Producing Leaders for Rural Louisiana

Linda Benedict  |  1/5/2006 11:08:42 PM

County Agent Henry Harrison, left, discusses future plans for the Bogalusa Farmers Market with the market’s board members, left to right, Johni Miles, Sandy Bloom, Marcelle Hanemann and Beverly Sheridan. Harrison and Hanemann are recent graduates of the Bogalusa CLED class. One of the class projects was to create a farmers’ market in Bogalusa. (Photo by Johnny Morgan)

Sandy Dooley, CLED program coordinator, meets with the East Feliciana Parish class that graduated in May 2005. This class was unique in that it had nearly equal numbers of younger and older members. (Photo by Johnny Morgan)

Members of the East Feliciana Parish class met in the Clinton HighSchool cafeteria three hours a week for 10 weeks in the spring of 2005. Some of the members of this class were 1996 graduates ofthe CLED program and were invited back for a refresher course. (Photo by Johnny Morgan)

These East Feliciana Parish residents are recent graduates of the LSU AgCenter’s Community Leadership and Economic Development class, known as CLED. The program is designed to provide training for community volunteers to help them make their communities better places to live. It involves 10 weeks of classes provided by LSU AgCenter faculty members andhas been conducted in a variety of areas across Louisiana over the past few years. (Photo by Johnny Morgan)

Sanford B. Dooley and Karen B. Overstreet

The lack of basic leadership skills and economic development knowledge is often identified by focus groups and advisory councils as a problem in rural areas. The LSU AgCenter and other agencies traditionally use advisory councils, focus groups or other citizen groups to identify issues as part of the program development process. Although there are many leadership programs around, few target rural parishes or smaller communities, and fewer still combine leadership and economic development training. Existing programs such as those by chambers of commerce in larger areas typically recruit existing or emerging leaders and are often expensive. Rural chambers seldom have the resources to conduct these programs.

The LSU AgCenter created the Community Leadership & Economic Development program (CLED) in 1994 in an attempt to bring citizens together to improve their future. A partner in developing this program was Cajun Electric, then a major supplier of electricity to rural electric cooperatives. As the partnership grew, it provided increased linkages among rural communities and professional economic developers. Today, CLED partners include the Association of Louisiana Electrical Cooperatives, Louisiana Economic Development and the Louisiana Police Jury Association. At the local level, utility companies also serve as partners.

Critical Mass

CLED is based on the belief that rural communities need a critical mass of trained leaders and interested citizens with the skills, knowledge, courage and vision to bring about change. The objective is to develop knowledgeable leaders with the ability to work together despite differences that often divide communities. Through this program, a community will engage in intensive self-analysis and start to formulate a strategic plan for sustained growth and development.

Unlike many programs that target existing and emerging  leaders, CLED is designed for everyone who has a vested interest in the area. Many times good ideas are defeated at the ballot box or die from lack of interest because the population hasn’t been included in the planning. Efforts are made to ensure a cross section of the community or parish is represented, including students. In addition, extra efforts are made to recruit those who don’t see themselves as leaders. Program adaptations are made to accommodate participants who may be functionally illiterate – a group that’s often left out of leadership programs.

Part of the program is learning to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others. By participating in the program, people acquire skills and an understanding of leadership and the economic development process. They also make contacts with others from whom they can draw support and share ideas.  

30 Hours Later  

CLED classes meet three hours a week for 10 weeks. The first classes focus on process skills, including leadership styles, communication and team-building. These classes foster a sense of camaraderie and confidence in participants’ abilities as a group. The focus then shifts to the local area through the development of a historical timeline and a look at socioeconomic data. The last sessions are devoted to working on issues identified by participants. Topics have ranged from apathy to zoning. Committees are formed around the issues, and plans for addressing the issues are developed.

Rather than the LSU AgCenter or a state agency doing a program for a community, special efforts are made to ensure that the community sees it as its program. A local steering committee is established with representation from various groups within the parish or community. The steering committee is responsible for local arrangements, recruiting participants and raising the funds needed to conduct a class.

Finding local sponsorships for the class is part of getting local buy-in. The program costs approximately $3,000, with most of the monetary donations at $100 or less. Donations for meeting space and food also reduce the cost. When local businesses, civic groups and individuals donate funds or supplies to the program, they feel ownership and are more committed to seeing the program and ensuing projects succeed. All funds raised stay in the community, and the steering committee is responsible for paying the bills.  

More Than 600  

Twenty-three programs in 18 parishes have been completed since CLED began, with more than 600 graduates. Each graduate receives a report of the work done in his or her class. Several times this report has served as evidence of community involvement for grant proposals. A survey of community leaders who have taken the classes revealed the following about the participants:
  • More than 30 percent of the participants have run for or been appointed to public office.
  • Ninety-two percent of the survey respondents serve as volunteers in their communities.
  • In excess of 80 percent say they have been involved in community projects since completing the class.
  • Fifty percent say their volunteer efforts have increased as a result of completing the program.
Changing citizens’ attitudes about their role in improving their community is the first major step in community development. Although it’s possible to quantify some of the outcomes, the most profound long-term effects will be from intangible results such as these:
  • A long-time parish leader in a small parish was amazed there were so many in the class he didn’t know and who were willing to commit to making improvements.
  • A high school student who couldn’t wait to get away from his rural parish now wants to return after college and make a difference.
  • A group of citizens in a racially divided community successfully worked through their issues together.
  • A participant who was transferred to Louisiana by his company already had plans in place to move when he retired. After participating in the class, he realized he could make a difference and decided to stay in the parish after his retirement. He since has served as chamber director, is on the economic development district board and has helped sponsor a second CLED class in the parish.
  • A CLED committee incorporated and was able to create an economic development district.
  • After a CLED class, two chambers of commerce in the same parish but on different sides of the river decided to merge into one and work together for the whole parish.
  • In a parish with several state facilities in need of workers and many residents on the welfare rolls, class members were able to dramatically reduce both numbers by establishing a job training program. CLED was credited with bringing together the appropriate agencies through their participation in the class.
  • A group of attorneys in a small town met in the class and decided to form a local bar association so they could continue their community service activities as an organization.
  • Classes report improved communication among various organizations in the community. This, in turn, has led to governmental entities working together rather than competing for economic development projects

Other CLED projects include establishing local recycling programs, farmers’ markets, job fairs, welfare-to-work projects, recreational trails, community enrichment centers, housing facilities, economic development districts, downtown development, after-school programs, industrial parks, business retention and expansion programs and child and adult daycare centers as well as efforts to improve water, drainage, zoning, education and transportation.

Sanford B. Dooley, Professor and Extension Specialist, Department of Agricultural Economics & Agribusiness, Karen B. Overstreet, Professor and Extension Specialist, School of Human Ecology, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La.

(This article appeared in the fall 2005 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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