Since the creation of the Greater Sylacauga Resiliency Network in 2020, the Sylacauga community has come together to make a difference and strengthen civic engagement. One of the major goals of the Network is collaborating with other organizations and assessing common needs.

Laura Strickland, Executive Director of the Sylacauga Chamber of Commerce, noted a prevalent concern amongst local organizations: workforce development. The Chamber actively works with a variety of local groups daily; however, unifying these groups to collaboratively talk through issues is a major priority. “We cannot solve a problem alone,” said Ms. Strickland, “Only through collaboration can we effectively work through these issues.” 

General Robert Holmes, a founding member of the Resiliency Network, described how the idea of a community forum focused on workforce development came about: “One of the pillars of the Chamber of Commerce is to provide leadership to the community, and we have a goal to facilitate three community forums per year. This acted as a catalyst to bring all elements of the community together to discuss a common issue, challenge, or theme.” As more organizations communicated their concerns for incentivizing local youth to remain within the community and strengthen the region’s economy and employment rate, the plan for the Workforce Development Community Forum was underway.

The Chamber of Commerce partnered with the Sylacauga Alliance for Family Enhancement (SAFE) to carry out the forum. The first step was to create a blueprint for the forum to make it as effective as possible. “Normally, a forum consists of a panel of experts who talk to an audience for the full time,” said Gen. Holmes. “These provide value, but they may not hit all the right notes for the audience’s purposes.” In January, the David Mathews Center conducted a deliberation-focused forum in Sylacauga as part of the Alabama Provider Capacity Project. A variety of first responders, medical professionals, and recovery-focused nonprofit organizations were invited to share insights and work towards solutions regarding substance abuse disorder in their community. This model inspired the format for the workforce development forum. 

“With a deliberative forum, the attendees could get the conversation started and encourage others to contribute,” commented Ms. Strickland. One way community members were able to contribute beforehand was by filling out a survey tailored to their area of expertise and collecting all valuable insights and concerns related to employment. These responses were studied by the facilitating team and used to personalize the forum to best reflect the participants. 

Another important aspect of a successful deliberation is a moderator to guide the discussion. Through a preexisting partnership with East Alabama Works, the team selected Josh Laney, Executive Director of Alabama Office of Apprenticeship, as the moderator. “Josh is a great facilitator,” said Robin Angelo, President of the Sylacauga Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, “He was prepared with the survey responses, could keep the flow of conversation moving forward, and could gather opinions representative of all the groups in attendance.”

On April 29, “Collaboration in Action: Sylacauga Workforce Development Forum” took place at the B.B. Comer Memorial Library. Approximately fifty community members from Talladega County arrived at the socially-distanced forum in the spacious library auditorium. SAFE Executive Director Margaret Morton opened the forum by saying, “Workforce development is the approach to enhance economic and industrial prosperity by focusing on people.”

Upon arrival, participants received color-coded cards to identify which professional category they belonged to: providers, consumers, and connectors. During a community needs assessment section, comments were captured by notetakers on notepads color-matched to the speaker’s category. This method allowed all the attendees to see what was said throughout the forum, and helped the facilitators refer back to crucial insights when crafting a final report.

Another way the forum sought collaborative discussion was through a “turn and talk” method. Mr. Laney offered a prompt for the participants to discuss with those seated around them; this method not only collected unique perspectives and advice but also established connections among the attendees. A piece of advice Mr. Laney offered during the forum was to “build bridges over challenges” in order to solve community-specific issues, as well as “collaborating with organizations, colleges and universities, and community members to empower every aspect of the community to serve itself.” While the main objective of the forum was workforce development for the Sylacauga region, the format of deliberative discussion can unite communities to take on any challenge. 

Collecting all the responses and information from the forum, SAFE and the Chamber of Commerce compiled a comprehensive report and sent it out to all the forum participants. “We did not want to lose any engagement from those who attended the forum, and this report allowed us to demonstrate our ongoing commitment to follow through and move forward as a whole,” said Ms. Strickland. Already community leaders are establishing connections with one another as a result of Collaboration in Action. The next step for the Network is to continue supporting existing programs while seeking opportunities to connect others across the region to better the community.

For other local organizations seeking a similar level of community engagement, the Greater Sylacauga Resiliency Network emphasizes the importance of listening to all voices of the community. “Rather than assuming what needs to be done, go to the people,” advises Gen. Holmes, “Go find out what people think, prioritize those common issues, and learn from other towns or organizations who have tackled a similar problem, then follow their lead for what your community needs.”

There is a natural response to seek an outside expert and rush towards a solution, however the Network suggests that true and lasting change takes time and all hands on deck. Gen. Holmes continued, “You need to make sure you are solving a problem that the community also sees as a problem.” Dr. David Mathews highlights the importance of building on what already grows for a flourishing community. “If we can share what works for us so another small, rural community can benefit, that will only help our community, our state, and our region. It is about sharing what works for the good of all.” 

Finally, Ms. Robin Angelo echoed these sentiments by stating, “We want what we do here in Sylacauga to have a ripple effect throughout the nation, and thereby encourage other communities to pursue their own success.”

View the complete Workforce Community Forum Report here. Learn more about the ongoing work in Sylacauga by keeping up with both the Sylacauga Chamber of Commerce and the SAFE Family Services Center. For more information on creating and leading deliberative community forums, connect with the David Mathews Center for Civic Life.