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After 40 years, Leadership Metro Richmond fosters a legacy discussing regional issues and developing solutions

After 40 years, Leadership Metro Richmond fosters a legacy discussing regional issues and developing solutions

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When the Leadership Metro Richmond started in 1980 as a leadership development program under the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, no one could have predicted how long it would stay in the community or how many local leaders would pass through it.

But 40 years and more than 2,300 graduates later, the impact of Leadership Metro Richmond, commonly referred to simply as LMR, and its leadership development program on the Richmond area is undeniable, with graduates spearheading new companies, founding nonprofits and serving at all levels of government and businesses.

In many cases, LMR graduates take what they have learned in their 10-month Leadership Quest program and apply those lessons within their own careers and projects.

But Myra Goodman Smith, LMR’s president and CEO since 2010 and herself a graduate of the program, notes that from time to time, collaborative initiatives continue even after the students graduate.

“Some things have sprung out of conversations and work within the class,” she said.

For instance, AMP! Metro Richmond, a one-to-one mentoring program for middle school students, was started by members of Smith’s own LMR class.

And SCAN, a Richmond-area nonprofit focused on preventing and treating victims of child abuse, also was created because of research conducted during LMR.

Although LMR’s reputation precedes it, some students, such as Suja Amir, don’t realize how far-reaching the program’s network is until becoming a part of it.

“You know to some extent that a lot of people in the Richmond area [are LMR alumni], but you don’t realize how many really influential people,” said Amir, a health policy analyst and a member of LMR’s Class of 2020. “I feel very honored to be a part of such a high-caliber leadership group.”

Among the highlights of Amir’s LMR experience were the monthly seminar days, which she called “eye-opening,” and the ability to make connections with so many other professionals who care about creating positive change in and around Richmond.

“Everybody’s going to say ‘2020, best class,’ but I did find that we have a lot of compassionate people … which makes me feel very proud as someone who lives in this area,” Amir said.

She also valued having the opportunity to learn from and engage with LMR alumni, who often return to lead Leadership Quest’s seminars and head workshops.

Jonathan Zur is one such alum, returning nearly every year since he graduated 12 years ago to deliver a workshop during the opening retreat. The workshop, which focuses on differentiating “debate” from “dialogue,” culminates in an exercise in which participants are asked to discuss a controversial issue with the other students — all of whom are, at this point, essentially strangers.

“I’ve had participants over the years say that was the point in their opening retreat where they realized: This is a different type of experience,” said Zur, the president and CEO of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. “It’s really enriching as a facilitator to see groups lean in to that process.”

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LMR’s history is not rooted solely in the graduates it has produced. In many ways, LMR’s core philosophies have remained consistent since the beginning.

Founded on a principle of diversifying the leaders within the Richmond community, LMR still makes a concerted effort to bring together people of different classes, races, genders and occupations every year.

In addition, more recent classes are more multigenerational than they were the first year, which Thurston R. Moore, now special counsel at the Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP law firm and a member of LMR’s inaugural class, recalls as being mostly aimed toward young professionals who were yet to establish themselves in the community.

Moore said the program’s first year focused on taking young people with a demonstrable interest in bettering the Richmond area and educating “them as to what is going on in the city, how various things work [and] what’s working in other cities.”

The other major facet of the program Moore remembers is connecting with his fellow classmates. Some of the people he met at LMR went on to become friends and colleagues of his, and even though he does not necessarily talk to them frequently, when he does, he knows that he will be able to have productive conversations.

“Those are relationships that are probably important for both of us, in that if there’s ever an issue or a problem, we’re comfortable in talking to each other ... or they can introduce us or put their imprimatur on us for somebody else that we may not know as well,” Moore said.

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The program’s format has remained nearly the same since its inception, but one prominent change came in 2001 when LMR went from being a program under what is now ChamberRVA to being an independent nonprofit.

When this happened, Leadership Metro Richmond became the nonprofit’s name, and Leadership Quest became the title of its flagship program. It subsequently added a number of new programs — including several directed toward alumni, such as Off the Cuff, a series of educational field trips that have included a kayaking tour of the James River and behind-the-scenes looks at local museums.

Another major change came when LMR switched the focus of its breakout group projects.

For many years, LMR classes split into smaller groups to complete projects for Richmond-area nonprofits. But over the years, firms emerged that were willing to do pro bono work for nonprofits, while some nonprofits hired in-house professionals to do the work LMR students once did.

LMR changed the format of its Leadership Quest program. Rather than having participants focus on producing something or coming up with a solution for a nonprofit, the students instead focused on deeply educating themselves on particular complex issue.

Immersion teams are given broad issues, such as housing, and through their research and conversations with experts are able to decide for themselves toward which subtopics, such as homelessness or affordable housing, they want to direct their attention.

Smith said it is vital for leaders to understand how multilayered these topics are and how seemingly different topics, from education to health care to transportation, are actually deeply interconnected.

“If we’re going to deal with issues in our community, we cannot just deal with the surface,” she said. “We need to dig deep and understand cause and effect.”

The structure of the immersion team research is also valuable because it gives students the knowledge base they need to discuss legislation and policy surrounding complicated topics.

For instance, one of the immersion teams from the Class of 2019, which was initially assigned the broad topic of the Civil War, eventually focused its project on researching “racial covenants” that still exist within deeds in Virginia to this day, Smith said.

The group, which continued to work past their graduation as a research project entitled “Make Better Deeds,” succeeded in getting legislation passed that ban these discriminatory restrictions. The legislation will take effect on July 1.

“As community leaders, we can build programs, we can create solutions, but oftentimes … policy and systems are things we need to be aware of, too,” Smith said.

The topics covered in LMR’s monthly discussions and breakout groups also have changed in the past 40 years.

Initially, the program centered on “standard” topics like housing and transportation, Smith said. Now, the issues covered are those that the students find most important and pressing to the Richmond region — something they are asked to discuss in their application to the program.

Topics also can spring out of current events, whether on a national or local scale.

“Some things come up,” Smith said. “As we can tell from the last few weeks, things come up and the environment changes. So we leave ourselves flexibility within our curriculum to have those conversations.”

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Earlier this month, LMR’s 40th class joined the program’s impressive group of alumni.

COVID-19 restricted the class from celebrating in-person as previous classes had.

In the past, LMR students walked the stage, received certificates and lapel pins, and took class photos to commemorate the occasion. This year’s class received those materials, delivered by LMR’s staff, preceding a celebration held via Facebook Live and Zoom.

Though LMR’s 40th class was unable to graduate in person, the online ceremony was nevertheless merry, with each graduate given the opportunity to speak as their names were announced. Some expressed regret that they could not celebrate in person and looked hopefully toward future reunions. Many said their experience in LMR was one of the most impactful of their lives.

Amir’s salutation, which she shared via Zoom’s chat function, called back to one of the tenets that has been a part of LMR since the beginning: making and maintaining connections with one another.

“To my classmates, it was wonderful getting to know you and I hope that we can continue to remain connected. To LMR, thank you for the opportunity to engage and learn with such fantastic folks,” she said.

She also celebrated another LMR tradition — asserting that hers is the best class. “#LMR2020 BEST CLASS EVER,” she wrote.

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