The gap in community leadership narrows as The Neighborhood Leadership Academy (NLA) at Savannah State University 12-week program aims to empower future leaders with necessary skills to help improve social issues.

Carole Fireall, NLA coordinator, said the NLA brings together established and emerging leaders from diverse segments of the community to enhance their leadership skills with a focus on advocacy, critical thinking and problem solving.

"The very first Neighborhood Leadership Academy took place in 2005 under the auspices of Project SAV," she said. "A local initiative was funded by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Step Up Savannah revived the program in 2011 and conducts the program each year in the fall. In 2014, Savannah State University agreed to partner with Step Up, and classes are held each year on the university's campus. Step Up continues to offer this program because of the generous support of the Frueauff Foundation."

The classes focus on small contingents of 17 to 20 per group with the ideal student candidate wanting to learn more about Savannah and how the city operates.

"They are hungry to better understand their own gifts and how they can be used to positively impact their neighborhoods or communities," she said. "They also wish to identify and enhance the skills that a person in a leadership position needs to be effective. Lastly, Step Up depends on our NLA graduates to be our eyes and ears in Savannah, to identify the issues that Savannah's low-income population faces daily. So the ideal candidate would be willing and able to speak for the population that Step Up serves."

Topics for the program include community organizing, empowering their voice, and becoming a voice for communities that are voiceless in Chatham County.

"Equipped with a better understanding of the systemic and historical issues that contribute to the lack of opportunity for some members of the community," said Fireall, "graduates will be emboldened to advocate for change. They will learn how to identify a problem, draw attention to it, and then create the momentum that produces change. Throughout the class and following graduation, participants will be introduced to various nonprofit and governmental board and commission opportunities. Perhaps best of all, graduates will be among a cohort of like-minded individuals that support and offer resources to each other long after graduation."

Although specific skill sets are not required to join, Fireall added students join with various skills in their toolboxes, which the NLA helps them identify and develop.

"We do not have a defined list of required skills that a person must have to be considered for the program," she said. "We do like participants to have some volunteer experience and to be able to identify a particular cause or issue that they would like to champion."

Savannah's under-served and underrepresented citizens are often overlooked and go unheard or ignored. Fireall said being underrepresented often means that a person feels they have no voice to influence policy or address issues that directly impact their life.

"Even with the confidence to speak up, they often lack access to the proper channels to make their voices be heard," she added. "The NLA helps to elevate the voices that are often left unheard by providing the skills, confidence, and avenues for advocacy."

"Step Up believes there is tremendous value in bringing together different sectors of our city to engage in dialogue on how we can improve the economic mobility of our residents," she said. "We depend on our neighborhood leaders to be the 'boots on the ground' as we all work to improve the economic mobility and financial stability of families in Savannah, Chatham County."

Fireall said people can contribute to the program in several ways.

"First, nominate someone that they feel would benefit from the program," she said. "Second, reach out to Step Up when positions on nonprofit and governmental boards and commissions become available so that we can inform our NLA graduates of these opportunities. Lastly, in order for this program to remain free to participants and provide some assistance with their travel costs, we need financial support."

Visit www.nlasavannah.org to complete an application. You may also contact Alexandra Kopp at 912-232-6747 or at akopp@stepupsavannah.org.