Polls show that trust in government continues to decline, communities are having trouble filling elected offices and volunteers are desperately needed to serve in leadership roles on boards and commissions. Elected and appointed leaders are challenged to find ways to inspire citizens to get involved.
Citizen leadership academies are popping up across the country in response to this need. These programs usually take place over a 10-12 week session with one class a week focusing on a different function of local government. Participants learn about policing, public works, public finance, fire service, recreation service, public engagement and ethics along with other special topics of community interest.
The city and county of Peoria, Ill., have teamed up to offer a hands-on opportunity for citizens to learn more about local government. The program is free, taught by local elected and appointed officials, and provides tours of government facilities such as the jail, courthouse, public works and animal rescue shelter. “The academy gives citizens a better idea of how local government works, what responsibilities we have and the services we provide,” said Jennifer Fulton, director of strategic communications. “Each week the city and county alternates teaching a topic.”
Topics covered include the government’s role in care for the aging, coroner’s inquests, emergency preparedness, going green, the judicial system, land use, public safety, community health and protections, going green, animal protection, the history and future of Peoria, land use, the tax cycle process and more. The county also offers an one-day class for high school students to encourage youths to become engaged citizens. Upon completion, graduates of both the adult and student classes are honored at a council meeting with a proclamation read acknowledging each participant. A reception follows with certificates and small gifts for graduates.
Peoria is pleased with the program’s success. Since its inception in 2006, 150 adults and 80 high school students have graduated. “We want to offer education on city and county government because we have found the more you know, the more you are likely to get involved. We hope it inspires people to vote and find other ways to participate in government in a way that interests them,” said Fulton. “One of the students in our first class was 22 years old at the time. Now, he is a city councilman.”
The city of Montgomery, Ohio, also engages citizens through its own hands-on leadership academy. “Most of our participants want to learn about and become more involved in our community,” said Mayor Ken Suer. “They come from every sector of Montgomery but all want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”
The hands-on learning environment of this unique citizens’ academy allows for the strengths, talents and gifts within the class to be connected with opportunities and needs within the community, building networks that add positively to the “social fabric” that makes for a great community and a vibrant Montgomery.
Studies reveal that healthy communities are built on connections between residents combined with the presence of highly engaged citizens. The nationally recognized Montgomery Citizens’ Leadership Academy is designed to help move residents into the role of involved citizens.
Other communities have decided to partner or create nonprofit organizations to tackle particularly challenging issues in the community. The city of Wyoming, Ohio, created the Wyoming Youth Services Bureau after the accidental death of a student due to drug overdose over 25 years ago. City, school district and community partnered to create the WYSB, a volunteer-driven organization. The community raises over 50 percent of the funds to run the bureau and has a citizen-led board.
The WYSB provides confidential counseling and other services to youth. But most importantly, it is the clearinghouse for developing partnerships with the city, schools, faith community and other community nonprofit organizations to build assets for the healthy development and growth of the community’s youth.
These communities have stepped up to the challenge of building leadership and citizen engagement in unique ways. They are succeeding in enhanced citizen involvement and partnerships that enhance the overall livability of the community.