(Editor's note: The following story is published with permission from the Akron Area Eutopia Report.)
When thinking of thriving, exciting cities to live in, New York City, Chicago or Las Vegas may come to mind for most. But many are unaware of the vast array of hidden treasures to be found right here in Akron. There is a rich, vibrant community life that is just waiting to be discovered. And that is the purpose of Leadership Akron, to bring light to the many opportunities right outside our front door.
Leadership Akron opens local leaders' eyes to a world of possibility in Akron, educating and connecting them with others to advance the community, creating a life-changing experience.
Lindsay Griffin, marketing and communications director for Leadership Akron, is fairly new to the area, but excited about the possibilities and potential that she has seen here.
"There's a lot of opportunity for young professionals to not only find employment but be able to make a bigger impact in what is a smaller city. There are a lot of career opportunities and (opportunities for) growth. I think that's huge for young professionals," Griffin shared.
"The community is small enough where you can dive in, have a meaningful impact and develop yourself as a leader through community involvement," she continued, on the aspect of making a big difference in a small city.
Leadership Akron has educated and inspired individuals since 1984. Every year, the group helps 34 area leaders get to know Akron better through a year-long immersion course. This allows members to spend a full day each month looking at a certain dimension of Akron with the goal of digging deeper and getting involved in causes they care about.
"Be it social services, health care or arts and culture, the idea is that by the time they finish, they have a broader awareness of the Akron community. They see beyond their own sphere to the bigger picture and have an inclination to get more involved," Mark Scheffler, executive director of Leadership Akron, said.
And this exploration does involve many field trips, allowing members to see what the city has to offer first-hand.
Awareness and involvement
Creating awareness and inspiring motivation toward involvement in community affairs is a key part of the course. "We want to leverage that awareness into more involvement. A lot of them take on more significant roles as board members of nonprofits or just volunteer leadership (after taking the course)," Scheffler said, "Awareness is huge. People don't know what's happening in their own backyard."
One shining example of someone who took the course and put it into action is Capt. Sylvia Trundle from the Akron Police Department. "You look at Sylvia, who went right out of Leadership Akron and was on the Victim Assistance Board and then stepped up to the chairmanship of that organization," Scheffler said, proud of the Leadership Akron graduate.
"We really try to push, in a gentle way, to escalate or accelerate the involvement and effectiveness of the leaders that we serve," Scheffler said.
The great part about Leadership Akron is that it isn't just limited to a specific age group or type of leader. They have something for everyone. The broad spectrum includes a range of programs, from high school students to senior leaders. Programs include Junior Leadership Akron, Torchbearers, Leadership Akron, Leadership Akron Alumni, Insight: AKRON and Leadership Akron N.E.X.T. The group is in the process of working on a program for college students, so that no age group is missed.
The goal is to combine a continuum of current leadership with future leadership by building training programs offered to different sectors to create a vibrant network of community leaders.
"We take leaders from all walks of life. We've had everybody from the president of Ohio Edison, to Gary Wyatt, who is running a grassroots inner city ministry. Having such a wide variety of leaders helps foster the richness of each year's classes," Scheffler explained.
When looking for next generation leaders, certain things do matter.
"We look at a few things. One is commitment to Akron, commitment to community involvement, and then I think of it as 'impact potential.' Can this person leverage other people and resources to make things happen in the community?" Scheffler said of the requirements for the program.
Connecting leaders to build community
"We have all of these programs, but where the magic really happens is leaders connecting with each other to strengthen the community," Scheffler explained.
Gary Wyatt, graduate of Leadership Akron and founder of He Brought Us Out Ministries, is another great example. After all of the crime that occurred this past December, Wyatt was put on a violent crime task force with many decision-makers, city members, and police.
"(Gary) is a reformed addict and had some dark chapters in his life. He's turned it around and is now helping divert others from making those same mistakes," Scheffler said.
Wyatt is bringing in people who are part of the street culture and gangs in Akron to speak to the task force. He finds it important that the task force listen to the people involved, because if they don't understand them and their culture, the possibility of change is slim.
"Hopefully that task force is going to be a lot more effective now that Gary's on it, rather than it being just a bunch of official decision-makers from all of these organizations," Scheffler said. "That's the kind of impact Leadership Akron achieves. It connects leaders who wouldn't otherwise have come in contact with each other in ways so that they can strengthen our community," he continued. "(Gary) would have never gotten to that table had it not been for some of the connections he made through Leadership Akron."
A willing community
"We couldn't make this happen if we didn't have such a collaborative community. When you look at it, why is Akron doing so much better than all the other cities in Ohio? Akron is just big enough that it has a lot of assets that you'd want in a city, but small enough where people get to know each other and work together pretty readily," Scheffler said of the positives of Akron.
"It's where they're making decisions and working together and that's why you see things like the Austen BioInnovation Institute happen, and why the city leaders are such high achievers when it comes to seizing opportunities or addressing challenges. They work so readily together, and that's because they all share that same value of community centric leadership. I think our job in the big picture, beyond just running programs, is to help steward and advance that ethic of leadership in all the people that we serve," Scheffler continued.
Leadership Akron tries to focus on the upsides of the city, which are many, if you look closely enough.
"Akron is a great place to raise a family. You have the Akron Zoo and Akron Children's Hospital. And the nightlife downtown is getting better. I don't think we're ever going to be New York, Chicago or Las Vegas, but we shouldn't try to be those things," Scheffler said.
"But we do have enough activity downtown to be appealing to anyone who's looking for something fun to do on the weekend," he continued.
As leaders continue to be educated on Akron's culture and collaborate, the city cannot help but grow stronger and become more impactful.
"There are some really great stories, and I think it really inspires people. I know it's inspiring to me to be able to be a part of this and see it," Griffin said.
"It's a really different time in the history of Leadership Akron because we've launched so many different programs. It's exciting because we get to cover the whole continuum of age and different leaders from our Junior Leadership Program, to the N.E.X.T. program, and now we're working with employers," she continued.
Leadership Akron is open to anyone who has a heart for the city and leadership. If you are interested in finding more about this group, visit www.leadershipakron.org.