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The Process for Change

by Fred D. Baldwin

Juliaann Etherton, a mother of two who was once on welfare, says that she was in poor health and depressed when she showed up at the offices of the 21st Century Council's Adult Career Center in Scottsboro (Jackson County), Alabama. Today she's working at a hospital and says she feels capable of taking on almost any challenge. Here's how she describes the persistence of the council's staff and volunteers: "They dig down inside you and find the one thing that makes you shine. And then they'll keep chipping away to get to that."

Patiently chipping away to find what makes individuals shine is what the council does best. "It's one-on-one," says Ann Kennamer, director of the 21st Century Council. "We do a lot of hand-holding."

This approach has paid off. The council has used a very modest grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to help at least 30 people find jobs.

Actually, the grant is itself an example of how a program launched on a small scale can lead to large achievements. The 21st Century Council is one of 32 groups that received small grants under ARC's Appalachian Community Learning Project (ACLP). ACLP's goal is to foster community development by encouraging local leaders to start "chipping away" at their communities' problems, learning as they go along, rather than agonizing over the production of careful blueprints.

ACLP, a program of ARC's regional initiative on leadership and civic development, was launched in 1997 when five-person teams from 32 communities representing all 13 Appalachian states met at three sites around the Region to participate in a series of leadership forums. They set goals they believed could be met within a six-month period. Each community received a small grant for operating expenses. The community-based teams were asked to report on results achieved and lessons learned, not on specific activities.

An evaluation report on ACLP from the Rensselaerville Institute in Rensselaerville, New York, found that 70 percent of the communities in the program achieved all or most of their result targets. It concluded that "learning comes from change, as well as vice versa." It also concluded that "the most important resource in community economic growth and development is people, not money."

That's consistent with the Scottsboro experience.

"We were given a small amount of money," recalls Kennamer, "and told, 'Do what you want to do. If you want to paint the town green, do that.'"

A Sense of Purpose

The Scottsboro team's sense of purpose had begun to form as early as 1993, when a study by the chamber of commerce showed that 42 percent of Jackson County adults had neither a high school diploma nor a GED and that 17 percent of these adults were functionally illiterate. These findings led members of the chamber and the Rotary Club to form the 21st Century Council; it still operates under chamber auspices, but independently. The council initially saw its mission as promoting adult education, but the team's participation in the ACLP forum shifted that focus toward matching people with jobs, one at a time.

"We had a good deal of debate what our approach should be," says Jim Prewett, a team member. "It started out pure literacy. We talked about it for almost a day and then decided."

"We found that the need was for work," says Clarence Potter, retired from managing a corporate metal casting operation and now a council volunteer. "We found that a lot of people wanted off welfare. They just didn't know how to get off it."

The ACLP forum led the Scottsboro team to focus on an initial goal of helping a mere handful of people get off welfare—five initially. Work toward that modest-sounding objective set the pattern that still prevails.

Staff and volunteers listen carefully to employers and negotiate with social agencies. For individuals, they offer no predetermined list of "services;" instead, they focus on anything that might come between an individual and a paying job.

The Scottsboro group met their initial goal and received a supplemental ARC grant to expand their efforts. As noted, they've now helped place over 30 people in jobs. And what do the Scottsboro leaders say that they've learned?

First, there's a consensus that the one-on-one approach works. "It's the only way," says Potter. "The government can't come in here with a program and say, 'We'll give you so many dollars, and the problem will be solved.' We're doing it on a shoestring basis, but there are 25 or 30 people who're now not on welfare."

Second, you have to knock on a lot of doors. Kennamer says that she sends minutes of 21st Century Council monthly meetings to "70 or 80" people, mostly potential employers. She and volunteers spend considerable time understanding what employers need and making sure that the people they work with understand that, too, and why it's important.

Third, when people understand that you're serious about results, they respond positively. That's true, say Kennamer and others, of institutions as well as individuals. The City of Scottsboro has allocated $25,000 to support the council's work; the council received one anonymous donation of $5,000. The original goal of adult education received a major boost in September with an ARC grant to the Scottsboro chamber for creation of a telecommunications network. It will enable Scottsboro students of all ages to link to the Northeast Alabama Community College, the Earnest Pruett Center of Technology, and the 21st Century Council's Adult Career Center.

The grants are welcome, of course, but Scottsboro leaders stress that the money will be used to supplement, not replace, heavy reliance on volunteers willing to take people as they find them and to chip away at whatever obstacles keep them from self-reliance and jobs.

"Being a family doctor," says Charles "Brad" Bradford, M.D., cited by others on the Scottsboro team as the project's "spark plug," "I get to see all these problems. I was raised here; I feel this is a special place. But if we don't change our community through education, we're going to have a future dictated to us."

One of Many Efforts

As noted, Scottsboro is only one example of ACLP's effect across the Region. Many other communities are tackling a wide range of economic and community development problems with the program's help. Their responses vary from improving educational opportunities to improving their physical environments. Here are three examples:

Johnson County, Tennessee: The "Jumpstart" Project. The project began in 1997 with skilled trades internships for about a half-dozen high school students. A second ARC grant in 1998 enabled the project to train 20 people of all ages. At least five now have permanent jobs, and others are in school and working part-time. Mary Sturdivant, a member of the board of directors of the Johnson County Chamber of Commerce and the original "spark plug" for Jumpstart, says that the chamber took over the program in late 1998 and also has a committee working on a low-interest-loan fund to encourage local entrepreneurship. "We'll have people waiting in line," she predicts.

East Jackson (Pike County), Ohio: CommUNITY Pride. East Jackson residents formed this group to promote pride and unity in this small rural area. Their work led to plans for a community center, the town's first, to be constructed entirely through volunteer labor and donated professional services. Construction is scheduled to start in May. The group's initiatives have already led to other results, ranging from projects to provide guidance and support to teenagers, to improved law enforcement. "We have three kids in this area on Pike County Junior Deputies," an outreach program that teaches youths about law enforcement, says Clarice Shreck, a founder and current president of CommUNITY Pride. "That never happened before."

Big Ugly Creek (Lincoln County), West Virginia: Dream Contracts. A comment made to an ACLP team member, "The problem around here is, they don't teach you how to dream," led to an imaginative investment in children's futures: roughly 30 individually tailored "dream contracts" involving students, their parents, and community supporters, to teach concrete steps toward making dreams come true. For example, a boy who wants to become a skilled carpenter is taught the use of tools on real projects; a girl who dreams of going to France is introduced to Ludwig Bemelmans' "Madeline" books, about a girl who grows up in Paris. In exchange for meeting dream contract requirements, students can earn $100 per year toward a post-high-school scholarship. About 30 families from Big Ugly Creek are now "dreamers," and the concept is spreading to other communities.

Big Ugly Creek's roughly 200 households have also converted an abandoned elementary school into a community center where children and families can take courses ranging from guitar and karate to arts and crafts and CPR. The center will soon have a greenhouse, a woodshop, a library, and facilities for hosting overnight groups. Michael Tierney, a member of the Big Ugly Creek community and director of Step by Step, Inc., a community group that assisted the project, says that the ACLP process helped his team members focus and introduced them to ideas (including the scholarship program) from other areas. "I can't say enough," Tierney adds, "how important it is to get people from isolated rural areas talking to each other."

Since October 1998, an additional 23 teams from seven states have participated in ACLP forums conducted by the Rensselaerville Institute. Others are planning to do so. They are proving that the process of setting relatively modest goals can become a major step toward helping a much bigger vision materialize.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.