Jeannie Vicari clutched her pet rooster while members of her Leadership Northshore team, decked out in cowboy gear, made an energetic pitch for their community project — an animal-focused kids’ festival — to an audience of St. Tammany Parish power brokers.
They could hardly have found a more receptive crowd. Many of those on hand at the recent presentation had been through the same process as Vicari and her team: a program designed to give emerging leaders a deeper understanding of their community’s needs and their own leadership abilities.
Since the early 1990s, when chambers of commerce on both sides of St. Tammany launched leadership development programs, about 1,000 ambitious students have graduated, including many future elected officials and scores of civic leaders.
The result, according to program advocates, has been an infusion of new energy and ideas along with a more diverse leadership pool.
Irma Cry was executive director of the Slidell Chamber of Commerce 30 years ago when she first began urging that group to actively groom new leaders.
While larger cities had leadership development programs, she said, smaller ones like Slidell didn’t. At the time, power in the bedroom community was held by a few old families, she said, and commuting newcomers were largely on the sidelines.
It took five years of cajoling, but the Slidell chamber formed the first leadership class in 1991. “It’s made so much of a difference in the community,” Cry said.
She points to graduates like lawyer Mark Myers: “Until Mark went through the leadership program, he just lived here and went to New Orleans to work every day.” Now, Myers chairs the Northshore Harbor Center Commission and serves on the St. Tammany Parish Tourist and Convention Commission, among other leadership roles.
Cry rattles off other alumni who are deeply involved in their community: lawyer Michele Blanchard, who was just elected to the St. Tammany Parish Council; state Rep. Greg Cromer; Fire Chief Chris Kaufmann; and former Parish President Kevin Davis.
Sheriff-elect Randy Smith and 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery were in the same Leadership Northshore class in 2008.
Leadership St. Tammany, which formed on the parish’s western side in 1993, boasts an equally impressive roster of alumni, including Parish President Pat Brister, state Sen. Jack Donahue and state Rep. Reid Falconer. Mandeville Mayor Donald Villere and his challenger in next month’s election, City Councilman Rick Danielson, are both alumni, Executive Director Mark Johnson pointed out.
Brister was in the second class of Leadership St. Tammany and had not yet run for office. The class didn’t propel her into politics — “I don’t know if I needed a nudge,” she said. But it was a learning experience that helped equip her for that role. “You delve into what your strengths are and where you need to improve,” she said.
Tuition is $1,100, and while a participant’s employer or sponsoring organization can pay most of the cost, each class member must pay at least $100 of their own money.
Both programs begin with a retreat and cover multiple facets of the community with monthly daylong classes — nine months for Leadership Northshore and 10 for Leadership St. Tammany. Each session focuses on a different area: the court system, for example, or social services. Participants go on field trips rather than sitting in a classroom.
This month, Leadership Northshore learned about economic development with trips that included stops at Fremaux Town Center, Textron Systems and the Tulane National Primate Research Center.
Joan Archer, a graduate of Leadership Northshore’s first class, took charge of that program’s curriculum after the first year. The career educator and counselor didn’t want to have what she calls an information dump but instead tailored the program to how adults learn.
“Instead of talking about jail, we take people to the jail; instead of telling them about poverty, they deliver meals to the homebound and impoverished,” she said.
But Leadership Northshore, which is marking its 25th year, takes the idea of learning by experience a step further. The east St. Tammany program divides each class of about 25 into smaller teams of five or six who must complete a community project. They learn how to look at the community with new eyes, Archer said: “What do we have, and more importantly, what do we not have?”
They also learn about themselves in the process. Each class member takes the Myers-Briggs personality sssessment, and the teams are chosen to ensure a mix of personality types, so participants learn how to communicate with people who are different from themselves and to use each other’s strengths.
The projects themselves make a tangible contribution, Archer said. The Slidell Jazz and Blues Festival, which provides money for school band instruments, is one example. The Camellia City Bark Park is another.
But the real point is what class members learn from the process, she said.
Former class members serve as mentors to the teams and help in other ways, she said. “I’ve never been told no. That tells me that there is something special going on,” she said.
Both programs stress diversity. Leadership Northshore recruits class members to ensure that all parts of the community are included. Johnson said applicants to Leadership St. Tammany sometimes must wait a year or two because organizers strive to have a mix, including diverse occupations, so they won’t end up with “too many bankers and lawyers.”
Van Joffrion, a Leadership Northshore graduate who serves as fire prevention officer for St. Tammany Fire Protection District No. 1, said the program’s impact goes well beyond elected officials. Graduates who join a board or organization have been exposed to fresh ideas for fundraising, and they bring their experience and skills to those roles, he said.
Covington Mayor Mike Cooper, who is a member of the current Leadership Northshore class, said the city has been sending one or two employees to the west St. Tammany program for years. His administration boasts a number of graduates.
He’s seen any number of leadership classes come through City Hall on field trips, but now he’s on the other side of the experience. “I’m not only there to learn but am called on to give my input,” he said. “I’m learning from them, and they are learning from me.”
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, at @spagonesadvocat.