South GeorgiaLEADS Alumni Tackle Challenging Issues Facing Rural Communities

Taking leadership and community engagement to the next level, alumni from South GeorgiaLEADS (SGL) spent five months tackling some of the region’s most challenging issues.

As part of the inaugural SGL 2.0 class, 14 alumni utilized an action-oriented approach to identifying roadblocks within rural communities and creating workable solutions.

Established in 2016, SGL is a program focused on developing leaders and facilitating awareness of issues that impact the growth and future success of the region.

“Each year, we get feedback from graduates that they want to continue contributing and making an impact,” said Mary Beth Brownlee, SGL board member. “We also want to continue expanding networking opportunities, especially for alumni in different classes.”

Through the SGL 2.0 program, Brownlee said, “Alumni can give back and be a part of the conversation in moving South Georgia forward.”

Challenges facing rural communities are complex and often have limited resources to address issues like population loss, limited access to healthcare, workforce decline, increasing level of poverty, and inadequate infrastructure, including broadband.

“There were more than 75 issues identified during the first session,” Brownlee said. “Next, participants started finding patterns and big topic issues,” with workforce development, regional capacity, and health and wellness selected as project concepts.

During monthly two-day sessions, participants approached problem-solving through a “design thinking model” framework that incorporates empathy, definition, ideate, prototype, and test.

“The design thinking process kept everyone on track,” Brownlee said. “We started with having empathy for the stakeholders. For example, how do workforce development issues impact employers and employees?”

She explained that the “magic happened” during the ideate step, as participants brainstormed potential solutions.

Divided into three teams, participants conducted research and interviews and developed at least one prototype to evaluate their solution’s desirability, feasibility, and viability.

“The teams were tasked with developing a plan that could make a positive impact in the region, not just an issue facing an individual community,” Brownlee said. “It was a process, and as mentors, we helped the teams complete each design thinking step and not just jump to solutions.”

During the last session, team members presented their projects to judges in a “Shark Tank” format and received constructive feedback and recommendations.

“All three projects are feasible and doable for communities to use,” said Brownlee, a county consulting services associate with the Associate of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG). “Team members didn’t have to implement the plans, but they needed to think hard about how it could benefit multiple communities.”

“The teams were tasked with developing a plan that could make a positive impact in the region, not just an issue facing an individual community. It was a process, and as mentors, we helped the teams complete each design thinking step and not just jump to solutions.” — Mary Beth Brownlee


Tommie Beth Willis, SGL 2.0 participant, said the program emphasized the importance of networking and sharing ideas with other regional professionals.

“Real conversations lead to opening doors of possibilities for professional and personal growth,” said Willis, president and CEO of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce. “I think the most eye-opening thing was the fact that through our class discussion was the amount of passion my classmates from across the region had not only for their communities but for our region as a whole to grow.”

Willis and team members Michael Smith, Eric Lawson, and A.C. Braswell focused on regional capacity and the importance of partnerships to foster prosperity.

“Our team selected this topic after conversations about common needs in different counties,” she said. “We found that many of us had some of the same challenges that we currently face like workforce, poverty, and access to services.”

A graduate of the SGL 2016-2017 class, Willis wants to see each project move forward. “I think we should continue to work with local leaders and strive to provide solutions for our community, plus be willing to share those ideas with our neighboring communities. As a rural region, working together on projects makes us stronger.”

The SGL 2.0 program was guided by the leadership development expertise of the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership at the University of Georgia and with regional support from the Valdosta State University Center for South Georgia Regional Impact.

SGL board members serving as mentors throughout the program included Mary Beth Brownlee, Lisa Davis, Jason Dunn, Anna Ford, Barbara Grogan, Darrell Moore, and Rachel Oliver.

The SGL will return to its traditional leadership development program, with its sixth cohort starting in August 2022.

SGL 2.0 Participants

Sarah Adams
A.C. Braswell
Elena Carne
Rob Collins
Renata Elad
William Hancock
Eric Larson
Patsy Shirley
Jess Sinclair
Bridges Sinyard
Michael Smith
Angela Ward
Tommie Beth Willis
Brianna Wilson






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