Building community with heart, teamwork

By Todd CohenWINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — As a teenager in the 1960s, Sylvia Oberle witnessed public vilification of the minister at her Baptist church in Knoxville, Tenn., because of his civil-rights activism.

Her best friends at church were “ready to ride the pastor out of town on a rail,” she says, but her mother volunteered for the church homeless program.

“It was a quiet but important lesson,” she says.

Oberle took that lesson to heart, and has devoted her life’s work to understanding and building community, first as a newspaper reporter and editor, and most recently as executive director of the Center for Community Safety at Winston-Salem State University.

Starting Feb. 1, as the new executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County, Oberle takes on yet another community challenge.

“We need to not only build houses,” she says. “We need to build social capital.”

Donna G. Rader, vice president for grants and programs at the Winston-Salem Foundation, says Oberle’s move is good news.

“She’s one of the most important people in our community because she leads from her heart and soul,” Rader says. “She has never had to disengage her heart in order to be a very smart, very professional, very comprehensive thinker.”

And Oberle’s vision and leadership style are critical to strengthening civic connections within the community, Rader says.

“She totally links to other people and knows she’ll make better decisions if she has input from a wide range of people,” Rader says. “She has a collaborative style of leading.”

Oberle’s move also follows a personal tragedy: Last March, her 21-year-old son, Andrew Lane, a student at Appalachian State University in Boone, was killed in a car accident.

“A lot of what I have been reading is more on spiritual formation, thinking through the experience of grieving for my son, and understanding what that means for my life,” she says.

Based on wide-ranging reading in the past year, she says, she has found connections between Christianity and eastern and Native American religions.

“There seem to be common themes about the importance of living in community and taking care of each other,” she says.

Sylvia OberleJob: Executive director, Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County, effective Feb. 1

Age: 53

Education: B.A., Carson-Newman College, Jefferson City, Tenn., 1973; M.A., journalism, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1979.

Family: Husband, Terry Oberle; 13-year-old daughter; 21-year-old son killed in auto accident in March 2005.

Recently read: Living Buddha, Living Christ; Heart of Christianity

Favorite movie: The Shawshank Redemption

Hobbies: Reading, walking, snow-skiing

Little-known fact: Loves eclectic music

Career: Executive director, Center for Community Safety, Winston-Salem State University, 2001-2006; project coordinator, Strategic Approaches to Community Safety Initiative, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of North Carolina, 1998-2000; senior vice president, James A. Fyock & Associates, 1992-1998; Winston-Salem Journal, city editor, 1981-1992, assistant city editor/reporter, 1978-1981

So when the Habitat job opened up, Oberle says, “it gave me an opportunity to take that one step further and do something I felt had an even more tangible impact on the community.”Community connections

Oberle got hooked early on the idea of community.

As a fourth grader, she started reading the newspaper every day with her grandfather.

“He was one of the most curious people I knew,” she says. “He constantly wanted to learn new things.”

Her own passion for wanting to learn was deepened, she says, through her family’s community activities and “innate, natural curiosity and sense of intrigue of who does what, who knows what, what makes things tick.”

She majored in history and political science as an undergraduate at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn., and then studied history in graduate school at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, planning to become a professor or archivist.

But she found she wanted a calling with a focus more current than history, she says.

So she switched to UNC-Chapel Hill, earning a master’s degree in journalism.

After a three-month stint as a reporter at the Durham Morning Herald, Oberle worked for a year-and-a-half as reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal, another year as assistant city editor, and then just over 10 years as city editor.

Then, in 1989, she enrolled in Leadership Winston-Salem, a year-long program to develop leaders and immerse them in community issues.

Because of the experience, she says, she found she “wanted to get more involved in the community than you can as a journalist.”

Also motivating her career thinking at the time was her recent marriage to Terry Oberle, the newspaper’s sports editor, and the fact that Andrew, her son from her second marriage, was five years old.

“We did not want a two-editor family,” she says.

So she quit the paper, and initially worked as a consultant to the Winston-Salem Forsyth Schools in dealing with the perception they were not safe, and also started Partners for Progress, an early effort to enlist community support for public education.

Oberle also got personally involved in education because her son had begun kindergarten.

While he and his best friend, Frederick, both were bright and active children and entered school with the same potential and promise, she says, Frederick, an African American, was held back at the end of their first year.

“People make judgments,” Oberle says. “We are unfair in the way we treat others. It crystallized in me it was just as important that Frederick got a good education and every opportunity as my son, and who was going to be looking out for him? I just wanted to make a difference.”

Making a difference

Oberle then worked for six years for James A. Fyock & Associates, a consulting firm that focused on public affairs and crisis management issues.

In the mid-90s, a client asked the firm to help form a network of local leaders to focus on at-risk youth.

The network, known as Forsyth Futures, led to the selection of Winston-Salem by the administration of Attorney General Janet Reno as one of five pilot projects throughout the United States known as Strategic Approaches to Community Safety Initiatives, or SACSI.

The idea was to “change the way law enforcement looked at enforcing the laws,” and tackle criminal issues through a strategic approach rooted in academic research and community partnerships, Oberle says.

Loretta Biggs, a former judge who had been in the same Leadership Winston-Salem class as Oberle, was named by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to oversee the pilot project, and she hired Oberle to manage it.

Linda Davis, interim CEO at The Children’s Home and retired Winston-Salem police chief, says Oberle’s collaborative style in the U.S. Attorney’s office led to “one of my proudest moments, professionally and personally.”

At a time when she and the African-American clergy “shared concerns around the common goal of stopping violence and keeping our children safe
and healthy,” but had different perspectives, Davis says, “Sylvia was able to have us focus on our common goals.”

To keep the initiative going after the two-year pilot project ended, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust gave $1.8 million to Winston-Salem State University to create the Center for Community Safety, and Oberle was named its executive director.

The center, the only one of the five pilots to continue its work, initially focused on juvenile violence, but has expanded its focus to include older young adults, ex-offenders re-entering the community, domestic violence, and neighborhood safety.

The center works to build community and academic partnerships, and provides training for other communities on topics such as gang issues.

The center also has developed a computer-mapping lab that community groups can use to make better use of data, such as the impact of the location of health-care facilities and other services, to solve community problems.

“Whoever holds the data holds the power,” Oberle says.

At Habitat, which is beginning its 20th year and has built 200 houses, Obserle says she wants to continue the group’s work in “eradicating substandard housing and being a strong advocate for decent and safe housing.”

She also wants Habitat to be a strong voice for developing “other amenities that build safe and stable neighborhoods.”

That goal, she says, is in sync with an essay her son wrote in elementary school when asked what “utopia” meant.

“In my dream city there will be nothing but peace,” he wrote. “Everyone will have a job. No one will live in poverty. Everyone will be treated with respect.”

Habitat shares those ideals, Oberle says.

“So this is an opportunity,” she says, “to honor him and live out his very child-like belief in utopia.”

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