Learning to Swim Upstream: The Montgomery Citizens’ Leadership Academy

ARTICLE | Jan 12, 2016

“Why do we only see people when they are angry?” “Where do constituents get so much misinformation?” Having just come off of a couple of very tough land use debates, these were the type of questions foremost in the minds of our Mayor, City Council and Administration. Unfortunately, these were some of the conversations that we were having back in 2007. “Could this be a reflection of the nationwide mistrust in government?”  And, how do we on a local level shift the community paradigm, foster a more knowledgeable electorate and make community conversations more civil?

The general hypothesis was that if local governments could “swim upstream” and create a deeper and more sincere relationship with members of the community, outcomes would be much more positive. We needed to put a “face on government” and practice more collaborative decision making to ultimately form a stronger Montgomery.

Initially one of the goals in our 2006-2011 Strategic Plan was to “foster a two way dialogue with our citizenry”. As we researched the various options that were being practiced around the country, the goal quickly evolved into, “How do we encourage the development of community building and the development of social capital?”  We wanted to:

  • Build positive relationships and connections;
  • Reach beyond the “usual suspects”;
  • Inform and educate residents;
  • “Harvest the Experience Dividend” of our citizenry;
  • Create opportunities for involvement; and
  • Foster an ongoing dialogue with the community.

We also began to acknowledge that local government is not the “center of the universe”, rather, it is a subset of a much larger dynamic that includes: schools, businesses, places of worship, community groups and much more. It was decided that any program that we develop must be inclusive of a broader community.

In 2008, we developed “The Montgomery Citizens’ Leadership Academy… The Coolest Civics Class You’ll Ever Take!” (MCLA). It would not be government centric, but, MCLA would travel throughout the city providing a more comprehensive look at the much larger Montgomery community. We sought community partners that would be interested in giving participants a “look behind the scenes” of their organizations. We recruited:

  • Bethesda North Hospital;
  • Ohio National Financial Services;
  • Twin Lakes Retirement Community;
  • Homeland Security Regional Operations Center; and
  • Sycamore Community Schools.

The sessions were developed around adult learning principals, limiting lecture time, highlighting experiences and emphasizing work in small groups. Also it was determined that hospitality was an important component, so a meal was included to allow informal time for participants to bond with each other and their local officials. Classes were limited in size to 25-30 participants.

Ten catchy session titles were created to invoke curiosity, while appearing less governmental and bureaucratic. These are as follow:

  • We are Montgomery!;
  • Zen and The Art of Citizenship;
  • Montgomery, Our Town, USA;
  • Dreams, Aspirations, & Taxes… Is the Price Right?;
  • Sycamore Community Schools and the 21st Century Learner;
  • Healthcare: Montgomery’s Signature Industry;
  • Innovative Solutions in Public Works, Recreation and Parks;
  • Homeland Safety and Security in Your Own Backyard;
  • History and Development… The Art of Co-Existence; and
  • Service and Volunteerism: A New Call to Action! & Academy Graduation

January, 2016 will kick off our ninth MCLA class. Every year the program has been oversubscribed. What started as a way to create a two way dialogue with the citizenry has really proven transformational in the community. MCLA graduates are now serving on City Council, Montgomery’s many Commissions, Chamber of Commerce, School Planning Commission, Farmer’s Market, Ministerial Association, various neighborhood associations and a variety of volunteer community projects. Alumni are also used as a sounding board for new projects and as ambassadors in the community at large.

The next evolution for MCLA, beyond the ninth class, will be MCLA 2.0, a graduate or higher-level MCLA experience which will be restricted to MCLA graduates and will focus on higher level community issue(s).  It will also provide an opportunity for graduates to apply their knowledge of community and local democracy to issue(s) that are at the forefront of decision-making concerns for community leaders.  It is anticipated that MCLA 2.0 will occur in in April 2016 in Montgomery with 20 – 30 participants.   

Based on the multitude of benefits that the City of Montgomery has experienced, we would highly recommend the development of similar programs in other communities. As a model, think about some of the best continuing education sessions that you have ever experienced. Identify community partners that could provide value to your Academy.  Avoid too much lecture and make it fun.         

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