The distinguished list of graduates that have gone through the Leadership Metro Richmond program includes governors, mayors and chief executive officers of major corporations.
In the organization’s 35-year history, however, there have been a lot more folks who’s names don’t typically appear in headlines — people like Duron Chavis, who is working to help solve a lack of access to nutritious food in high-poverty areas of the Richmond region by organizing an urban agriculture program.
Chavis said his experience in the 10-month leadership development program “really broadened my perspective and helped me understand what was going on in the city.”
The main purpose of Leadership Metro Richmond, commonly referred to simply as LMR, is to cultivate leaders in the region, bringing together participants to learn together about the many challenges and opportunities for the region, from transportation to education to economic development and regional identity.
The program also focuses on what LMR President and CEO Myra Goodman Smith calls the “intersects” between all those issues.
“If you are working on education, you have to understand transportation and housing, too,” she said. “That is what we really work on — showing how those intersect.”
Graduates also include people like Tom Anderson, whose experience in the LMR program helped serve as a jumping-off point to move from the business world into starting a nonprofit that helps charitable organizations find and obtain the best information technology resources for their needs.
LMR “was a great process for me to understand the opportunities that are out there, and to build my network and jump in and take the level of risk I took,” said Anderson, who started the nonprofit IT4Causes this year after his completion of the 10-month LMR course in June.
Leadership Metro Richmond started the 35th class of its flagship Leadership Quest program in September. Each of the classes that have come before has produced graduates who go on to take leadership roles not just in business and government, but in the civic life of the region.
Since it was started in 1980 as a nonprofit leadership development program for the Richmond region, about 2,000 people have completed the program.
A recent survey of graduates from the 2006 to 2009 classes showed that about 86 percent remained involved in the community in some way.
“We are the most diverse network of individuals in this community,” Smith said. “The diversity is not just about race and gender. It is about occupations, where people live, their income level, their religion. All those things are diverse in our membership, and that is intentional.”
“We believe that when you connect diverse individuals, they develop relationships of understanding and cooperation,” she said.
This year’s class has 65 participants. Each class has a weekend retreat in September, then meets monthly from October to June for sessions to learn about the region, discuss issues and problems, and develop projects to address particular needs.
Among the topics being discussed this year are financial stability, higher education, downtown development, regional identity and history and the James River Park system. Class members also participate in “immersion teams” to go more in-depth into such particular topics as transportation, smart growth, philanthropy, health care, economic development and workforce development.
After his experience in 2011 with LMR, Chavis, 34, said he is now working on several urban farming projects in the city through the nonprofit Renew Richmond, and he is working on a research project on urban agriculture at Virginia State University.
“Being at LMR showed me a lot of the possibilities,” he said, but also some of the limitations that prevent economic development in the urban core and why grassroots initiatives are important for development.
“(LMR) helped me to really quietly brainstorm, seeing some of the gaps that exist in our city.”
“My goal is I want to see communities own urban farms where they employ people from the community, and the food they grow there is purchased, marketed and distributed by that same community,” he said.
LMR’s mission over the years has broadened to include getting participants involved in more hands-on projects in the region. Some of those projects have become long-term and led to the creation of new nonprofits.
For example, members of the 2005-2006 LMR class undertook a community service project to become mentors for students in several local middle schools.
The project proved to be sustainable and developed into AMP!, a nonprofit volunteer mentoring program for students at Henderson Middle School in North Richmond.
The results have included higher attendance rates among students, said Kelly Groh, a Genworth Financial Inc. senior vice president who was part of the 2006 LMR class and a co-founder of the mentoring program along with Susan Gunn. Groh now serves as chairman of AMP!.
AMP! recruits, trains, and supports adult mentors in one-to-one mentoring with middle school students and provides career exploration visits for students to workplaces in the Richmond region.
“Longer-term, what we are hoping is that for those (students) who might have been on the cusp of not continuing their education … this will be one catalyst that keeps them active and engaged,” Groh said.
Two of the original founders of the organization said that when it was created, they saw it primarily as a way to bring about greater regional cooperation among the various jurisdictions in the area.
The concept behind LMR “is not an exclusive invention for Richmond. We stole the idea and improved upon it,” said Carlton Moffatt, a retired Greater Richmond Chamber president who was among a group of civic leaders in the late 1970s who created LMR.
Other metropolitan regions in the United States had established leadership training programs, and the Richmond area’s LMR was partly modeled on some of those.
Moffatt said a major goal of establishing the program was to promote cooperation among the city and the counties.
“It makes people think more about regionalism and what needs to be done in the community, and it attempts to move that from the realm of politics” into the wider community, he said.
LMR was born partly from what had been a difficult period for the region in the 1970s, following court-ordered school busing and a controversial annexation of Chesterfield County land by the city, said former Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a former Richmond mayor who also was among the co-founders of LMR.
“We had a lot of tension in the city, and so this was one way that we thought of to bring about a healing in the community, and bring all folks together,” Bliley said.
“Did it work? I think it has,” Bliley said. “It has not eliminated every (problem), but I think it moved us a long way in that direction. It is still a work in progress and it will be for some time, but I think that we have made great progress in the 30-plus years since we started it.”
LMR benefited in the 1990s from the establishment of a $2.5 million endowment to support its portfolio of leadership programs and community projects.
The group also depends on its graduates for funding, raised through an annual donation drive. This year’s goal is $107,000.
As it moves into its 35th year, LMR is looking to expand its ability to provide scholarships for participants.
Enrolling in LMR’s Quest program costs $3,000 per participant. Smith said the cost is typically shared by the participant and the business or organization for which they work and that nominates them for the program.
LMR is seeking to raise money for more scholarships that will cover part of the cost of the program for some individuals.
Smith said she would like to see more people have an opportunity to attend who either cannot afford it on their own or who represent businesses and organizations that cannot afford the full cost.
“We don’t want to turn people away, and we don’t want them to walk away because they can’t afford it,” she said.
Smith was named LMR’s president and chief executive officer in 2010 after 23 years working for the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg.
A Richmond native who grew up in the Richmond’s West End and now lives in Amelia County, Smith said many of the issues that were present when LMR was founded are still issues today — such as education and transportation. She is an LMR grad of 2006.
New issues have emerged, such as the aging of the population. Yet the Richmond region also has become more diverse since LMR’s founding, she said.
“For me, one of the great joys of this organization is its diversity,” she said.
“Some nonprofits say they are working to put themselves out of business,” Smith said. “I don’t think that is the case for us.”
“I think the need for LMR is going to continue. It may look different, but the need will be there. There will always be a need for a gathering place for courageous conversations.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch. Used by Permission.