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Appalachian Scene: Hands-on Training for Community Leadership

by Carl Hoffman

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As projects go, they may seem relatively modest: a yellow pages business directory in Wirt County, West Virginia; a recycling center in Owsley County, Kentucky; the donation of a free computer to a student in Floyd County, Kentucky; a youth empowerment program in Randolph County, West Virginia.

But the Brushy Fork Leadership Development Program, which helped community members undertake these and dozens of similar projects, is nurturing something profound: leaders who will have the skills to do momentous things in their communities. "The idea is that after these small projects, people will go back to all of the things they were doing before, but with new skills and new networks," says Peter Hille, director of the Brushy Fork Institute, which coordinates the program. "They'll be more effective at everything else they're doing."

An outreach arm of Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky, the Brushy Fork Institute—supported in part by Appalachian Regional Commission funds—is founded on the idea that a region's economic development is the product of the capabilities of the people who live there; that it is aware, committed, skilled citizens who create the conditions for everything else. The institute's Leadership Development Program has involved more than 950 residents from 91 counties in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia in six-month projects that residents themselves create. Its East Kentucky Leadership Network trains youths for leadership roles, and then helps place them on key county boards. Its work as part of the West Virginia Community Collaborative fosters communication and the sharing of information and resources among a wide array of organizations involved in community development. And its quarterly newsletter, Mountain Promise, goes out to 1,600 readers.

Begun in 1988, the Leadership Development Program is Brushy Fork's oldest component. Each year, Hille and staff select four counties, from which they pull together a diverse mix of seasoned leaders and folks who've never led before, seniors and young people, professionals, retirees, white- and blue-collar workers—"a mix that looks like each county," says Hille. The four groups, each comprising 15 participants, attend a weekend program at the Brushy Fork Institute in Berea free of charge. Over the weekend, participants join in a series of leadership workshops covering such topics as running meetings, understanding local economies, and outlining a vision for a community. "Well-conducted meetings are not the norm," says Hille. "Having a clear agenda, taking minutes, assigning different people different leadership roles—we're giving them a toolbox to be capable and effective," he says.

In addition to exploring new skills during the opening workshop, each team's members select a project on which they will work for the next six months. Once back home, each group meets biweekly to implement its project, then meets with Brushy Fork staff for a mid-term workshop to hone the project. At the end of the six months, the groups return to Berea College to evaluate their experiences. Though small, these group projects are key, requiring participants, for instance, to raise money in their communities to make their proj-ects a reality. "Leadership happens from doing things, not just talking about it," says Hille. "The projects have to be something that fits in with the group's long-term vision, yet be doable in just six months."

A New Set of Skills

David Kraus had recently retired to Floyd County, Kentucky, from a job as an aerospace engineer in Connecticut when the Brushy Fork Leadership Development Program came calling. Like most groups that first come together, his brainstormed a host of ideas. Under the institute's nudging, they quickly came to a consensus on the idea of education. "We decided there were lots of programs for the best students, and lots of remedial help for those struggling, but what about non-traditional students?" says Kraus. "For example, a single mom who might need some help and would likely remain in the county after obtaining her degree." The group decided to donate a computer to such students. They called their project the Technology Gift Incentive Foundation Team (T-GIFT)—Brushy Fork encourages all projects to have a name—and raised money to purchase a computer that they awarded at a dinner and silent auction, which raised funds to continue the program for another year. Though Brushy Fork projects are limited to six months, the Floyd County team decided to stay together and has now given a computer every year for the last three years.

But T-GIFT is only the tip of the iceberg. After his Brushy Fork experience, Kraus found himself equipped with a new set of skills. "Consensus building, developing a vision, a timeline, and a budget—those are things that I found really useful," he says. Kraus has since been named district chairman of his local Rotary Club and has begun a series of similar workshops for the county's Rotary Clubs.

Through Brushy Fork's Associate Facilitator program, Kraus also volunteered to be a facilitator for a Randolph County, West Virginia, group that entered the Leadership Development Program in September 2003. When they met in Berea for the first time, the group had lots of ideas, but one person's vision stood out. Kristina Szczyrbak, a senior at Elkins High School, had already conducted a survey asking 400 teenagers what they wanted to see in their county. Hands down, the answer was a place to hang out together. "Everyone got excited about it," says Szczyrbak, whose group coalesced around the long-term goal of providing a permanent teen center in Randolph County. "The kids were so enthusiastic," says Joanna DiStefano, a VISTA volunteer at the Highland Community Technology Center, in Elkins, West Virginia, "we basically became an advocacy group for them."

The Randolph County group is conducting a detailed feasibility study outlining exactly how a center might work and where it might be located. "We're trying to raise money for the study," Szczyrbak says, "and right now it's in the baby stage."

But the process is already paying dividends, equipping group members with the skills they'll need to get things done in their county in the future. "I'm not much of a team player," Szczyrbak admits. "I like to do things my way, and now I'm learning tolerance; we're constantly meeting and emailing, and I'm learning great organizational skills."

"We have such a cross-section of people from the county," says DiStefano, "and it's great to see that everyone has a different perspective and to create a broad network of people. I'm shy and I've been facilitating meetings, which I've never done before."

Making the Process Real

"Because they're working on something real," says Hille, "that makes the process real, and it will carry with every person for everything they do for the rest of their lives."

On the last day of final exams before winter break at Berea College, that process was evident. In addition to facilitating the four county proj-ects through the Leadership Development Program, the Brushy Fork Institute works with a team of Berea students who take on a leadership project on campus, and this December afternoon four teenagers plowed into Brushy Fork's conference room, munching on pizza and fretting over their finals. The project they had been working on was ambitious: developing a business plan in hopes of opening an on-campus convenience store to serve Berea's students. But midway through the process, after the group had completed a feasibility study, a local entrepreneur announced plans to open a pharmacy and delicatessen just off campus. With a maturity and efficiency that would put many professionals to shame, Cheryll Worley stood by a flip chart at the head of the room and said, "Okay, since this store is opening up, we need to outline new goals."

"Well," said Jennifer Prather, "our goal was to improve campus life by opening a store. This store is opening, so we should support it and contact the owners and offer our research and our support." Over the next hour they brainstormed ways to help market the store and make sure it had the products identified by student surveys as those they wanted. "I heard about this [project] and applied," says Worley, from Asheville, North Carolina, after the meeting winds down, "because I see things on campus that can be improved. I want to be a teacher, and organizing meetings and having to stand up in front of people and working together as a group to accomplish a goal is all great experience."

"Just learning how to run an efficient meeting is incredible," says Leanna Lantz. "We have dorm meetings where people are taking cell calls, watching TV. Here, we're taught to look someone in the eye, set an agenda, and get things done!"

Allowing young people to have a voice and feel the power of community involvement is also the motivation for the East Kentucky Leadership Network, which Brushy Fork coordinates. Each year youths are selected and trained, then participate on local community boards such as library, school, and tourism boards. "It's a huge eye-opener for both the kids and the adults on the boards," says Hille. "We've done surveys, and two-thirds of high school students say it's unlikely they'll ever be involved in civic life. But then after the program, 85 percent say they're likely to continue their involvement throughout their lives. High school is a really important time for kids, a time when they're thinking about a lot of things, and suddenly they see that getting involved is possible. And that's a remarkable transformation."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.