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Learning to Lead

Hamilton County Leadership Academy Educates and Prepares Future Leaders

Writer / Jon Shoulders
Photography Provided

Alaina Shonkwiler, president of the Hamilton County Leadership Academy (HCLA) and a 2013 graduate of the program, says it was created in 1991 out of a collective desire among some local leaders to help prepare county residents to step into leadership positions.

“There were some Hamilton County officials and community leaders looking at who was going to be the next generation of leaders, and what their skills would be,” Shonkwiler says. “They put together this program to help educate the future leaders of the county, and provide access that may not have existed in the past to local entities. They created themed days and got support from local businesses, because that’s where the community leaders come from.”

The class typically runs from August through June and includes one day per month focused on a specific topic, such as education or planning and development. A two-day retreat kicks the class off in August, followed by monthly sessions and finally a closing retreat in June. A class project and community meetings are also parts of the program, and Shonkwiler says the latter consists of real-world experience like attendance at a city council or school board meeting.

Hamilton County Leadership Academy

“We’re not teaching the same class every year, and it’s evolved based on the community, what the topics of conversation are, and what the challenges in the community are,” Shonkwiler says. “The people who founded the HCLA are still involved in those conversations too. The first class day is municipal government and township government day, and what we found after one year of classes is that most of our attendees didn’t really understand township government and what kind of services it provides.”

Classes, which in recent years have consisted of approximately 30 to 33 students, are exposed to real-world challenges and initiatives related to each monthly topic.

“With COVID we’ve seen a lot of remote works being done, and we did our education day completely via Zoom,” Shonkwiler says. “We started in a remote classroom focused on how a teacher would potentially engage the students remotely. For criminal justice day we decided one of the things our police departments in the county are focusing on is hiring more women. We started that class day with a panel of all women, with the one female judge in Hamilton County, a detective and two female attorneys involved in the criminal justice system from the ground up.”

The current class members have been able to attend in-person sessions thus far, and Shonkwiler says the program leaders are able to pivot to virtual sessions if needed this year.

“The important part of HCLA is connection, and that really is fostered through the in-person experience of the class day, and talking to your fellow classmates and the panelists,” she says. “It’s so important to be able to go up afterwards and ask questions to the subject-matter experts, as opposed to a Zoom meeting cutting off.”

The HCLA staff creates class dossiers for many of the sessions. For example, this year’s November class touched on economic development, and the class leaders walked students through what an actual economic development project might look like, including guidelines and parameters that might have to be followed.

Shonkwiler says the HCLA staff provides the class members with as much information as possible before each class takes place, so they can be as prepared as possible to tackle and discuss each topic during the monthly sessions.

Hamilton County Leadership Academy

Many participants are typically recruited for the program, although anyone throughout the county can apply. Those not selected are encouraged to apply again for future classes. Payment plans for tuition costs are available.

Throughout the past year HCLA leaders sought out faith-based groups, nonprofits and other local organizations to raise awareness and increase interest in the class.

“We want to make sure we’re reaching out to everyone, and this year we worked with another organization to provide a grant for scholarships for people with diverse backgrounds and with disabilities,” Shonkwiler says. “We wanted to shake up what HCLA has looked like in the past and really make sure we’re mimicking what Hamilton County’s demographics look like. As we continue to see more and more diverse people coming in to the county, we want to make sure we’re inviting people to attend because a lot of people still haven’t heard of us.”

For more info on the Hamilton County Leadership Academy including application and tuition details, frequently asked questions and more, visit hcla.net or call 317-650-3975.

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