Census data on Thomson-McDuffie County caught Elizabeth Brown’s attention. Fifty-nine percent of households in the community were run by single parents.
“As a social worker, I know the importance of ensuring those children and parents have support to ensure positive outcomes later in life, and I wanted to help address that need,” said Brown, resident services director of the East Georgia Housing Authority.
At the time, Brown was completing Leadership McDuffie, a community leadership program facilitated by the UGA J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development. She suggested that the class take on the issue as one of its projects.
The result was a one-day retreat in February for 20 single parents that focused on community resources for single parents and information on self-care, and included guest speakers.
“We were able to recognize these parents for their efforts and connect them to resources and opportunities, and it succeeded because of the skills and connections developed through Leadership McDuffie,” Brown said.
Committing to leadership development
When Thomson-McDuffie County became a UGA Archway Partnership community in 2017, local residents identified leadership development as a priority. To address that need, Archway enlisted the Fanning Institute, a fellow UGA Public Service and Outreach unit, to work with community leaders to revamp the community’s adult leadership program, Leadership McDuffie.
“Working with Fanning has been a game-changer for us,” said Debbie Jones, president of the Thomson-McDuffie Chamber of Commerce. “It propelled our program to the next level. Not only were participants learning about McDuffie County and connecting with others, the Fanning Institute’s curriculum provided them with the skills and knowledge to capitalize on that knowledge and those connections to make an impact in the community.”
The institute incorporated its Community Leadership Program curriculum into the redesigned Leadership McDuffie program.
“The curriculum focuses on helping people understand what strengths they bring to the table in a leadership role, developing their ability to build collaborations across different sectors of their community, and understanding how they can put that to use to benefit their community,” said Brittany Adams-Pope, a Fanning Institute public service faculty member.
Leadership McDuffie has also worked with Adams-Pope to customize the curriculum with unique elements such as equine-assisted leadership training, where participants work with horses to complete various team building exercises.
“Using horses in leadership training helps people understand the importance of verbal and non-verbal communication with each other and with the horses as they work together to complete the activities,” Adams-Pope said.
As she was not familiar with horses, working with them in the context of leadership proved eye-opening, Brown said.
“It is remarkable how intuitive the horses are and how they pick up on your tone of voice, your body language and your eye contact when you are trying to lead them and get them to follow instructions,” Brown said. “That really re-enforced for me how important it is to consider not just what you say, but how you say it and how you present yourself when you are leading others.”
Meanwhile, community service projects like the retreat for single parents provide the opportunity for Leadership McDuffie classes to use their new leadership skills to benefit others.
“At the very start of the program, we identified our leadership styles and strengths and learned those of our classmates,” Brown said. “In organizing the event, we were able to put people in the right roles based on our strengths and their personalities and that helped us maximize our resources to create the best event possible. Like any team setting, leaders need to understand and draw on the strengths of each team member and the program enabled us to do that.”
At the February retreat, single parents were able to spend a day connecting with resource providers and talking to professionals in social work and education.
Connecting with keynote speaker, Olga Bolden-Tiller, dean for the College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences at Tuskegee University, was particularly beneficial for Lashanda Kitchens.
“I have a 13-year-old son and having a chance to talk with (Bolden-Tiller) about opportunities for him was a great opportunity,” Kitchens said.
Another participant, LaShawna Howard, found resources she didn’t know existed.
“There are a lot of things available in McDuffie County—like summer programs and information about owning a home— that I was not aware of prior to this event,” Howard said. “I am glad that I now have that knowledge.”
Beyond the retreat, having the ability to identify strengths and collaborate effectively as a leader also has benefits in the workplace, Brown said.
“At the East Georgia Housing Authority, we serve nearly 1,000 residents in four counties and we have to collaborate with the public sector and nonprofit organizations to provide our residents with resources,” Brown said. “Learning about building effective community partnerships is something that I put to use every day.”
Taking the next step
Brown graduated from the second Leadership McDuffie class in 2022, following the inaugural class that graduated in 2020.
Archway leadership decided to continue engaging and developing the community leaders who graduated from Leadership McDuffie. The Fanning Institute introduced the McDuffie High Potential Leaders program.
“We wanted to make sure that leadership development was not a one-and-done situation,” Jones said. “If they are in a leadership role, we want to keep providing training and keep them going to deepen their understanding of the community and connection to other leaders.”
The inaugural High Potential Leaders class graduated in 2021, expanding upon the leadership concepts covered in Leadership McDuffie.
“The smaller class size really allowed us to explore the topics on a deeper level,” said David Russell, who graduated from the first High Potential Leaders class after completing Leadership McDuffie in 2020. “It was also as diverse of a group as any other I had ever been a part of. We had a chance to talk about our personal leadership qualities and what we want those to look like ten years from now and how we, as a leader, need to prepare for what the future might look like.”
Participating in both Leadership McDuffie and the High Potential Leaders program reinforced the management and leadership skills that Russell learned while earning an MBA from the Terry College of Business, he said.
“Fanning’s programs took the leadership topics I had learned previously and put them into the lens of my community,” Russell said. “Rather than looking at companies or case studies, we took those principles and applied them to McDuffie County and how they might work here.”
The networks he developed through both programs helped Russell become more involved in the community.
“Leadership McDuffie exposed me more to the Chamber of Commerce, but I definitely would not be in the position of chair without having participated in these programs,” Russell said. “I had been involved in work groups previously, but I have been kind of taking steps forward and these experiences solidified that for me and positioned me to serve more with the chamber.”
In particular, a session on nonprofit board governance during the High Potential Leaders program has helped him in that role, he said.
“Learning about the importance of bylaws with the board and making sure that the board is aligned with the organization’s needs and direction really made a difference for me,” Russell said. “It really hit home for me about the impact that a strong board can make on an organization and the community.”
The next High Potential Leaders class is slated to start this fall and the community plans to alternate Leadership McDuffie and High Potential Leaders programming each year.
In addition, Thomson-McDuffie County will partner with the Fanning Institute and UGA Small Business Development Center to add a third program, an entrepreneurial leadership program that will also begin this fall.
“This program will help prospective business owners not only develop their business plan and skills, but also learn to lead their employees and collaborate with others to benefit the entire community,” Jones said.
Investing in leaders throughout all parts of the community, as Thomson-McDuffie County is doing, can result in a valuable return on investment, said Matt Bishop, Fanning Institute director.
“Communities need leaders not just in the public sector, but in the private and nonprofit sectors who can see the big picture and understand how to build partnerships that will benefit everyone,” Bishop said. “Thomson-McDuffie County is doing just that, and we are excited to be a part of their efforts moving forward.”