions to advance equity and justice through increasing the effectiveness of nonprofits to achieve their missions . With the help of the Presidential Leadership Scholars cohort, she expands her knowledge past her lifelong residency in California and challenges herself with new ideologies from the administrations of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Malik received her Bachelors of Science in Environmental Studies in 2001(with minor degrees in both Music and Professional Writing) and utilizes her knowledge of our planet and her communication skills to bridge the gap between societal inequity and its impact on our environment.
With a consistent desire to help create change in multiple sectors of society, Malik obtained her law degree (JD) and dedicated her career to advancing change in all systems that affect the most vulnerable people (i.e. workforce development, homelessness, education, justice, mental health, and foster care) through elevating the capacity of the nonprofit sector. Malik founded her own innovative approach to nonprofit capacity-building through her company, Venture Leadership Consulting, where she and her colleagues both do the work as interim nonprofit executives in individual organizations and disseminate their learnings and methodology with the broader sector.
Given her core belief, “that progress towards societal equity and justice is intertwined with the empathy needed to solve the environmental crises of our time,” Malik builds community in all that she does professionally with nonprofits and personally with children as an activist parent, world traveler, and children’s book author…all in the interest of a better future for everyone.
Find out more about Malik’s position as a Presidential Leadership Scholar and how she hopes to use her new perspectives to create environmental, social, and political change in our community today.
How did you decide to study Environmental Science at UC Santa Barbara? What was the biggest challenge and greatest reward as an Environmental Science major?
I entered UCSB “undeclared” as I didn’t know what I wanted to do at 18 years old. I signed up for Marc McGinnes and Mark Schlenz’s classes, Intro to Environmental Studies (and later Environmental Rhetoric)and I was immediately hooked by the important context of our own humanity- the planet that hosts us, which led me to take more ES courses and eventually declare this as my major. My greatest reward was the understanding of human interconnectedness to the planet, as a macro ecosystem.
At the time, there was a lot of political action happening around the oil drilling stations in the oceans and preservation of the Channel Islands. And while there were so many different issues that were hands-on, specifically at UCSB, I felt a bit of imposter syndrome when the majority within the ES department were already set-on advocating in those spaces. I found myself questioning if I was enough of an environmental activist, especially as around that time, Julia Butterfly Hill had just released her book Legacy of Luna about using “civil disobedience” of living in a tree to save it. When I didn't identify with what I perceived an “environmental activist” to be, I questioned how I was going to relate to that content and what role I would take on within a societal standpoint.
I will never forget going to a community hearing to ban the use of methyl bromide in nearby strawberry fields. I went to “speak on the environmental impacts” of the pesticide for extra credit. While I was there, I spoke to some of the field workers (in Spanish) thinking that they would be supportive of banning a chemical that caused them harm through picking the strawberries. I was shocked to receive their admonishment that basically smacked me with my own unchecked privilege. They asked in Spanish, “who was I to come and advocate for a regulation that may cost them their jobs and make their families homeless, because their fields would be unable to compete with the rest of the strawberry industry.”
That incident helped me understand that there was a nexus between how we treat our most vulnerable in our communities and how we treat our environment in the context of capitalism. From then on, I carried a great internal tension between my love for effectively addressing the issues that our society is causing and relieving social issues plaguing humanity. Environmental Justice was part of this internal chatter, but the challenge was finding my voice in that space.
About that time, the movie Erin Brockovich came out and it completely caught my attention. I thought it was so badass to advocate for environmental justice while participating in the legal side of humanitarian issues. I started looking for ways to explore “environmental law” and did a volunteer internship at the Channel Islands National Park. It was interesting to focus on natural habitats but I missed the people part of the context in that work. I remember thinking about my time volunteering at homeless shelters and other nonprofits and the people there stirred my heart and sparked a passion for service. I knew that I would go to law school to help me effectively work at the intersection of both our planet and our people. People are the indicator and catalyst for change so connecting with our community, or collective humanity, is evidence of our ability to solve complex and global issues, including the climate crisis.
How did UCSB prepare you for Law School at Santa Clara University?
I absolutely loved my time at UCSB, especially the professors, the learning environment, and the ability for every student to be well rounded. I remember participating in Zen sitting groups, gospel choirs, and Middle Eastern drumming. All of these activities allowed me to explore my full spectrum of expression. In that time, I started receiving credits and ended up minoring in Professional Writing and Music, as well.
From a law school perspective, UCSB made me feel well rounded enough to dedicate a little more focus on a specific subject in law school. Since UCSB provided me with that exploration and adventure that comes with studying on the beach and making friends in Isla Vista, I felt confident in narrowing my attention.
The UCSB Writing Department helped me to develop my writing skills during law school where my studies were primarily reading and writing, and most of my colleagues had experience in the arts. With my Bachelor of Science degree, I felt like I could tackle my studies with a different perspective and still feel confident in my writing due to the minor I pursued.
Tell us about your management consulting firm and how you founded Venture Leadership Consulting in 2015.
While at UCSB, I worked and volunteered with vulnerable populations in the nonprofit sector. I continued this work in law school where I spent time with children who were either incarcerated or getting out of juvenile hall and onto probation. I wanted to teach others about the law and the consequences of their actions in order to help mold a a path of leadership for them. I turned down really lucrative offers to continue this work after law school. Because I am so passionate about equity and justice, I never thought of my work solely coming from either an environmental angle, or the juvenile angle, but from all different angles of society.
I firmly believe that change in our world depends on human behavior and our ability to create healthy communities that care about a healthy environment. Nonprofits are dedicated to advancing missions that close gaps of inequity and injustice, yet so many well-intended organizations don’t apply the rigor they need to actually facilitate enduring change in people and systems. We must have those hard conversations about true accountability and effectiveness within nonprofit space, in service of great impact. While working in a juvenile justice organization for 14 years, I saw many consultants with pretty plans and advice, but nobody to really partner with us in the implementation of those plans, and so I decided to create different idea– nonprofit booster shots for change. Our firm is actually a collective of practitioners instead of traditional consultants. We provide tools and support to leaders in the field but we also take seats as interim executives for 9-12 months to drive change from the inside out; then we turn it over to a permanent person to continue this momentum to success.
Tell me about the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program and how you were selected for its 2022 class.
The Presidential Leadership Scholars (PLS) Program is a cohort of cross sectored leaders who are agents of community change looking to elevate their leadership by learning from different people and presidencies on how to solve bigger problems across bipartisan solutions.
I was born, raised, and educated in California, with the majority of those years in a very “blue bubble” of Silicon Valley. To truly be effective in building community for systems change, I know I need to learn to work with people of different backgrounds and experiences than my own. PLS is very intentional about creating cohorts with diverse identities, ideologies, and practices to cultivate leaders that can mobilize solutions on a national scale. This program is designed to promote collaboration between Democrats and Republicans to understand these different perspectives that can solve bigger problems across bipartisan solutions. I am so grateful to meet former presidents and national leaders and am excited to be back in “student mode” for the next six months!
How do you anticipate this program impacting your career and furthering your mission to close systemic gaps of inequity?
I always express myself authentically whether as a mom, a traveler, or a civically engaged professional. I hope this learning experience helps me bring all of my genuine voices up in a way people can hear and engage with effectively.
I also work on a major project to disseminate my learnings from working with over 125 nonprofits in VLC with the nonprofit sector, at large. Democratizing consulting and elitist modes of thinking to increase accessibility for all nonprofits could really uplift the sector. If people are motivated to look for ways to more effectively run their nonprofits, it would have a different impact on our country.
How did your JD and the California Bar Association impact your activism and nonprofit work?
I have many different interests and I've always tried to figure out how they all work together. But as cheesy as it sounds, I see myself as a student of life. I reject the notion that teachers must be professors and have PhDs; anyone can teach you anything, whether it's humility, character, skill, or a new way of thinking. I got to learn about all of my interests from solely being a student. I was a student at UCSB, in law school, and while traveling, which helped me understand what is at stake for this environment and the people most vulnerable in our communities. If you put that lens on it, my trajectory starts to make sense and my varied interests fit perfectly in my 1000 piece puzzle!
You traveled to 41 countries in 54 weeks with your family, who are known as the Franklin Street Globetrotters. What sparked this ambitious journey with your family and where did you come up with the name?
To start, I married my high school sweetheart and while in college, we both participated in a study abroad program called Wildlands. My boyfriend and I traveled to Nepal together and hiked the Himalayan mountains for the summer. I feel like if you can travel with someone, you can do anything with them!
I got married at 24 years old, and all I wanted to do was forget my career and go travel! But instead, we started having children quicker than anticipated. We made a pact that before our oldest child hit high school and when the youngest was able to go to the bathroom independently, we would take a year off and travel the world! We wanted to instill humility in our children and encourage them to learn about other cultures by immersing them into the world. The irony is that we want to dismantle the privileges our kids had growing up in Silicon Valley – but it takes privilege to be able to travel the world in that context. To challenge that, we treated this as less of a vacation and more of an exploration. We worked with about 25 NGOs and just immersed ourselves in authentic lifestyles. We hope we have instilled a travel bug and a sense of curiosity into our children. We worked on this trip for about 10 years both financially and academically to make sure this goal could be accomplished.
As for the name, Franklin is the name of the street we lived on! We didn’t think about a name until we realized a blog could both inspire others and provide us a way to reminisce on our journeys. Please follow us on Instagram and YouTube to help us spread a message to inspire education through travel (YouTube + IG: franklin_street_globetrotters).
We are also launching a documentary about our trip back to the Himalayan mountains with our three kids– the Indian government thinks our youngest kid is the youngest visitor to summit a specific path. Our plan is to do it again in 2030! We just touched the surface of what we can find all over the world.
Any final comments?
I would not have gotten the opportunities that I have had, but for the NUMEROUS teachers and mentors that I cultivated (and still cultivate) throughout my journey. It would be my pleasure to pay it forward for those UCSB students that feel kinship or curiosity about anything I’ve shared in this interview. Please feel free to follow/reach out on my personal Linked In and/or Instagram. Our humanity and our planet need all of our talents and passion!