I’ve done pieces of life a little backwards. It started around 8 years old when I decided to sign up for dance class. Did I enroll in the class that would build my foundation as a dancer for years to come? No, I hated ballet. I started with jazz *insert jazz hands motion here* before continuing with hip-hop, tap, modern, and ballet—in that order. This backwards decision-making followed me into college, graduate school specifically. My graduate program included two required classes: communication theories and qualitative research methods. I took both classes in my last semester. Whoops! Did I mention I also became a mother at 17 years old? Luckily, these decisions worked out for me, but they each strayed from my original, forward-thinking plans. Now here’s the real question: how could a backward decision-maker ever call herself a leader?
Spoiler alert: I’ve never considered myself a leader. Focused? Yes. Goal-oriented? Absolutely. Driven? So much so I’m often losing sleep. But a leader? Nope, niet, negative. When I applied to the Hamilton County Leadership Academy (HCLA), I was hoping the program would help teach me how to be a leader. I don’t know if it’s common like they stated in the rejection letter, but it took me two applications to be accepted. Luckily, I was invited to participate in the class of 2018. Future leader Casey Cawthon, coming soon.
HCLA is a 10-month program that takes place during one full day of each month. The program is fully immersive and offers participants exclusive opportunities to go behind-the-scenes, interface with decision-makers and policy leaders, and learn about happenings at the county level. Topics spanned from arts and education, to community and economic development, to emergency management, and everything in between. In our class of nearly 35 participants with diverse backgrounds, we were challenged to think about community challenges, volunteer in new ways, and even to embark on passion projects that would make a meaningful impact across the county.
In a blink of my eyes, this week marked the final week of our HCLA class of 2018 curriculum, and it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve been privy to for so many reasons.
The class of 2018 was filled with incredible, smart, talented individuals making a difference in their careers and within the community. The opportunity to meet, learn from, and learn alongside these leaders grew my perspectives, educated me, and inspired me. I hope to maintain these connections far into the future.
The opportunity to learn.
I loved my community before I joined HCLA, but I didn’t have a good understanding of everything that takes place within Hamilton County. I have a newfound appreciation and respect for the ongoing planning, consideration, and coordination that takes place—in all aspects and in an ongoing fashion—throughout Hamilton County.
The leaders I met.
HCLA removes barriers, most notably by brining top professionals, decision-makers, and policy makers into the conversation. I was able to connect with non-profit executive teams, superintendents of almost every school in our community, all four mayors, and local and state elected officials to name a small few. Through the program we weren’t just able, we were encouraged to ask them the hard questions, and the perspectives shared were incredibly eye-opening.
Recently, HCLA called for applications for the class of 2019, and multiple friends, colleagues, and professionals have reached out to ask me if the program was worth my time. I’ve replied to each of them with a resounding yes, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on a succinct why until our final day.
I’ve never considered myself a leader. I’ve spent a great deal of time with that thought this week, and though I’m risking judgement, I think I’m finally ready to unpack that statement.
I’ve never considered myself a leader… because of how I was defining the word leader. A leader doesn’t have to be a C-suite executive. A leader doesn’t have to be someone who knows it all. A leader doesn’t have to be seasoned and well-established in their career.
A leader should be someone who’s committed to their community. A leader should be someone willing to have the difficult conversations. A leader should be someone who’s willing to put in the time and hard work to create positive, sustainable change to better the majority, even if they don’t necessarily have the right solutions immediately.
So, HCLA and class of 2018, thank you for helping me realize myself as a leader. Thank you for creating a space where I could arrive at my opinions through meaningful discussions and varied perspectives. Thank you for building into me personally and professionally, and for the memories along the way.
And to those of you considering HCLA, apply now. This program builds connections and empowers participants to lead, engage, and change our communities for the best. And I’ll leave you with the quote I presented during my class introduction, which feels even truer today than it did on the class day I presented it.
“I alone cannot change the world. But I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” —Mother Teresa