News: Leadership for the Rest of Us

Grassroots Academy fosters change where we live

Apr 19, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes/

Cincinnati church volunteers supplied 3,000 meals april 14 for people attending Timothy Thomas' funeral and for residents of Over-the-Rhine.

When government officials fail to act, citizens must. Last week's street demonstrations erupted because of the failure of Cincinnati's leadership to address racism, according to Jenny Laster, president of the Grassroots Leadership Academy.

At an April 13 press conference, Laster said city officials have waited too long.

"This situation has been a long time coming and is an indictment of the city of Cincinnati," Laster said. "After 10 years and 17 deaths of African-American men, nothing has been done. City council has refused to act. To the city council and the business leaders: You haven't listened, and you haven't acted. Even in the midst of your failure, you have refused to accept responsibility."

Laster joined the Coalition of Citizens in demanding leadership in ending racial discrimination in Cincinnati. The demand came after riots developed last week, following the fatal police shooting of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas.

"The problems we face go far deeper than Timothy Thomas," Laster said. "What has been happening is the result of decades of racial discrimination. Year after year we see the Klan erect a cross. This may say more about the moral character of our city than about legality." ("Why Is our Mayor Still Dickless?" Dec. 7-13, 2000)

Laster is no newcomer to the need for leadership and the need for action. The Grassroots Leadership Academy is for people unwilling to wait idly for someone else to fix problems in their community.

Since 1997 the academy has been teaching leadership skills to people of low to moderate income. The program came about when former Mayor Dwight Tillery saw that some people want to help their community, but don't know how to use resources available to them; they want to help, but don't know how.

Greater Cincinnati has several programs to develop civic leadership among professionals and business managers. But the Grassroots Leadership Academy's membership is unique, according to Laster. So is its billing plan: The academy does not charge tuition.

"We are not going to turn down anyone based on income," Laster says. "These are people that do not have the opportunity to go to the three other leadership programs, with a tuition fee attached. If you have nothing invested in this except time, after you have worked from 9 to 5, that says something. This is an opportunity for everyone who has the desire to enhance the quality of their neighborhood."

The Academy teaches leadership skills, strategic planning and understanding government. Classes meet in evenings for 16 sessions, and child care is available.

"We want the students to come out saying, 'One person can made a difference,' " Laster says.

The curriculum at the Grassroots Academy is also different from other leadership programs in Cincinnati.

"We teach just the basics," Laster says. "With Grassroots, we have people who lived the problem, and we try to make our students become problem solvers. We teach effective presentational skills, because people are not able to articulate themselves, and we help students get over stage fright."

Victoria Straughn, CityBeat's Person of the Year 2001, is a graduate of the academy.

In addition to Tillery, speakers include city Councilman Charlie Winburn and political science professor Gene Beaupre.

"The goal is to give people access, as well, to people," Laster says. "People are looking for information and ways to serve their community. So often when a program is headed by an African-American, it is assumed that it is an African-American program. What we offer is good for every community. We are trying to increase white, Asian and Hispanic participants."

During the final session, students develop a presentation — "The Power of One" — which requires them to identify and address a problem in their communities.

"We want to help people become more involved in the community and to help people to be responsible for where they live," Laster says.

Annette Delaney of Mount Auburn is a Grassroots student.

"There is always the inclination to say, 'What are they going to do about it?" Delaney says, "when it's me. We need to take responsibilities for ourselves. There is a need for us to get involved. I think the Grassroots training program is one of the best programs in terms of emerging leaders and the power to help individuals to see that they can change things around them. We are learning that there are many leaders in our community who have valued assets that are going untapped until now in the Grassroots Leadership Academy."

The Grassroots Academy has sessions from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays. For more information, call 513-872-0100.