By Matt Ledger
A few new faces with a fresh approach are revitalizing the Leadership DeKalb program.
Jason Harper attended the Marshall County Leadership program while working in U.S. Congressman Robert Aderholt’s office and has worked for TVA in Huntsville for the past five years. “I looked at my home county and decided to take action and remedy the absence of a leadership program in DeKalb,” Harper says. “I started thinking of people willing to serve and truly engage themselves to help bolster a better DeKalb County.”
The first person that Harper contacted was Brian Baine,who he met several years ago while working with the Fort Payne Improvement Authority. Baine has worked his way through the ranks at Foodland during his 30-year career from intern to human resources manager.
Baine attended the same Marshall County Leadership program, as well as a prior Leadership DeKalb class in the 1980s. “I was young and saw it as a way to get out of work back then,” Baine says, with a chuckle. “Now, I am learning things and seeing amazing places, and this new program has even been very informative for me.” That experience may explain why he’s getting a lot more out of the new Leadership DeKalb program than he did the first time he participated early in his career.
Revitalizing under new leadership
For two years, Baine and Harper met to discuss the dynamics of their plan and to create the curriculum, which is focused on the areas of education, economic development, tourism and workforce expansion. “The county needed the synergy of all aspects of leadership, talking and working together,” Harper says.
The program aims to help the participants become well-rounded leaders, equipped to make the county better. “Going out and seeing these departments, instead of just hearing about them, makes more of an impact,” Baine says. “It will better inform these leaders and give them the tools they need to guide the future direction of DeKalb County.”
After an absence of nearly seven years, Leadership DeKalb restarted in 2014, with a renewed long-term focus on communication between the public agencies and private businesses in the county. Each month, the current class of 18 participants attend a program detailing aspects of county agencies and area businesses.
It took three years to revamp the new Leadership DeKalb program, made possible with a $25,000 TVA community relations grant that Harper secured. They formed a nonprofit with a board of directors that selected Baine as the president of the Leadership DeKalb program and Harper as the vice-president, then added Janet Hartline as the executive director.
To assemble the first class of students, which began meeting in August, Baine, Harper and the Board sought out current community leaders from various agencies, with an equal balance from throughout DeKalb County. The idea was that networking among these leaders would lay the groundwork to help move the region forward in the future.
Back to school … and other agencies
Nearly 20 professionals from around DeKalb County are learning about business, government and their community, with a new topic each month of the course. After the class members established relationships with one another, it was time to get down to business, like examining strengths and weaknesses within the community. “Let’s talk about the good and bad things,” Harper says. “Sometimes we are uncomfortable with that, so let’s take a comprehensive approach and look at all aspects of our county.”
The focus in the fall quickly became tourism, as fall colors began to blanket the mountain. The discussions were spearheaded by John Dersham, executive director at DeKalb Tourism and one of the program’s participants. “These public services are important to everyone and integral to a community,” Dersham says. “If all of the leaders in the community understand all of the processes within the community a little better, then I think it helps with our ability to communicate.”
The class also covered public services. “Public Service Day” included trips to the DeKalb Sheriff’s Department, Children’s Advocacy Center and Fort Payne Fire Department Training Center. Other classes in the program included health and social services, education, manufacturing, finance and media, while other activities had the class rapelling from the rim of Little River Canyon and blowing glass ornaments at a local artist’s studio.
In March, the group made its farthest trip during “State Government Day” to visit with officials in Montgomery, including Governor Robert Bentley. “Having citizens interface with leaders in their environment is really good for rural communities,” says Harper. Their final class will cover economic development, with graduation in May.
Planning for the future
Organizers hope the program is not a one-time class, but the start of something new. They’re working to establish a Leadership DeKalb alumni association to include anyone who attended the previous version of the program. The ability to network with peers is proving to be a major benefit of the class, and the participants believe that it will aid strategic planning for the county.
Those interested in enrolling in the next course can find more information on the Leadership DeKalb County Facebook page. Some of the presenters throughout the year have even asked about being in the next leadership class. “The word is getting out that this program has value and is a great networking system,” Hartline says.
This year’s graduates will take on that planning responsibility for the next group of applicants, with board members simply advising. The group will also complete a class project to benefit the community.
“Leadership is void without hands-on service that makes a difference,” Harper says. “There are many people around here who are ready to tackle any problems and revitalize our community beyond the status quo.”