Training leaders from the ground up


Beth Hyser sits on an advisory board at Dayton’s Bluff Early Childhood Family Education Program and is also involved in the Saint Paul public school that her daughter attends. She has spent her career in the non-profit sector, and has been very involved with community work. And yet, in all her years of community work and leadership, she never received any leadership training.

When Hyser heard about the Wilder Foundation Neighborhood Leadership Program (NLP), she decided to take the opportunity to hone her skills as a community leader.

“Wilder Foundation offers high quality trainings and technical assistance, so I knew that the program would be worth the time,” Hyser says For nine months, Hyser received training in all aspects of community leadership, including team building, project mapping, conflict resolution, and working with local government.

Already, Hyser feels that the training has paid off. She is using her new skills with the Parent Advisory Council at Dayton’s Bluff. Hyser is also confident that her training will help her with her involvement in her daughter’s school.

Wilder’s Neighborhood Leadership Program is unique, says Kate Kelsch, the Leadership Consultant for the NLP, in that it works with people who are already active in their communities, helping them strengthen their skills. Kelsch states that the program is about “helping people connect with what they are really passionate about.”

Instead of working from top-down, NLP utilizes a grassroots approach. NLP works closely with neighborhood advisory committees and leaders to shape curriculum, assemble resources, and recruit coaches and trainers, as well as participants. Program organizers listen to community members, and help groups find the leadership training that is specific to their needs. The NLP works on the premise that authentic leadership and active neighborhood involvement emerges when passions are fueled by a vision for positive change and citizens have courage, commitment and skills.

The Wilder Foundation began their Neighborhood Leadership Program in 1995. They looked at a couple of different programs in Baltimore, Washington DC, and Boston, and were most influenced by the Bladen Community Leadership Program, which, like Wilder’s current program, starts with community organizations that already exist and helps local leaders strengthen their skills. The NLP program has graduated nearly 400 people since its inception, with 34 new graduates finishing in April.

Patricia Carlson, another 2008 graduate, found out about the NLP program through her district council. Carlson, like Beth Hyser, is no stranger to leadership and community service. She has always been involved in her community, but had been searching for a way to more fully integrate her values and passion for community service into her work life and home life.

“I work full time,” she says, “volunteer at least 40 hours a month, have two children, a husband, a dog, two cats, and two hermit crabs. I didn’t know how I could fit it in, but I’m glad I made this program a priority. It has made me better, my work more rewarding and gotten me to think about where it’s all going and how it all fits together.”

Despite all of her other commitments, Patricia Carlson gave the program her all.

“From the beginning of the class,” she says, “I committed myself to attending all the sessions, but as time went on, my commitment became that to my fellow classmates and looked forward to it, rather than just finishing out another class.”

The program emphasizes working in groups with the other participants, so that even as a class they are learning communication and organizational skills.

“One of the biggest benefits for me,” Carlson says, “has been to get to know there are others out there just like me, from all walks of life, who want to help make our community become a better place — and to hear about others endeavors and passions.”

Like Beth Hyser, Patricia Carlson feels that she already is able to apply her skills in her community work. “I use much of [my new learning] at my District Council, currently planning a retreat, community building events and community engagement. I am also utilizing these
skills in my work at United Hospital, where I am pursuing my goals with a more clear vision and commitment to my values and passions –helping others and community building.”

Wilder Foundation’s philosophy on the purpose of leadership is “developing and sustaining a healthy and thriving community”. With 34 new NLP graduates, Saint Paul has 34 leaders with strengthened skills, ready to strengthen the community.

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.