Why Study Community Leadership
By Kate Hanson, Faculty Member UNH Community Leadership Program: Durham and Manchester
Since Tim Barretto and I co-founded the UNH Community Leadership Program, a unique and award-winning associate degree/certificate program, almost ten years ago, many people have asked us: “Why study community leadership?” This is a great question. In response to it, two stories often come to my mind. The first happened many years ago when I served on one of the first Boards of Director for A Safe Place, the Seacoast’s shelter for battered women and their children. We were a fiercely committed and dedicated group with little experience in event planning and fundraising. This probably explains why our extravaganza gourmet supper turned out the way it did. The idea seemed simple at the time: we would ask local restaurants to donate food so we could offer tickets to a special sampling of the area’s finest foods. The Press Room in Portsmouth offered us space and many restaurants gladly joined with us to provide food. Tickets quickly sold out. Unfortunately, we were unorganized (with no one designated as the coordinator of all this—although we each thought someone else was), no shared record-keeping, and no discussion of how attendees would get their food. Want a recipe for disaster? This was it. We collected the food (although we later learned we’d forgotten some restaurants that had platters prepared,) put it all out along the bar of the Press Room, and invited people to help themselves. Within a very short time, as people left with enough food to feed a family for a week loaded on their plates, we realized that we were running out of food—and the line outside of paid attendees kept growing. For the first and only time in my life, I broke out in hives. You can imagine the rest of the evening—scrambling to get food, using profits to pay for some of it, appeasing attendees who thought they’d be getting a bit more than a slice of cheese pizza for their ticket money, and looking at each other with a combination of horror, embarrassment and chagrin (we all later admitted we also looked for someone to blame.) We did survive, maybe made some money, but, most importantly, also learned a key lesson. Community organizing doesn’t just happen. I swore I would never be responsible for another mess like this. It also meant I had a lot to learn.
Many years later, I was asked to speak with a group of emerging leaders from Russia about my work with the Community Leadership Program. At first, as I explained what we did, I saw nothing but blank stares. However, when I asked them to describe their ideas of community service, I learned why they seemed so puzzled. Under their former government, there was no sense of community service or individual efficacy. If there was a problem in their building, street, or community, they were expected to wait for the “authorities” to fix it. They came to our country to learn how to promote citizen involvement and empowerment. I realized that we are privileged to live in a country that both expects and appreciates community activism and involvement. We need only look at news stories or our own communities to see how much individuals and small groups do to make our world a better place.
However, as my first story indicates, being part of an historical tradition of community service does not mean we know how to lead an effort. Many of us are stymied in our attempts because we lack confidence, understanding and/or skills. We can learn all of these. We can certainly do this through constant trial and error (or public humiliation, as I did) but I now believe we can enhance this process by identifying and teaching the skills that are common to all community leadership enterprises: a knowledge of organizational structure, an appreciation of the complexities of group process and decision-making, a basic understanding of essential communication tools and approaches, a foundation in interpersonal skills such as conflict mediation and listening, and a knowledge of the financial implications/demands of all leadership ventures. I also know first-hand how important it can be to learn these skills with others who share a passion for making a difference in their lives and communities
This is what we do in the Community Leadership program both in Manchester and in Durham. Throughout all of our courses and work, we try to model what we teach, learn from our mistakes, share ideas with others and work collaboratively to improve the possibility of collective action for our common good. We’re thrilled to be part of a culture and tradition that emphasizes the possible and prepares others to create a chosen future.