What does leadership look like on the local level? Several leadership studies students went to Richmond’s North Side area during the spring semester to find out — and to participate in the process.

Students in Dr. Thad Williamson's Leadership and Governance in the Contemporary American Metropolis class worked with neighborhood leaders and one of the leading community development organizations in the country, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), to interview North Side residents. Their assignment: help the organization chart the area's biggest assets and its greatest needs by conducting interviews.

The interviews gave students an inside look at the community development process and helped the organization create a "detailed mosaic" of the area, says Williamson.

"LISC hopes to identify some clear community needs and community resources and learn about what organizations in the area are doing to help the community and which individual people could or should be leaders," Williamson says. "Over the next decade, this will be extremely important information."

The students and neighborhood leaders interviewed residents on Saturdays during the semester using digital recorders and questions designed by LISC to identify key issues, people, and problems in the community as well as perceptions about the community and how it has changed over time. The interviews took place in residents' homes, local libraries, and community centers.

LISC plans to host a public event to showcase the findings.

"It's important to have the voice of the community in any civic project, and based on my experience, it seems that people usually know what is best for their community," says Anne Tyler Feldmann, '11, a leadership studies major who is pursuing a concentration in leadership and urban studies. "The experience also provided me with a new perspective on the problems being dealt with in low-income neighborhoods on a daily basis and how individuals wish to combat these problems."

Williamson says he wanted his students to get a sense of the historical perspective and understand why people choose to stay in the city and endure certain problems.

The project also ties in with his work and research on urban sprawl, climate change, and civic leadership. His latest book, "Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of Life," deals with these challenges.

One of the greatest challenges urban areas across the country are confronted with is figuring out how to improve the quality of life in certain neighborhoods and create sustainable communities so people want to live there and not move further out, but doing it without displacing people, Williamson says. "Ecological sustainability means that we have to have good, well-functioning cities for people to live in, so figuring out how to maintain a good, well-functioning city becomes especially important. It is a regional and a national challenge."

This project is intended to help with that challenge. Over the last 20 years, LISC has invested $78.6 million in urban communities in Virginia and provided high-need areas with grants, loans, and equity. 

Initiatives such as this and finding ways for local residents to enjoy a role in building sustainable communities is important according to Vincent Edmunds, the program officer for LISC. He is also pleased that University of Richmond students could be part of the process.  

"The students are bringing excitement to the United for Progress Neighborhoods Initiative as a new generation of leadership willing to capture the 'heartbeat' of a distressed community, and to increase our collective capacity to positively impact it," Edmunds says. 

Williamson says his goal for the class was to provide students with a community-based learning opportunity where they could be an equal partner in the process as well as get to know both leaders and regular citizens in Richmond and learn from them first-hand. When the University's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement told him about this opportunity, he was thrilled.

"This was a chance to partner with an organization and help them do something real and concrete," Williamson says. "I want students to understand that ordinary people can make change happen, and the way it begins is through talking and discussing and trying to identify community needs. 

"Ultimately leadership is about people stepping forward and taking responsibility for their communities and making things happen."