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  • Writer's pictureCameron Cochran

Training for Tomorrow’s Leaders Today

Posted June 8, 2017

By Brie Handgraaf, Wilson Daily Times Staff Writer

As Baby Boomers near retirement, community leaders have identified a looming void in Wilsonians ready to step into leadership roles.

Graduates of the Wilson Chamber of Commerce’s first Impact Initiative class are pictured during a recent reception.

Their concern for the future of Wilson didn’t stop with the epiphany, though, and in September of 2015, the Impact Initiative was born.

“The Impact Initiative will provide Wilson with a strong cadre of leaders for the next few decades,” said Jennifer Lantz, executive director for the Economic Development Council, which is a partner in the initiative. “It is critical for our future to have strong leadership with vision.”

The first class of 15 leaders graduated in May with the presentation of a paper the students put together about unemployment and underemployment in Wilson. They interviewed multiple residents who candidly explained what led to their job situation and, in the process, dispelled preconceived notions about the cause of unemployment.

“The participants gained an appreciation for the nuance behind some of what we perceive to be community problems. With the unemployment issue, all of us including myself thought it was addictions and convictions standing in the way of employment, but they discovered it was a more complex issue,” said Wilson Chamber of Commerce President Ryan Simons. “They discovered that if an issue like unemployment is this complex, other issues are equally complex, whether it is poverty, childhood hunger, land-use issues or economic development. These are very complex issues that require some very skilled, knowledgeable, critical leadership skills and that is exactly what we worked to develop with this program.”

Chip Futrell, who was in the first graduating class and is the director of continuing and professional education at N.C. State University, said the group project was his favorite part of the 18-month course.

“It was the most cumbersome, but also the most rewarding part,” he said of members picking the topic as a group, then conducting interviews and preparing a paper about their findings. “…For this particular issue, we wanted to interview the people most affected because one of the things that was missing from addressing unemployment was a true understanding of who the unemployed are in our community. They are not just a statistic.”

Wilson 20/20 Community Vision Executive Director Paula Benson said since the class presentation of their findings at the annual meeting in May, she’s heard the research referenced in numerous circumstances. She said the class’s conclusion — that the biggest barriers to employment were transportation and child care — is a common factor in other Wilson problems, such as health care.

“Their research makes it more difficult for us to put issues like transportation on the back burner or ignore it to focus on another problem,” Simons said. “We have another piece of evidence that tells us transportation continues to be a barrier and we have to resolve that sooner or later.”

Futrell said the skills gained through the Impact Initiative will help graduates serve in leadership roles on boards and commissions to hopefully address community issues, such as unemployment and the contributing factors.

“The first class of participants in the Impact Initiative has assured me that Wilson is ripe with leadership talent,” Benson said. “Although most of the participants have not had the opportunity to previously serve in high levels of local leadership, their focus and commitment throughout this program has demonstrated their ability to be strong candidates for appointed boards and committees as well as elected offices.”

In addition to the research project, Impact Initiative participants attend 10 sessions covering topics ranging from fundraising and event planning to media relations and diplomacy. Initiative graduate Marvette Coley, founder of Positive Women Positive Results, said she appreciated the opportunity to learn new skills while networking with community leaders.

“The one thing we wanted to make sure was that this was uniquely focused totally on Wilson,” said Simons.

Applications for the next class of the Impact Initiative, which starts in September, are due by the end of the month. Officials said the program is not limited to any demographic or career field, adding a heart for public service is essential as well as having an open mind and willingness to learn.

“Participants in the Impact Initiative need to genuinely care about Wilson, they need to be able to separate facts from perceptions, they also need patience as solving community issues takes time,” Lantz said. “These participants need to be willing to spend time working for the good of the community without the expectation of personal gain.”

Once applications are reviewed, a selection committee will interview candidates before choosing the 12 to 18 class members. Simons said he is hopeful this unique program develops a pool of leaders to guide the future of the community.

“I’m hopeful that the Impact Initiative becomes the de facto leadership pipeline for our community,” he said. “When government and nonprofit leaders in Wilson are seeking nominees for elected or appointed service, I want their first consideration to be participants and alumni of the Impact Initiative.

“If our first crop of graduates is any indication, they won’t be disappointed.”

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