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Strengthening Community Viability through Leadership Development


Strengthening Community Viability through Leadership Development Graduates of the recent "Innovative Leadership: Building Community Connections" program in Cumberland County are joined by local government officials as they celebrate their completion of the program.

Although Cumberland County’s population has yet to pass the 10,000 mark, its rural character, abundance of natural resources, and colorful local history mean its residents are proud to call their 300 square miles in central Virginia home.

But like all communities, Cumberland has challenges, and they include a median household income below the state average, a low percentage of young residents who decide to continue their education beyond high school, and a lack of economic resources with most jobs available only in neighboring counties.

Thanks to a new leadership curriculum developed by Virginia Cooperative Extension, 10 Cumberland County residents have learned more about their community and how to find workable solutions to their real-life problems.

“Our sessions covered leadership traits, effective communication and presentation skills, team dynamics, vision and goal setting, and community planning,” says Martha Walker, community viability specialist for Extension’s Central District. “Participants also went on a tour of Cumberland to see its resources and ongoing projects firsthand, and they had an opportunity to speak with local government officials.”

According to Walker, “Innovative Leadership: Building Community Connections” encourages participants to build their leadership skills, increase their awareness of community issues, network with other leaders, and become more engaged in community, civic, and governmental activities. Most importantly, the program does not follow rigid guidelines about what to include and what not to include.

“I found through my research that communities want a program that is flexible,” Walker says. “With this curriculum, your community decides what components it needs to cover.”

Before participating in Innovative Leadership, high school teacher Deborah Guyer had already demonstrated her leadership ability by investing her talents in the Cumberland County Public Library, the High School Capital Improvement Committee, and the Cumberland County Schools Foundation. After her graduation from the program, Guyer says she has developed a deeper love for the community where she has lived for the past seven years.

“It was a thrill to learn how the local government worked and how citizens can be involved in the process,” says Guyer, a member of the Cumberland Ruritan Club. “This program helped me with all of my current projects and has given me strength to tackle new ones. I want to take what I’ve learned here and empower my students to do their own projects to improve the community.”

Long-time community leader Alice Metts, who works for the county and leads an autism support group, also participated in Innovative Leadership. “The best part of the program was exploring new ways of being a leader in the presence of other leaders,” she says.

“I learned about the importance of getting everyone involved in the decision making process, especially the quiet people who might not say much but can definitely contribute,” adds Metts, who has lived in Cumberland for 60 years.

At the conclusion of the ten-week program, teams of graduates presented their suggestions to address Cumberland’s obstacles. Guyer’s team proposed regular tours of the county’s resources and history to empower citizens to be involved, and Metts’ team suggested the addition of a new vocational class at the local high school. A third team outlined the possible benefits of building a new, affordable recreational facility. Local government officials and stakeholders, who were in attendance during their presentations, were receptive to the ideas.

“Although Cumberland County is the first locale in Virginia to benefit from the new leadership program, Danville and Pittsylvania County have already adopted the program and graduated their first class and Alleghany County has scheduled its first session,” says Brian Calhoun, state program leader for Extension’s community viability efforts. “In addition, we are planning to expand it to other parts of the state in locations where residents and local officials have expressed a desire to improve their communities by raising up local leaders.”

Innovative Leadership may be the newest adult leadership development program in the state, but it is not the only one. Extension has partnered with the Virginia Association of Counties to provide members of the boards of supervisors in Virginia counties with an opportunity to receive additional training through the County Supervisor Certification Program.

“Supervisors complete five core courses on leadership development, duties and responsibilities of public officials, community planning, local government finance, and collaborative governance,” says Scott Tate, community viability specialist for Extension’s Southwest District. “Each of the core courses consists of a two-day session, eight weeks of home study, and a concluding one-day session.”

Elective courses are also available on topics such as conflict resolution and dispute management, team building, technology in local government, decision-making, and intergovernmental relations. The 18-month program is open to supervisors from all across the state, but class sizes are usually small to allow for a better learning environment and more interaction from participants.

According to Tate, Extension personnel and contracted trainers provide the training. Upon completion of their coursework, participants receive a certificate endorsed by the Virginia Association of Counties. So far, two groups of county supervisors have finished the program and a third group is in progress.

Like Innovative Leadership, the County Supervisor Certification Program encourages local leaders to reach their full potential. Both programs use similar techniques to train leaders to strengthen their communities.

“Leadership development is one of the priority issues that community viability specialists have identified, along with community planning, economic opportunity development, and entrepreneurship,” Calhoun says. “By offering leaders training and a venue to discuss and find solutions to local problems, we are leveraging the potential of these communities to meet their goals and improve their quality of life.”