Investing in Local Leadership

SECU Foundation Helps UNC School of Government Fund LFNC Fellowships.

SECU Foundation and LFNC members hold the $1 million check

SECU Foundation Helps UNC School of Government Fund LFNC Fellowships.

As Lead for North CarolinaOpens in new window prepares 25 recent graduates for community-based fellowships, a $1 million grant from the State Employees’ Credit Union FoundationOpens in new window is poised to take the program into the future.

As she approached her graduation from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2019, alumna Sarah Arney knew two things: she wasn’t strongly attached to any single type of work, but she understood the way she wanted to feel about her work.

“I subscribe to a philosophy that a lot of people my age have: life is long and you spend too much of it at work to not feel positive about the work you do and the people you work with,” Arney said.

After volunteering as an advocate for the Community Empowerment Fund in Chapel Hill during her undergraduate years, Arney knew she loved the organization’s emphasis on navigating critical issues through the lens of community, personal connections, and respect. When she saw a call for applications from Lead for North Carolina (LFNC), a program housed within the UNC School of Government and the first statewide affiliate of Lead for AmericaOpens in new window, she recognized a similar approach: addressing an enormous need in a way that centered people.

“I decided to apply for LFNC because it embodied many of the same principles as the Community Empowerment Fund,” Arney recalled. “We know we want to increase not only the number of young people in government, but the diversity of young people. LFNC had a very clear idea of how they were going to do that, and they were backed up by the statewide reputation of the School of Government.”

Launched in 2019, Lead for North Carolina (LFNC) places promising recent graduates in community-based local government fellowships across North Carolina. The program seeks to build a robust pipeline of talented future leaders who are interested in public service. More immediately, participating local governments gain a young, qualified employee who can help address areas of critical need in the community.

“Our state’s local governments are leading the charge to address some of our most pressing issues, from affordable housing to climate change,” said LFNC Director Dylan Russell. “With 70 percent of our local government leaders eligible for retirement, our public institutions are in a critical moment. Lead for North Carolina is essential because it sits at the nexus of what our institutions need and what young people want—careers in which they can make a difference.”

To date, LFNC has sent 27 FellowsOpens in new window to communities from North Topsail to Hendersonville, and Shallotte to Rockingham County. Those Fellows work on projects of keen interest to their local areas, focusing on areas including economic development, sustainability, community health, hurricane recovery and resiliency, infrastructure, and utilities.

Arney’s LFNC journey took her to Kinston, where she joined her supervisor—the lone director of the Planning Department. The department’s trim size meant Arney added immediate capacity to support ongoing projects and pick up new tasks as they arose. While in Kinston, she’s worked on the Downtown Kinston Mural Program, launched the Kinston 101 Citizens Academy, and worked on projects ranging from historical preservation to pedestrian planning to home repair. She applied for a Community Development Block Grant for COVID-19 response, which is being put to work on wifi expansion, vaccine clinics, and emergency utility payments.

“As a Fellow, we learned to be flexible and go where we were needed,” Arney said. “The extent to which a program is successful or a problem gets addressed is the capacity of the people in that office. What happens is what you make happen. Being a Fellow allows you to do important work that, without you, may not get done.”

Arney’s impact in Kinston is not unique. Fellows are generating tangible results in the communities they serve. Arney and her peers in Cohort One secured more than $10 million in grants for key initiatives in their communities, and city and county managers supervising members of Cohorts One and Two reported $1.8 million in estimated cost savings thanks to the efforts of Fellows. Fellows tackle urgent needs, like COVID-19 response, while also working on projects that communities have been previously unable to address due to capacity limitations.

The success of the program’s first two cohorts would not have been possible without support from several partner organizations, including a crucial grant from the State Employees’ Credit Union Foundation. This July, the Foundation announced it is renewing that support with a three-year, $1 million grant to LFNC, which will place up to 50 Fellows in economically distressed communities throughout the state.

“SECU Foundation is a strong advocate for educational programs that provide unique opportunities for students to not only develop their capabilities, but also for them to enhance the future of local governments and the communities they serve,” said Jo Anne Sanford, SECU Foundation Board Chair. “Lead for North Carolina is an exciting program that serves as a natural transition from our SECU Public Fellows Internship program for those who want to continue exploring meaningful careers in public service. The UNC School of Government is well-known for its non-partisan, policy-neutral work, helping North Carolinians to understand and improve state and local government. The Foundation is very pleased to continue its support for this worthy initiative.”

“This grant from the SECU Foundation is a vote of confidence in the Lead for North Carolina program and its exceptional Fellows,” said Mike Smith, dean of the School of Government. “These promising young leaders bring unparalleled energy, diverse perspectives, and fresh ideas to our communities and state. We all benefit from this program and the School of Government is proud to support its continued development.”

In late July, the program kicked off training for Cohort Three with the LFNC Summer Academy. A two-week program hosted online and at the School of Government in Chapel Hill, the intensive training event gave the 25 Fellows in attendance the tools and resources required to be successful in their communities. Courses were taught by School of Government faculty and staff, local government officials, representatives from the UNC Ombuds office, UNC EOC office, the Carolina Women’s Center, and more.

Topics covered by the training included:

  • Governance and administration
  • Budgeting and finance
  • Economic development
  • Non-advocacy
  • Social media usage
  • Grant writing
  • Intergovernmental relations

Following the training, the 25 members of Cohort Three were deployed to fellowships across the state. In 2021, Fellows will serve in 15 municipalities, seven counties, and three governmental councils and agencies.

For many Fellows, participation is just the start of what promises to be productive careers in public service. Fellows from Cohorts One and Two are already taking their next steps, which include law school, graduate programs, and for some, full-time employment. The last group includes Arney, who was offered and accepted a full-time position as community development planner in Kinston.

“At the end of the day, my work is not done,” Arney said. “I have enjoyed my time in Kinston and I was so glad they were able to keep me on. I’m looking forward to learning even more and taking on new leadership responsibilities.”

Arney credits LFNC with teaching her to have a flexible approach and for learning the power of showing up in your community and work.

“You do exactly what is needed of you at the time. By being present and volunteering, you learn so much. I don’t know if I could have gotten this experience anywhere else. I love the work that I do, and I only get more effective the longer I am here.”

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