Next crop of leaders emerges in Oak Park and River Forest

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing Writer

When David Parsons relocated here from New Orleans, he knew little about the Illinois area and less about his local community.

The newly-hired chief operations officer at the West Cook YMCA also had few business contacts in the region, and was interested in finding a quick networking fix.

Now, thanks to a Community Leadership Program being offered via Dominican University's Brennan School of Business in River Forest, Parsons' cachet of contacts is growing. This unique local Community Leadership Program was created in partnership with Dominican University, the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation and Communityworks, a local initiative that is focusing on community leadership, the success of all youth, and environmental sustainability.

In June, the program's second graduating class will culminate with the presentation of three doable group projects. Participants are Julie Farrell, Karen Faust, Caleb Fields, Carla Pierre Gini, Michael Lushniak, Julie Mann, Sarah Niederman, Melanie Nowacki, Tom Olis, David Parsons, Ellen Plourde, K.C. Poulos, Karin Schindel, Lauren Smith and Angela Spino.

Trans-organizational approach

Over nine Fridays between October and June, the cohort of 15 local working professionals joined with faculty facilitators from Brennan and a diverse grouping of area business and governmental and nonprofit pros to further develop their acumen in the areas of project management, strategic planning, and creative problem-solving, as well as conflict resolution and staff motivation.

"We are fostering knowledge about and concern for the communities in which they live and work by giving them the tools to create some kind of sustainable solution for problems or issues that Oak Park and River Forest are facing," said Grace Whiting, the program's coordinator. "Connecting people is a big part of it."

Each month the unconventional classroom convened in banks, the offices of area nonprofits, high schools and hospitals, or the village halls in Oak Park and River Forest, where, for example, the extracurricular learners interacted with elected officials to experience their perspective on the complexities of day-to-day decision making in a municipal setting.

"It's fascinating stuff," Whiting said.

After hours, they often networked with local movers and shakers across several professional disciplines in organized meet-ups.

"Our hope is that two, three, four years down the road, we are going to see their names on the roster of the boards at various organizations in town," said Whiting, who is also the director of Career Development and Projects at Brennan.

A key component to it all, said Arvid C. Johnson, Ph.D., dean of the Brennan School of Business at Dominican University in River Forest, is the cohorts' ability to form groups and develop implementable community projects that focus on how Oak Park and River Forest can share resources across borders to become more sustainable in the future.

"The Y is really big on collaboration, so now there are people at 14 different organizations that I can talk to, to get the ball rolling," Parsons says. "How to be good collaborators, the importance of it, and understanding how valuable it is beyond one organization and for the community as a whole, that is what this is teaching us."

Funding the future

About two years ago, Johnson noted, the Community Leadership Program kicked off with a $30,000 strategic grant from the Communityworks Endowment Fund, which fully funded the first year.

Since then, though, as part of a three-year strategic plan to move the program toward future sustainability, this year's participants were asked to ante up the cost of tuition, which is $2,000.

"In order for this program to work in the long term, we have to be very committed and every participant has to have some skin in this game," Johnson said.

In addition, he hopes that very soon larger organizations in town will buy into it and establish scholarship funding, in an effort to subsidize tuition for students with financial needs, especially those participants who represent smaller nonprofits.

"The kinds of solutions and the projects these folks are tackling are the kinds of approaches and problems you have to look at across organizations to solve, and that is what I am most excited about," Johnson said.

Angela Spino, communications and marketing director at Rush Oak Park Hospital, says she is currently springboarding a new community program in collaboration with a classmate on behalf of her employer.

"It is a different atmosphere when you are able to sit with a group of community leaders for an eight-hour class, she said. "You learn a lot more about them than you do at a cocktail party. The takeaways are very, very strong."

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