Janice Ross used to think she knew everything there was to know about Macon.
After all, she’s lived in the area since she was 2, and her job as assistant to Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart gives her insight into a wide range of community activities.
Then Ross joined the Leadership Macon Class of 2010.
“I found out I didn’t know anything at all,” Ross said.
Leadership Macon was launched in 1979 by the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce, Charles Jay and Bob Hatcher to create new leaders who could contribute to the city and county.
Since then, more than 700 people have gone through the program, said Lynn Farmer, the program’s director. Those members get educated not just in the challenges Macon faces but also in its successes.
“The idea of the program is to introduce participants into the strengths and weaknesses of the community,” Farmer said. “We talk about what these individuals have to offer and emphasize taking ownership in the community -- solving the problems that we face as opposed to just complaining about them.”
Some of the program’s alumni over the years include Mayor Robert Reichert, former U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, the late state Sen. Robert Brown and various business, civic and community leaders.
After an initial retreat in late January, class members meet monthly to discuss a wide range of topics that include local government, housing, poverty, race relations and others. And the conversation isn’t just focused on a particular topic, but how that topic may touch other aspects of the community.
“We talk about poverty and its impact on (education), crime, housing,” Farmer said. “During the past year, we talked about the (special purpose local option sales tax) and how it would impact the community.”
During the year, the class comes up with a project designed to help the community, such as playgrounds, a disc golf course at Lake Tobesofkee or a community center.
“We’ve challenged the classes to leave a legacy that will let Middle Georgia know they were there,” Farmer said.
Ross said the various sessions opened her eyes to aspects of the city she had never considered, none more so than a trip through the Lynmore Estates neighborhood in south Macon.
“We were in the bus and we came to a corner where the house was just dilapidated,” said Ross, who now serves on Leadership Macon’s board. “We saw these two girls who were 2 and 4 with blond, curly hair who were in the yard by themselves. They started to wave at us, and it just broke my heart.”
Ross said the group came up with the idea of building a community center for the neighborhood, and she was put in charge of fundraising, even though she had no experience with that.
However, Ross and the rest of the class were able to raise $97,000 in cash donations and in-kind funding to get the center built. Thanks to a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the class was able to buy appliances for the center and still leave $9,000 to the next Leadership Macon class, which decided to raise money to build a playground adjacent to the center. That opened in November.
Jason Downey, a local attorney who was part of the most recent class, grew up in Charleston, W.V., and wanted to attend Leadership Macon to learn more about the city.
“This was a way to learn more about every facet of the community,” said Downey, whose law partner, Morris Carr, has been accepted for the Class of 2012 on Downey’s recommendation. “It’s a way to make a community impact that could last a lifetime. It makes Macon, Middle Georgia and even the state a better place to live.”
Downey said the program gave him more insight into race relations than he ever had -- how problems started and where relations are heading.
“That was probably the biggest eye-opener.”
Downey said he hopes to use what he learned in Leadership Macon to serve the community, either in elected office or by working with a community organization.
Farmer said candidates for each class are nominated and have to fill out a questionnaire, then go through an interview process before they are selected. About 42 candidates are chosen each year, Farmer said.
Two of the members of the Class of 2012 are Bibb County District Attorney Greg Winters and former Macon City Council candidate Danny Glover.
Winters said that through his position, he sees a broad sampling of people in the city and county, but through the narrow lens of a criminal case. He said he hopes the Leadership Macon experience will allow him to see more than one side of a story.
“It’s about meeting folks and spending time with them,” he said. “It’s a chance to look at the community and see what the issues are, and how we can move the community forward. ... Everything I’ve heard about the program has been rave reviews.”
Glover, who was selected to be the new chairman of the Bibb County Democratic Party earlier this week, said he was nominated by state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, a member of the Class of 1998.
“She told me it was a great program that will give me the skills to help move Macon forward,” he said. “You work with different people from all walks of life.”
Glover said he plans to take another shot at elected office in the future and thinks the learning process acquired from Leadership Macon will help him in that goal.
“It makes you better and more engaged for public service,” Glover said. “You can’t add value to the city if you don’t have the skills. It’s the value that counts, not how much experience you have. This will give me skills I didn’t have in the previous election.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.