By Katherine Cassidy
Washington County Leadership Institute, begun in 1997 as one of Maine’s first professional leadership programs, has just completed its 20th year. More than 300 employees, supported by their employers, plus additional artisans and assorted self-employed folks, have taken part in the nine-session course offered every spring, dodging snow days and ending each April.
Leadership courses are now commonplace and popular across the country. The concept was introduced in Maine by the nonprofit Maine Development Foundation, which created the Leadership Maine group to offer the training through its leadership academy. Later, local versions for leadership coursework were created independently around the state.
Washington County’s version is distinctive not just for its longevity.
Facilitated by Linda Godfrey of Eastport for its full 20 years, the leadership institute’s lessons and presentations are drawn largely from what Washington County has to offer. Specifically, its “woods, water, land and people.”
No two meeting sites are the same. One week, group members meet in Cherryfield, where they hear from Kathy Upton, Cherryfield native, local librarian and a graduate of the leadership institute’s 2011 class. Next time, they gather in Grand Lake Stream, 85 wooded miles to the east. There, Bill and Cathy Shamal tell stories of how they founded the Grand Lake Stream Folk Festival 22 years ago.
The program travels Washington County roads, making it truly place-based learning. Even those class members who grew up locally admit to not having visited all the communities the course takes in, from Milbridge and Machias to Eastport and Calais. Initially organized in its first five years by University of Maine at Machias, then coordinated by the Sunrise County Economic Council since 2002, the course has become the council’s signature program. Jennifer Peters, the council’s assistant director, has made all the arrangements and attended every class alongside Godfrey since 2002.
DROPPING THE ‘DE’ WORD
For the years when Washington County was landing repeated references in national media as a place of downturn and unemployment, Godfrey led others in not using “de” words when talking about Washington County (desperate, destitute, deficient) and replacing them with “re” language (resilient, revitalized, respect).
For the 2016 Institute, Godfrey pulled in members of past classes who have gone on to various Washington County successes. Dianne Tilton of the first cohort in 1997, later a Maine legislator and now working with the Downeast Institute, was delighted to tour current members through the Beals-based shellfish hatchery back in February. Then she shared how her leadership institute experience served as a personal turning point.
Two months later, Charley Martin-Berry, Class of 2009, returned to talk about the work of the Community Caring Collaborative. She is co-director of the program that, with more than 40 partner agencies, seeks to lift Washington County families out of poverty. She called Washington County a “leadership-rich place” because of the institute’s impact.
“I am a little bit of a leadership dork, maybe a lot,” Martin-Berry confided. “I love the study of leadership. And I wondered [in 2009] if I would ever get to to do work in Washington County in a way that Linda Godfrey would invite me to come back to this group.”
Godfrey keeps on eye on everyone who passes through the program, and Jennifer Peters keeps the database of them. After 20 years, the institute has established a network of like-minded colleagues who can be called on by current members and other alumni, years later. Staying connected matters, Godfrey shows them. Alumni change jobs and roles through the years, making their ways across Washington County’s labyrinth of community leadership.
Whatever their next place, the leadership institute’s theme—“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,” a Teddy Roosevelt quote—is never far from their responsibilities That’s because Godfrey, ever the optimist, continues to challenge the mindsets of the leadership group’s newest and oldest members both. “What would you attempt to do, if you knew you could not fail?” is one of her favorite broad-based questions.
And, “What are you doing now, that you could be doing more of, for others?” gets to the personal levels of leadership.
Leadership, Linda Godfrey’s career and first love, is also her calling card. Off the leadership lessons she puts forth, many feature Passamaquoddy lore and biomimicry, two of Godfrey’s favorite topics. Naturally, then, all that has been learned by 330 of Washington County’s residents-turned-leaders, has been put to work locally—and has become the Washington County Leadership Institute’s legacy.
Before the 2017 class convenes, many institute alumni will be asked to share their passions in a first-time TEDx Sunrise County event. Members of the 2016 class, who caught Godfrey’s enthusiasm for TED Talks as teachable moments, have applied to organize a day for the formatted storytelling gathering next November. As a group, they will create new ways to tell the Washington County story, refreshing as ever.
Katherine Cassidy of Lubec took part in the Washington County Leadership Institute in both 2005 and 2016.