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Civic Leadership Academy Helps Hillsboro Residents Learn, Engage
What happens when 12 Hillsboro residents from diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods get together to talk about how local government works?
They become the next class of Hillsboro's Civic Leadership Academy — a City of Hillsboro program that combines Hillsboro neighbors’ passion for community with the teachings of instructors from Portland State University's (PSU) Hatfield School of Government.
Academy engages neighbors and builds future leaders
Just three months after Alex Berry (pictured first on left) moved to Hillsboro, he was feeling eager to get involved in his new home. Searching for opportunities, Berry discovered the Civic Leadership Academy and decided he should apply.
"I really wanted to learn and help Hillsboro," said Berry, who graduated from the Academy in 2017. "Afterward, I felt much less like an outsider, and more like someone who had lived here for years."
The Civic Leadership Academy launched in 2016, spurred by the City Council’s priority to create a new way to get residents involved and broaden the pool of applicants for the City's boards and commissions.
Meeting at the Hillsboro Civic Center once a week for six weeks in September and October — with dinner and childcare provided — participants learn about collaboration, connect with neighbors, and grow into community leaders.
“People are thirsty to find ways to get involved,” said Kristi Wilson, who coordinates the program for the City. “The Civic Leadership Academy is an opportunity to learn from Portland State University instructors, and the experience leads people to want to engage.”
Lessons rely on collaboration, consensus
During the workshop, the group explores opportunities related to a topic that is important to the community. For example, PSU instructors focused the 2016 group on balanced housing in Hillsboro; in 2017, the class evaluated how to create support a local entrepreneurial incubator. The group's findings help inform decision-making by City staff and the City Council.
"It seemed a bit daunting on that first night of class, but our teachers were there for us every step of the way with knowledge and support," said Nickole Vargas, a graduate of the 2017 Academy. "We were guided through a collaborative project, but also given tools and teaching on collaboration, problem-solving, and how to work together with others through our differences."
Delving into the details of the topic is where the group's diversity shines brightest, as each person shares their own perspective. "We're intentional about recruiting people from all over the city," Wilson said. For example, "someone from Tanasbourne may see a different need than someone who lives Downtown."
City staff provide subject-matter guidance, connections to resources, and overall support to all the participants. PSU facilitators with expertise in public service and collaboration design the curriculum and lead the sessions. The program culminates in a presentation to the City Council.
"Throughout the class, I learned how truly collaborative our City departments are, how much our City employees work together and enjoy each other, and that this is a thoughtful and accessible city to live in that values the input of its residents," Vargas said.
Academy grows future civic leaders
The Academy builds civic leadership skills so that graduates can serve on the City’s boards and commissions, in partner organizations, and in daily life in Hillsboro – even if they didn't envision themselves as community leaders when they applied.
“Some participants never saw themselves as commissioners when they began the program," Wilson noted. "Together, we break down barriers and preconceived notions about who can be an elected official. They didn't understand much related to local government heading in, and now they can see themselves being a part of it.”
Already, more than half of the Academy’s graduates hold leadership positions on committees like the Planning Commission and Library Board, and with local organizations like Centro de Cultural and the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce. Other graduates are active local volunteers.
“The Academy is the single best thing I’ve done since moving here,” said 2017 Academy graduate Elizabeth Case. “I learned so much, made new connections, and now I’m more involved in Hillsboro.”
To apply for the Academy, a Hillsboro resident needs only a desire to learn and serve the community. Everyone is welcome — no previous experience is required.
“Your voice matters and the City wants to hear from you,” said 2016 Academy graduate Cindy Cosenzo. “Volunteering your time to learn about City governance and leadership, you will discover the many opportunities to share your ideas and experience.”
Participants graduate with even more enthusiasm about getting involved. “I applied for the class because of my love for Hillsboro and our community,” Vargas said. “Throughout the class, I learned how truly collaborative City departments are, how much our City employees work together and enjoy each other, and that this is a thoughtful and accessible City that values the input of its residents."
As the program grows stronger, the City looks forward to watching all that its graduates achieve in Hillsboro as they stay connected to the City — and to each other.
Want to make a difference in Hillsboro? Apply for the Civic Leadership Academy by Monday, July 23.