The graduates of the inaugural year of the Littleton Leadership Academy had praise for the civic-affairs boot camp aimed at educating locals on the workings of government.
“I'm a much more informed citizen now,” said Kyle Henderson, the vice …
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“I'm a much more informed citizen now,” said Kyle Henderson, the vice chairman of South Metro Housing Options, who was one of 26 attendees of the nine-month program that took students on a comprehensive journey to understand the big picture of how government agencies work together. “I think I can speak a little more intelligently with my neighbors and my city council. We've got a core group that now have a much better understanding of how our city operates and the decisions we need to make.”
Over the course of nine day-long sessions, participants studied topics like state government, city government, environmental issues, education, land use, mobility, place making and health and wellness. Sessions included a number of high-profile speakers, including Colorado Supreme Court Justice Richard Gabriel, National Civic League President Doug Linkhart, Littleton Fire Rescue Chief Chris Armstrong and Littleton Public Schools Superintendent Brian Ewert. Attendees visited the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, Littleton Adventist Hospital and several schools.
“We wanted our participants to meet people they wouldn't otherwise meet or go places they wouldn't otherwise get into,” said Susan Thornton, the academy's chair and a former Littleton mayor.
Building on history
Thornton said the academy is an outgrowth of the Littleton Community Retreat, an annual day-long community summit on single topics, held every year since 1976.
The retreat, founded by then-city manager Gale Christy and Littleton Independent editor Garrett Ray, was the petri dish for the Town Hall Arts Center, the program now called Immigrant Pathways Colorado, and the project that saw Littleton's train tracks lowered beneath grade, which paved the way for rapid incorporation of light rail.
“We thought the retreat was getting a little stale,” Thornton said. “We didn't invent the academy concept. My daughter-in-law attended a similar one in Jefferson County, and other municipalities around the country have comparable programs.”
The first class consisted of a variety of local leaders and bigwigs, including Historic Downtown Litttleton Merchants Association president Greg Reinke, Littleton Public Schools Foundation Executive Director Beth Best and J.D. McCrumb, town administrator of Columbine Valley.
“We're trying to create an educated core of voters who will go out and educate others,” Thornton said.
Littleton City Council candidates Karina Elrod and Kyle Schlachter both attended the academy, as did Jessica Williams, the registered agent for a political action committee that supported Elrod and Schlachter. Thornton donated to both Schlachter and Elrod's campaigns, and was also a city election commission member.
Thornton said the academy is nonpartisan and nonpolitical.
“It's very neutral and we tried not to insert politics,” Thornton said. “Our speakers say what they say, though. As far as the group, I think what you see is that people who are interested in politics self-selected.”
Learning the ropes
Henderson, the housing authority vice chair, said he joined to go straight to the horse's mouth to understand the interplay of government and other agencies that govern life in Littleton.
“I've only lived in Littleton since 2012, and felt like I didn't know a lot that was going on,” Henderson said. “I'd hear things from neighbors or the paper, and there was a lot of conflicting stuff. I wanted to understand the city's vision and where it was going.”
Henderson said he gained a better grasp of how all the parts form a whole, “how development impacts parks or services or roads. It's all connected.”
Henderson said he hopes working together with different agencies will provide a better outcome for developers like himself.
“Doing development in Littleton currently is an uphill battle, and is not always well received,” Henderson said. “My hope is that Littleton can become more proactive around development, because it'll happen. That's my frustration with Littleton, is it's a city of no, and you end up with worse development as a result.”
For Brandon Addison, a senior pastor at Neighborhood Church, the academy was about finding Littleton's heart and soul.
“I want to love my city, so I had to know my city,” Addison said. “I saw it as a place to connect and learn about what's beautiful, what we want to celebrate about Littleton. What are the systemic challenges and areas we wrestle with? How can we be part of the solution?”
Addison said his role as a faith leader gave him a unique perspective.
“My conviction is the church doesn't exist for itself. It exists to help build a better community. (The book of) Jeremiah talks about seeking the peace and prosperity of the city. I see myself as a go-between, a chaplain to help sides listen and learn from one another.”
Every participant in the academy was asked to develop an “action plan” for what they want to do with their newfound knowledge. Addison said he wants to keep developing a series of community conversations on controversial topics, with presentations from experts with different viewpoints.
“We encourage people to learn with civility and curiosity,” Addison said.
McCrumb, the town administrator for Columbine Valley, said he treasured the friendships he made, and hopes to stay in touch after graduation.
“Those people are now one step closer to me,” McCrumb said. “I know people who have expertise in one topic or another that I didn't before. My network has grown.”
McCrumb heartily recommended the academy to anyone who can attend.
"If you participate, you will get something out of it, whether you're retired or a professional. It doesn't matter who you are — it has something for everyone.”
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