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MDC Helps Danville, Va., Nurture a New Generation of Leaders

MDC Helps Danville, Va., Nurture a New Generation of Leaders

When you work in the field of economic and community development, you can probably remember the first time when the myth of Sisyphus rang true. For me, it was drafting yet another series of recommendations in a shiny glossy report for yet another struggling community in the rural United States. Recommendations that I was completely as confident would help that community as I was discomforted with the recognition that they would end taking up space on some bureaucrat’s bookshelf, unopened until the next time another outside consultant was hired to come back and give it one more shot. 

So why do I keep at it? Because every once in a while you find a community like Danville, Va. Danville is a community that sits in the middle of the border between Virginia and North Carolina about an hour drive northwest of MDC’s headquarters in Durham. What was once one of the wealthiest small towns in the South fell on hard times when the textile mills that drove the economy (and, frankly, contributed to fault lines around race and class) saw their doors closed and their jobs shipped overseas. Despite these hard times, Danville also has some key characteristics that make it a place where the future holds promise.

The first is location. The city, in addition to being in driving distance of the Research Triangle, is an even shorter drive to the Piedmont Triad metropolitan area, anchored by Greensboro, N.C. This means there are jobs for Danville residents to commute to, and businesses in the Triad can turn to suppliers in Danville to fuel their enterprises. The location also includes a beautiful setting in the Piedmont hills with the Dan River rolling through the center of town.

The second is the presence of not only the will to enact effective change but the philanthropic resources to do so. The Danville Regional Foundation, a foundation formed when the local hospital became a for-profit institution, is a $179 million entity providing support on issues ranging from downtown revitalization to a new effort, called Middle Border Forward, that aims at nothing less than creating a new economic development vision for Danville and two other counties in Virginia and North Carolina.

Indeed, it is the Middle Border Forward effort that represents the third and most important reason that I am so excited about Danville’s future—there is a commitment among citizens to actively engage in the future. MDC, which has worked in Danville for more than 20 years, has been asked by the foundation to work with the next generation of community leaders, who will set a direction for the next 30 years of both the Middle Border Forward Initiative and the region as a whole. MDC will offer a diverse group of individuals under the age of 50 training on effective community development practice, information about their community’s economic status, and practical experience in enacting effective community change. The emphasis on learning by doing will take the form of teams of participants pursuing small-scale projects in the community during the course of their training. These might be small-scale development efforts such as starting a community garden or pursuing a more effective community engagement strategy to hear the voices of individuals and families who may not have felt they had a voice in their region’s future. At the end of the 18-month process, the goal is for the participants—who we are calling Middle Border Fellows—to have both the knowledge and the will to remain committed to helping the region meet its challenges and realize its impressive potential.

Now, like all community and economic development efforts, we don’t know exactly what will happen until the process is complete. And even then it can be years until the full impact of an effort can be measured.  But working in a community, one in which MDC has a long commitment and one that has the resources, both in financial and human capital, to make it happen is a nice change for me, personally. I look forward to pushing that rock up the hill and with the help of my friends in Danville hoping that this time, we’ll reach the top—and stay there.

To learn more about MDC’s work in Danville, read our new report, "The Only Way Out is Up: How MDC helped Danville, Va., chart a new vision for its future.”