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Leaders rise from unexpected places


Instill ownership in a project  and watch as leaders emerge

In 1979, the Metro 2000 Committee was formed to study Central Iowa’s leadership needs for the year 2000 and beyond. As a result of the study, the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute (GDMLI) was founded to motivate emerging leaders to a higher level of community awareness and involvement and to ensure that Greater Des Moines and Iowa have strong leadership in the future.

Each year, the Leadership Institute selects about 50 community-minded leaders from business, government, education and other organizations. The class curriculum, which is designed by GDMLI alumni, includes a activities to enhance variety of social, cultural and leadership skills. Each class also is expected to complete a community service project. An interesting thing happened along the way to choosing and planning our 2004 Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute class project. It shouldn’t have been surprising, but was. The lesson learned was that leadership is not reserved for those who have economic means and education, nor is it withheld from those in poverty. This lesson became most apparent when we served side-by-side with people who aren’t those we would typically work with, live by or otherwise experience.

Members of our Project Committee are partly into a process that is already revealing some interesting dynamics around leadership and socioeconomic conditions. We were presented the challenge of coming up with a meaningful class project that could be completed by the first week in June. After reviewing many options, our class elected to work with the Oakridge Neighborhood, near Iowa Methodist Medical Center, to beautify this inner-city community for its 775 residents.

We chose this project because we noticed that while our yearlong curriculum did a great job at introducing us to ways to get involved in the not-for-profit and business circles, homelessness and transitional housing in Central Iowa were not included on our agenda.

Because homelessness is an issue that is often ignored by those who are accustomed to their comfy life in the suburbs, we felt it was important to become informed about the issue and do what we can to make even a small difference.

At first, our definition of a “beautification project” involved planting a few flowers and shrubs, because we assumed that whatever we did to help this neighborhood probably would not be appreciated. Though we wanted to include Oakridge residents in the project, we feared they wouldn’t be interested. Our thought was, why would they want to invest in a place they didn’t plan to stay at for the longterm? What we didn’t know is that many of these residents have chosen to live there since the complex opened in 1970.

So, we set our expectations low at first, but quickly learned we shouldn’t have. After meeting with several residents and staff members, our ideas were welcomed, embraced and expanded. What we thought would involve planting a few flowers blossomed into a list of priorities that would truly benefit the Oakridge community.

The project now encompasses the building of retaining walls, assistance with property drainage issues, strategic plantings to prevent walkways from forming, expanding courtyard meeting areas, planting ethnic vegetable gardens, educating children about the plants and how to care for them, introducing youths to potential summer landscape employers, and most important, bringing this interracial community together with future business leaders of Des Moines to interact and complete a project we can all be proud of.

Initially, we thought our class members were the “leaders,” but in the end, it is the Oakridge residents who are leading this project toward success.

We encourage others to use this knowledge as you tackle volunteer projects large and small. When looking around the table for leaders, remember that some of the most influential and effective leaders are actually within the groups that are being helped.

Emily Abbas is a corporate communications manager at GuideOne Insurance in West Des Moines and also a member of this year’s Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute’s Community Leadership Class. The Business Record invited class members to journal their experiences.

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