Leaders are everywhere

Leaders are everywhere

By Heather Peeler

Recently, ACT has been working in partnership with Alexandrians in an unusual way. We believe that people closest to the issues and challenges have the best ideas and solutions. Thus, if we want to make progress on complicated, intractable issues like poverty and economic opportunity, we must engage, center and empower the people who have experienced poverty and lack of opportunity.

In 2021 we launched the ACT Youth Council to learn
from and amplify the voices of youth in our community. Since then, 14 high school students have researched issues in the community that are important to them and made recommendations to members of City Council, the School Board and other civic leaders.

Designed by youth, for youth, the program features a competitive selection process and monthly meetings with access to city officials and researchers to support the youth in their inquiry and analysis. This past May, the Youth Council presented research on the disparity in environmental, disability and academic supports between those who live on the east and west sides of Alexandria.

Building on our experience with the Youth Council, in 2022 we put ACT’s strategic plan in the hands of our community. We created a Community Listening and Strategic Planning Team comprised of 18 diverse Alexandrians. They collected and analyzed data and made recommendations for ACT’s strategic direction.

This team shared their experience and perspective through the lens of race, immigration and socioeconomic status. Members were paid a stipend and received child care and transportation reimbursements. With input from more than 250 residents through surveys and focus groups, the Planning Team proposed a strategic direction for ACT that is focused on economic success, affordable housing and racial equity.

The Team crafted a new vision statement for ACT: Alexandria is a just, vibrant, equitable place where all who live and work here thrive and feel like they belong.

Their voices, perspectives and lived experiences have influenced ACT’s work in profound ways. Research shows that community engagement:

• Creates more effective solutions. Utilizing the knowledge, wisdom and know-how from people with direct experience of the issues create solutions that are responsive, practical and effective.

• Increases trust. When residents are heard and see their ideas and input valued, they have greater trust with institutions and one another.

• Bridges differences. In to- day’s polarized world, forums for people to come together, share perspectives, and collaborate builds relationships and understanding.

• Empowers innate leadership. Leaders are everywhere, not just in formal civic structures like elected office. The Youth Council and Community Listening and Strategic Planning Team members used their voices to shape priorities and influence decision making. One Youth Council member shared: “My favorite thing about the Youth Council is being provided with the resources to research and advocate for issues that we are passionate about.”

Combined, these benefits lead to greater community resilience and long- term change. We know that if we center community voices and leadership and mobilize partners to invest in the communities and people struggling against inequities, then we will upend poverty and secure our collective wellbeing.

Given the richness in diversity of Alexandria, we see extraordinary possibilities and the potential to nurture effective solutions – especially when we can amplify the strengths, experiences and wis- dom of our neighbors.

We are grateful to all the Youth Council and Community Listening and Strategic Planning Team members for their thoughtfulness, generosity, and commitment to working with us. You can read more about the Youth Council and the Planning Team on our website at actforalexandria.org.