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Wildacres focuses on civility

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Sterling Freeman

Sterling Freeman

Todd Cohen

Politically, John Hood and Deborah Ross seem poles apart.

Ross, a member of the state House of Representatives, is an outspoken progressive Democrat, while Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, is a forceful advocate for free  markets and limited government.

Despite their ideological differences, Hood and Ross both say a shared experience has made them more sensitive and intentional about trying to understand one another.

In 1995-97, Hood and Ross were members of the inaugural class of William C. Friday Fellows for Human Relations, a program of the Durham-based Wildacres Leadership Initiative.

The statewide program provided an “opportunity to reflect on, not only how to make a difference, but how to work with a wide variety of people,” Ross says.

Hood says Wildacres was all about “getting to know and understand people of varying backgrounds.”

Launched 15 years ago to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland as a conference center to promote human and interfaith relations, the leadership-development program aims to bring together emerging leaders to learn about bridging differences and addressing urgent issues facing the state.

“We didn’t know how long it would last,” says Philip Blumenthal, the director of the Charlotte-based Blumenthal Foundation, which has been the biggest funder of the Wildacres Leadership Initiative.

Today, as it prepares to celebrate its 15th anniversary, that program is more needed than ever in the face of bitter divisiveness in the United States over issues such as poverty, immigration and gay marriage, Blumenthal says.

“People not only are not listening to each other, but they’re not even talking to each other,” he says. “That’s exactly what our program speaks to – being able to talk to each other. If people aren’t willing to do that, you really have a problem.”

Since the Wildacres Leadership Initiative was launched, 165 Friday Fellows have graduated from its two-year program, reflecting North Carolina’s broad diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, faith, political ideology and type of work, says Sterling Freeman, the program’s executive director.

“We have created relationships and colleagues and coalitions among emerging leaders in this state that have resulted in people working together on various community projects,” he says.

During the two-year term for each class, the Friday Fellows participate in three formal sessions a year that run from Thursday to Sunday and focus on “leadership with integrity, intention and inclusion,” Freeman says.

Sessions feature “didactic and experiential learning,” including small-group dialogue, storytelling, leadership theory and physical movement.

Friday Fellows have produced a broad range of projects, such as Traction, a Durham-based grassroots effort to engage people in their 20s and 30s in the political process.

Others produced “Coming Out-Coming In,” a 30-minute, award-winning documentary on gay and lesbian Christians in the state wrestling with and reconciling their sexual orientation with their faith.

And they have provided a broad range of community services, such as mentoring middle-school children in rural Edgecombe County.

Wildacres also operates a “Fellows Action Network” to keep graduates involved and connected after they complete the program.

“Our strength at the end of the day is people working together,” Freeman says.

Wildacres also is ramping up work on its Center for Excellence in Leadership, an effort to spread its work to the broader community.

Also aiming to produce revenue and help Wildacres sustain itself financially for the long term, the effort has included trainings for the Triangle Community Foundation, Davidson College, and the medical school at East Carolina University.

Hood of the John Locke Foundation says that, while he would have encountered Ross in his work without Wildacres, “the encounter probably would have been very different.”

The Wildacres experience, he says, “makes her think twice before assuming my intentions, and it makes me do the same.”

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