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Why the Montgomery Institute will work

By Staff
July 3, 2001
Over the years as a reporter, I've seen concerned citizens groups for the betterment of this or that cause come and go. Most of the time, these groups fade out once the agenda was either reached, or ceased to be important.
So I usually don't get very excited when a new organization is announced; experience teaches that it is better to wait and see some results before getting caught up in the hype.
The Montgomery Institute, announced Sunday in The Meridian Star, is going is different.
Working together
The Montgomery Institute can finally be the answer to a question that has been asked for a long time: Why can't the leadership of this community get on the same page?
I believe this for two reasons. In talking with the Drs. Riley of The Riley Foundation, which is establishing the institute, both said they want to see leaders involved who have differing opinions, and who come from different backgrounds. That includes people of all races, and people of different stations in life.
The idea is to take these people who became involved because they want to see this community grow and improve, and show them ways they can reach a consensus on some issues while understanding and respecting the fact that there will be disagreements in other areas. They don't have to like each other all of the time, they only need to know how to work together when it counts.
Leading is not an easy thing to do. You hear about born leaders, but if you go back and look at the history of most great leaders, you realize that leaders are made through trial and error and persistence. Successes are often a result of many failures with people having the willpower to come back and try again.
The Montgomery Institute will work with already established community development programs to help improve their leadership training. Seminars and retreats will be developed in cooperation with such organizations as the East Mississippi Business Development Corp., and similar economic development groups in neighboring counties.
In other words, old dogs (and young ones) will be taught new tricks.
Leadership the key
Bill Crawford is the right man to run The Montgomery Institute.
Bill has served in various volunteer capacities over the years, most memorable as the chairman of the Navy Meridian Team during the three rounds of base closure hearings during the 1990s. Many people worked long and hard on that cause, but what will always stand out in my mind will be an afternoon hearing in Birmingham with the base closure commissioners.
Meridian was scheduled to meet with the commissioners immediately after a town from Texas. We watched the representatives from Texas just ripped the commissioners up, raising all kinds of sand about the harm the loss of their base would cause them and their community. It was a very angry confrontation.
Then Meridian came on, with Crawford presiding.
It was so different. His tone was very calm and non-argumentative. Using correct, certified information that the Meridian volunteers had accumulated from the military, Crawford explained to the base commissioners why the closing of the NAS Meridian would be bad for the Navy, the military and the country.
The commissioners listened, checked the numbers and kept the Meridian base open. In the end, it was all about presentation, building a consensus and being right, things that The Montgomery Institute will be promoting.
Crawford's leadership and methods have been tested, and proven.
Not for him
Crawford said when he was asked to work on the committee to develop The Montgomery Institute, he was told "this is not for you."
Crawford was employed as the director of the WEBB Center at Meridian Community College at the time. Along with Dr. Mac Portera, president of Mississippi State University, and Dwight Evans, president of Mississippi Power Co., his task was simply to put the program together, and perhaps find the right person to lead it.
Over time, those involved came to the conclusion that Crawford was the man for the job, and he was asked to take it. He finished up at MCC and has been doing the legwork to launch the institute.
Finally, one key reason why this will work has to do with the funding source. The Montgomery Institute will operate on private grants, gifts and fees that it charges for services.
The right way
I've seen this approach work in another community that once had a far more serious problem with negativism then we ever have had here in Meridian and East Mississippi.
Basically, the town hated itself. I worked there 2 1-2 years, and everybody was so down on everything.
The attitude was different when I returned to that town about four years ago. You had people with can-do attitudes working on boards and commissions, and things were getting done. More importantly, the people were proud they lived there.
What happened?
In talking with the chief economic developer, I learned how they established leadership training in the early 1990s. People who had never been involved before learned how to become community leaders and then got involved.
Seeds of leadership blossomed. Today, the unemployment rate in that area stays at around 2.5 percent, and their big problem is finding people to work the new jobs that the businesses and industries want to create.
This is going to be an interesting process.
Steve Swogetinsky is regional editor of The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3217, or e-mail him at sswogetinsky@themeridianstar.com.