Leaders of the pack: Leadership Asheville celebrates 30 years of community-focused instruction

In 1982, Asheville was a very different city than the one we see today. The population was roughly two-thirds of what it is now. Much of downtown was vacant. And few residents could foresee a vibrant cultural and economic future.

Yet it was then, under the auspices of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and UNCA, that a group of people looking to become more engaged in the community joined forces to found Leadership Asheville. The series of classes and projects helped them learn and network, and helped set the stage for the city’s evolution.

Thirty years later, Leadership Asheville boasts a wide range of notable graduates, including Biltmore Farms CEO Jack Cecil (class of 1985), RiverLink founder Karen Cragnolin (1989), Mayor Terry Bellamy (1999) and Public Works Director Cathy Ball (2000), to name just a few.

“These are leaders in every sector, from business to nonprofit to government,” says Leadership Asheville Executive Director Barbara Brill. “The biggest value is connecting people in their work life, who would normally not run across each other, with the idea that problems and issues can be addressed more quickly if people know each other as well as the issues.”

A Leadership Asheville class usually includes 40 to 60 members each year. They attend one full-day class a month from October to April, along with an overnight retreat. Session topics include leadership skills, how to facilitate a meeting and the history of the Asheville area and the issues it faces. Each class chooses a particular topic to tackle .

The classes cost $2,500, though most of that sum is usually paid by the organization of which the attendee is a part, and scholarships are often awarded to class members who are self-employed or from small nonprofits.

A blending of ideas

To mark the three-decade anniversary, the group is hosting a slew of events, most of them open to the public.

On Thursday, May 17, for example, Leadership Asheville’s current class will hold a summit at UNCA exploring its current project: out-of-school learning. Other events include a breakfast series on innovation beginning this summer and the organization’s annual September luncheon. The nonprofit is also holding sessions to educate nonprofit board members on the responsibilities they face.

During the application process, Brill says, Leadership Asheville looks to select a diverse mix of people from different sectors who are engaged in the local area. The ideal candidate will “want to further their participation by joining nonprofit boards, joining government commissions and continuing to be engaged,” she adds. “Now they’ll know each other, they’ll have a relationship, [and] when a problem needs to be addressed, they’ll know who to go to.”

Cragnolin recalls that she took the courses shortly after moving to Asheville. At the classes, “I met my original network — it made a big difference,” she says.

Leadership Asheville gave her a vital knowledge of her new community, which she credits as a key factor in RiverLink’s success.  “The understanding of the institutional memory was critical to moving the river project forward,” Cragnolin says.

“You also get to talk to people you wouldn’t normally talk to,” she adds. “It’s a great blending of ideas.”

Sarah Nuñez graduated with the 2009 Leadership Asheville course, the largest class the program has ever had (with 64 participants). At the time, she was working for Western Carolina University; now, she’s executive director of the revived Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council.

“I gained a really good perspective about Asheville and Buncombe County,” Nunez says of the training. “The people that I’ve met have helped me in the work that I do. That’s something that I think will follow me for the rest of my career in Asheville.”

While Leadership Asheville started out as a joint venture, UNCA later took the reins. However, budget cuts in 2009 meant that the university could no longer fund the program on its own.

At that point, Brill notes, something extraordinary happened, as Leadership Asheville graduates from throughout the years provided enough support for the program to take its current form as an independent nonprofit. Nunez, one of the new permeation’s original board members, says the step has put the organization on firmer ground.

“What is remarkable is that in the worst economy in decades, they came together to keep this organization alive,” Brill says. “That alone represents the value they perceive Leadership Asheville to add to the community.”

Leadership Asheville’s 30th class will hold a summit on out-of-school learning on Thursday, May 17, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at UNCA’s Highsmith Student Union. Topics will include mentoring, fundraising and community issues.

Visit leadershipasheville.org for more information about this and other Leadership Asheville events.

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