The Only Constant in Henry Ford’s “Community Leadership” Program Is Change

The Community Leadership Program at Henry Ford College may already be in its fourth year, but its curriculum is far from set in stone—and Professor Robert Yahrmatter, who leads the program, plans to keep it that way. The core of the program, he says, is the Introduction to Community Leadership course. “We teach the fundamentals of community leadership,” Professor Yahrmatter said. “We sharpen and enhance leadership skills, and then look for ways to put it all into action.”

Putting leadership skills into action, however, requires some pretty frequent deviation from the day’s lesson plan. “If you were to ask me to share what my curriculum is in some written way, I’d just say I couldn’t do it,” he said, adding that it changes each year and is dependent on the students he has in class. In interviews with professor Yahrmatter and three of his current students, it’s clear that this emphasis on flexibility has contributed to important moments of experiential learning, skill development, and team building—and is part of the secret sauce of what makes the Community Leadership model at Henry Ford a success.

“One of the best ways to learn is to go out and do”  -Professor Yahrmatter

Henry Ford College offers two pathways towards gaining community change credentials. The first builds towards an Associate Degree in Community Leadership, with an opportunity to transfer to a four-year college. The second is a Certificate in Community Leadership that can be earned as a stand-alone credential, or can be part of another associate degree program. “Of course, both pathways have certain requirements,” Professor Yahrmatter said. “But so much of the substance is dependent on what the students are interested in.”

For instance, this past semester, during a class discussion on food insecurity, Professor Yahrmatter saw that the issue was resonating deeply with his students. That day’s lesson quickly went out the window as he saw an opportunity for his students to apply some of the conceptual leadership skills they were learning in class to a real situation. “One of the best ways to learn is to go out and do,” Professor Yahrmatter said. “And they did—they had the idea to organize a food drive around Thanksgiving. They organized it, ran it, and turned it into a really great event.”

Several of Professor Yahrmatter’s students mentioned the opportunity to organize the food drive as a particularly impactful experience. “Professor Bob allowed us to discuss our interests and say what should be in our syllabus,” said Staci Lowry, who is in her second semester at Henry Ford, of the experience organizing the food drive. “I’ve never been in a class where a professor was like, ‘what do you want to get out of this?”

Importantly, Professor Yahrmatter didn’t lead the effort, said Dawn Wilson-Clark, another student in the class who is currently in her second semester. Instead, he encouraged the students to take action, and helped problem solve when challenges arose. “Originally, we only planned to make baskets for around 10 families,” Wilson-Clark said. “But more than 20 people signed up.” Rather than turn away hungry families, Professor Yahrmatter spoke to the students about ways to tap into their own networks. After doing so, the group was able to come up with enough food to create baskets for everyone who signed up. “It really inspired us to think bigger, solve problems, and do better,” Wilson-Clark said.

For an upcoming project this semester, Prof. Yahrmatter says several of his students plan to lead delegations of students to Michigan’s state capital to meet with legislators about the concerns facing community college, including issues around food insecurity. Once again, the students will be given the opportunity to take what they’re learning in class and apply it to a real situation—this time at the same table as actual decision makers. “They’re in charge of identifying the issues they want to discuss,” he said. “They’re developing the agendas right now, and have to conduct some pretty extensive research so they’re knowledgeable about what they hope to discuss when they walk through those doors.”

“It became really easy to look at the people in class not as classmates but as part of a family” -Dawn Wilson-Clark

The flexibility that Professor Yahrmatter brings to his program tends to have a profound effect on the students in his course, many of who form an intense bond by the end of the semester. “I used to dread coming to school every day when my alarm would go off at 8am,” said Stacey Johnson, who will graduate with the Associates Degree in Community Leadership this May. “Now, I’m excited. This group of people has become like a family. We reach out to each other for support. It’s incredibly interpersonal, and they’re relationships I’ll have for life.”

“It became really easy to look at the people in class not as classmates but as part of a family,” Staci Lowry agreed. The flexibility for students to lead discussions in class also tends to reveal some deeply personal challenges, she said—as well as create an opportunity for the student to rally around them and provide support. “We’d say, hey, this is what’s going on in my life, what’s going on in yours? We heavily relied on each other for moral support. We keep in touch, and will stay in touch after the semester ends.”

“There’s so much happening in our class that’s amazing,” Dawn Wilson-Clark said, for her part. “One of our classmates has a mother in a nursing home, and I’ve experienced that. We’re there for each other as we’re struggling through all sorts of things in our personal lives. We are all leaders in our communities, but we’re also wounded healers. It’s been a blessing to me.”

“These credentials I’m earning are necessary for me to be taken seriously and do what I want in the world” -Staci Lowry

Students in the Community Leadership program at Henry Ford cited a wide variety of goals for their future—and the ways they hope to apply what they’ve learned in the Community Leadership Program are just as varied.

Stacey Johnson, who is 19 years old, says she is still unsure what she hopes to do with her degree once she graduates, exactly, but does know that she feels better prepared for the challenge thanks to her coursework. “I think the most important thing I’ve learned is how to work with different communities that aren’t like my own,” she said. “I’ll be the first person in my family to graduate, so much of this is still really new to me.” Whatever she chooses to do in her future, she says she now feels prepared to bring the “ethics, professionalism, and appreciation of cultural differences” she’s learned in class with her into the future.

Dawn Wilson-Clark, who is 47, already had extensive experience in community change work prior to entering the program at Henry Ford. But she, too, says she’s gained skills and experiences she plans to apply to her current profession as a community organizer. She singled out the guest speakers who spoke to her classes, in particular, as a particularly important resource. “One of the guest speakers, Kathy McDonald, talked about different leadership styles and the type of leaders that exist,” she said. “At my job, I have three different teams I work with, all with three very different personalities. She helped me get a better understanding of why people do what they do in meetings or in their actions—it helped me understand my people more.”

Staci Lowry, who is turning 35 this year, also already had extensive experience in the non-profit sector prior to enrolling in the Community Leadership Program at Henry Ford, but says the credentials she will gain upon graduation will be invaluable as she hopes to continue advancing in her career in community change. “I was already doing community work,” she said, who has worked and volunteered for a variety of non-profits focused on children and education. But, she says, she’s found it difficult to advance, despite her experience. “I think it’s because I didn’t have the degree,” she said. “These credentials I’m earning are necessary for me to be taken seriously and do what I want in the world.”

“We need to blow the pathways wide open for our students,” -Professor Robert Yahrmatter

Professor Yahrmatter’s take on the CLP curricula has been influenced, he says, by his background in the private sector. “I’m not a pure academic,” he says, “so my program isn’t based on a pure community organizer model.” He hopes his background allows him to bring a unique perspective to his curriculum. “I’ve been doing this for three years now,” he said. “I’d love to see it grow and have a couple of ideas for ways to improve the program.”

Continually evaluating and adjusting his curriculum where necessary, he says, will be key for the Community Leadership Program’s long-term survival. One area he hopes to make changes in the coming years relates to the internship component of his program—an element of all CLP programs as a way to ensure students get out of the classroom and into the field. “The experience is great, but when I sign someone up for a three credit internship, that’s basically 50 hours of contact time,” he said. Finding placements for his students for that few of hours, he says, is an extreme challenge. “I’m also not sure it does the students a benefit to pay anywhere from $600 to $800 when you’re barely getting your feet wet with 50 contact hours.”

Professor Yahrmatter hopes to reimagine the internship component of his program by eliminating the “for credit” model in favor of paid jobs. Many of his students, he says, are in need of work. “So I want to hunt for paid internships,” he explained. “This will be a no credit model that can get people more hours of experience, hopefully, and also allow them to make a few bucks.” He noted as an example a student he was able to get placed in the office of a state representative. “She’s done way more than the requisite number of hours there,” he said. “But she could also get a permanent job out of it.”

An additional change Professor Yahrmatter is considering—rolling the Community Leadership Program into Henry Ford’s broader Liberal Arts degree—will help, he believes, attract more students to community change studies. “Basically, it would be a liberal arts degree with a concentration in community leadership,” he said. An Associates Degree in Liberal Arts, he explained, is more flexible and can be parlayed into many different sectors, including non-profits, government, and political science. “We need to blow the pathways wide open for these students; I think we’ll grow our numbers this way.”

Whatever the future holds for the Community Leadership Program at Henry Ford, one thing is certain—don’t expect it to look the same one year to the next.