Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Building Grassroots Leadership in South Carolina

By Hillary Rowe Wiley,
NeighborWorks America
public affairs and communications
advisor, Southern District

NeighborWorks America began in 1968 as a result of resident leaders who took up a charge to improve their neighborhoods (history here), so it makes sense that resident empowerment is still a crucial component of what we do.  One of the best ways we have found to promote resident leadership is to strengthen ties between local groups so they can develop their own networks, share and build best practices, and ultimately work toward solutions for complex challenges.

Last weekend NeighborWorks America’s Southern District, in collaboration with South Carolina Associations of Community Development Corporations (SCACDC) sponsored a Grassroots Leadership Institute (GLI) in Greenville, South Carolina. In keeping with our goal of engaging a variety of public and private partners, our partner SCACDC attracted the support of the City of Greenville, Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, TD Bank, GCRA and Homes of Hope.

The GLI attracted around 150 diverse grassroots leaders, ranging in age from young adults to retired citizens, all banding together to experience “Empowering Your Community from the Ground Up – with Real Solutions for Real People in Real Neighborhoods.”

Classes taught residents a variety of skills, including how to build safer communities, promote healthy living, develop political clout and strengthen personal leadership skills. Panelists included Southern District Director Donald Phoenix, South Carolina State Representative Chandra Dillard, and SCACDC President and CEO Bernie Mazyck. “Connecting with the community - being in conversations with emerging leaders to retired residents, sharing best practices and learning from folks at the grassroots level is the foundational work necessary to stabilizing and transforming communities,” said Phoenix.

Donald Phoenix with Rep. Chandra Dillard and Bernie Mazyck
During the event, I spoke of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s leadership principle: “looking for the gold” or positive in every situation. I chose this theme because I know community development can focus on everything that isn’t working – blight, drugs, poverty, all the things that can undermine a neighborhood’s stability and success. As a result, sometimes we forget to look at community assets. All too often we get into what is known as the failure habit – which is focusing on and complaining about everything and anything that’s not working. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed or burnt out, so it’s important to celebrate successes and focus on the positive.

I hope that as a result of the institute, many community leaders will return to their neighborhoods with new connections and new knowledge that can support their projects, and with expanded sense of possibility for what their communities could become. So far, what we heard at the conference supports this goal. One local pastor who had just returned to Greenville after a four-year stint in England, was initially unsure of the GLI saying he knew few people in Greenville and did not yet feel part of the community. However, by the conclusion of the institute he was fired up saying, “This was great! Now I’m connected to so many people, and I now know what to do to help create and change community on a level that’s very different from my traditional pastor role. Thanks so much. This was really great!”

I am proud what we’ve achieved already and I look forward to the stories and photos we’ll be gathering from all the local successes.