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Civic ties

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By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A long-term effort to strengthen civic connectedness in Winston-Salem through volunteerism and leadership development is poised to begin bearing fruit.

A new volunteer center to replace one that had been housed at United Way of Forsyth County is set for its launch this fall.

And a Winston-Salem Leadership Summit in May that attracted roughly 140 neighborhood, corporate, government and education leaders generated ideas for identifying, supporting and connecting a broad range of leaders from throughout the community.

“I would hope the decision-making table in the community would become wider, and that the people in the grassroots community would have greater conviction that their voices are being heard and that they have a role to play and could play an effective role in making decisions for the community,” says Tom Lambeth, chair of the leadership committee of the Echo Council.

The council is a collaborative group formed by the Winston-Salem Foundation as part of its Everybody Can Help Out initiative, or ECHO, an effort it launched in the wake of a 2000 Harvard study on “social capital” in three-dozen communities throughout the United States.

The study found social capital or civic connectedness in Winston-Salem was weakened by a greater concentration of leaders with more education and higher incomes than in other communities, says Doug Easterling, an associate professor of social sciences and health policy at Wake Forest University who is an adviser to the Echo Council and was a partner to the Winston-Salem Foundation for the social-capital study.

“Leadership turned out to be much more exclusive in Winston-Salem than other places,” he says.

Social capital depends on trust across groups that traditionally have not trusted one another, he says, and barriers to a broader sense of community in Winston-Salem have reflected gaps in trust along lines of race and class.

The community also has been “insular” because “different religious denominations tend to keep among themselves,” Easterling says.

Leadership is critical to building social capital because leaders can “create a safe place where people are able to explore, step out, do things that have for years seemed like they’re impossible,” he says.

“If you’re going to break down those barriers, what it’s going to require is a different kind of culture in the community, a culture where people are more risk-taking, more open, more inquisitive,” he says. “And taking those kinds of risks for stepping through one’s fear is a pretty hard thing to do on your own.”

Compared to a tradition in which dominant local corporations “anointed the leaders who made the decisions on what was in the best interests of the community,” Easterling says, the merger, acquisition, breakup or departure of those firms has created a “kind of vacuum” that the Echo Council hopes to fill with a new model of leadership development.

“What we’re seeing now, especially among neighborhood leaders, is that they’re reaching across different social lines and social circles,” he says.

Key needs identified at last week’s summit include a coordinating council to help existing leadership programs work together and share ideas, and skills-training for existing leaders, particularly to help them better acknowledge constituents’ ideas and incorporate them into decision-making, Easterling says.

Lambeth says he hopes more traditional leaders, including elected officials and corporate executives, will “have a greater appreciation of the strength of nontraditional leaders.”

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