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Leadership programs empower communities
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Two approaches to leadership development are helping communities address their unique and evolving needs.
Alan Barefield, economic and community development specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said needs differ from place to place and from year to year. Likewise, an area's means of addressing needs vary.
“No two communities are alike, and even in the same community, leadership groups don't need to do the same thing from one year to the next,” he said. “The community doesn't change, but the people do. Their interests and skills change.”
Barefield and Rachael Carter, an Extension associate in agricultural economics, use one of two approaches for leadership development in Mississippi communities. One method is an overall community development approach, sometimes referred to as holistic, which addresses a wide variety of issues to improve the quality of life in the community. The other method is issue specific, such as economic development, Medicaid or an area health concern. Many communities begin with the holistic approach and then narrow their focus to a specific issue.
MSU's Extension Service has helped communities across the state develop leaders to improve the quality of life in their areas. The scopes of their projects are as different from one another as the communities are themselves.
“A diverse group of people is chosen in each community, usually through an application process, for the leadership training,” Carter said. “If the effort is issue specific, they will be chosen for their ability to contribute to that topic. If it's a holistic approach, the individuals will be more diverse in terms of age, race, occupation and interest.”
Starkville is one community that has been involved in the overall community approach for several years. Each class of leaders develops plans to initiate or lend support to existing projects, many of which continue after the class graduates. Some of their projects have included creating a Johnny Cash festival (held first in 2007 and scheduled again for this October), the Starkville Community Market, free community movies shown outside the local middle school, the Boardtown Ball and a child-safety campaign. They also have refurbished playground equipment at a local park and assisted a fatherless child program.
Barefield said finding participants willing to invest the time needed in this training can be a challenge. A typical group involves 15 to 20 people who annually take part in 10-15 leadership development sessions of three to five hours each. Financial commitments vary, but scholarships typically exist in the higher-priced programs.
“These projects are not just about numbers of people or the effort involved. We're interested in the outcomes and results that cannot be measured in one meeting or even one year,” he said.
Similar holistic approaches have taken place in Noxubee, Marshall and Webster counties.
Issue-specific projects have taken place in Chickasaw, Hinds, Copiah, Sharkey and Issaquena counties, among others. Some of the issues addressed include cardiovascular disease and stroke prevention, retail development, senior citizen needs and quality of life issues associated with living in inner-city neighborhoods.
Jowilla Secoy, the community liaison for the Sharkey-Issaquena Community Hospital, said the leadership training helped local residents address important health issues. An existing health network had focused on obesity and wellness issues, but the organized program targeted cardiovascular health and stroke prevention.
“The training helped us plan goals, set timelines and involve the community,” she said. “In the past, we have set goals, but we had trouble implementing them, and we failed to prioritize and organize our efforts. We were able to improve our communication skills with the public.”
Secoy said the benefit of the leadership and communication skills are beyond measure.
“One member took the topic to heart and started a walking group that has grown to about 66 people walking regularly,” she said.