May 15, 2003
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Leadership program grads ready to try skills in village

This weekend the Yellow Springs Leadership Institute will graduate the first group of 10 participants in its new program aimed at training local residents to become effective stewards of the community. The graduates, who will participate in a ceremony on Saturday, May 17, at 10:45 a.m., at the Antioch Inn, expressed great satisfaction with the program’s first year.

Participants spent a total of 55 hours in seminars from September to April developing skills that would help them turn ideas into group action for nonprofit volunteer organizations.

“I think it’s a very good program whether it’s that you want to know how to be a leader or just be an effective meeting participant,” said class member Mary Alexander. “I recommend it because it helps you to have confidence, and it helps make you aware that we need volunteers in the village.”

Professional facilitators led the group through discussions and interactive projects broken down into six different teaching modules. Each one focused on a different topic, such as effective communication with a diverse group. Other seminars addressed familiarization with local civic organizations, conflict management, managing volunteer and community groups, and project management.

Alexander, who was appointed to Village Council last month and volunteers for numerous organizations in the area, said it’s too early yet to tell whether the information she shared with the groups will be applied toward more effective leadership. The members of at least one of her groups have already implemented a basic tenet of local facilitator Fred Bartenstein’s communication lessons on time management by making their long meetings more manageable.

“We decided up front what to do and how to accomplish it by having one person speak at a time with no interruptions and having timed speaking,” Alexander said. “Our meetings used to last three to four hours and that was helpful in cutting our meeting down so the ladies would be more willing to come.”

Alexander said that she joined the institute because the organizations she belonged to weren’t operating in an effective way or in a defined direction. She wanted to learn how to drive the group toward a goal, but to do it without seeming overbearing. In the conflict management session she learned to recognize the body language of disagreement in herself and others and try to personally avoid it, or how to “cool other people off.”

“I’ve tried to implement some of these lessons, and I think they’ve been pretty effective,” she said.

Participant Bill Bebko said that he learned interpersonal skills that enabled him to understand personality conflicts and to deal with them. The seminars gave him insight into his own mode of operation and that of his colleagues, which led to better communication. Understanding others’ perspectives made it easier to maintain a positive momentum as a member of, for instance, the Village Environmental Commission.

He also said he benefited from the project planning segments and the seminars on fiscal operations, as could anyone dealing with a local organization.

The participants themselves created a high level of camaraderie in their discussions, said Bebko, who believes they benefited from their different backgrounds.

One of the aspects that make this program unique is its inclusiveness toward both established leaders and anyone who wants to become a better steward in the community, said Sally Mier, a member of both the curriculum committee and the institute’s Board of Trustees.

After going through this first year, Bebko agreed that the classes are designed to benefit both leaders and community volunteers.

Mier also praised the quality of the cohort model of learning, where the participants are encouraged to become not students but experimental practitioners of the skills they are trying to learn.

Final program evaluations from the students summarized the program’s positive features and also suggested things that could be improved or expanded, she said. Participants in general may not have understood how to go about implementing the cohort model, Mier said, and they sometimes fell back into the role of students rather than active participants.

Participants said they would prefer that the curriculum provide a greater focus on time management and fundraising, especially at a time when government and businesses are making many cutbacks, said Mier. And though the group of 10 varied by age and experience, there were only two male participants, and not as much racial diversity as organizers would like, she said.

But on the whole, participants remained pleased and impressed with the quality of the program. Ven Adkins felt his time was well spent.

“I can’t imagine anywhere else where you could get such consolidated information on community leadership and community organizational processes,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have a group of people willing enough and caring enough to put a program like this together for the community.”

The institute will gather up the good and the bad from this year and use it to inform next year’s program. Though the budget will not be approved until the Board of Trustees meets in June, the organization is projecting an estimated $10,000 to $12,000 for a similarly structured session, said Jim Albright, chairman of the board.

This past year the institute relied heavily on community donations, such as major funding from The Antioch Company Foundation, and on the ability of facilitators to coordinate seminars for little or no remuneration. Last year’s program ran on a $20,000 budget, with participant fees at a low of $50 for the entire session.

But future needs could rise if the Institute hires a full-time or part-time coordinator in the next few years, Albright said. Participant fees will likely increase this year to $100 to $150, and the Institute might include corporate employees whose fee will be higher if paid by the company they represent, he said.

The board is still committed to making sure that “no one will be denied for financial reasons,” Albright said.

Saturday’s graduation will include a luncheon and comments from the Antioch Company President Lee Morgan, who will discuss “Confessions of a Suspected Leader.”

The Leadership institute’s next board meeting is open to the community and will be held on June 5, 7 p.m., in the Yellow Springs Library meeting room.

Participants from the program’s first year are enthusiastic about the Institute’s success.

“I absolutely would recommend it to anyone at all interested in village participation,” Bebko said. “They’ll be better people and the village will be better for it.”

—Lauren Heaton