The Art of Leadership: Learning from the Voices of Children

November 11, 2019

Deke Copenhaver

Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
Deke Copenhave with students from Evans Elementary School in Columbia County.
Deke Copenhave with students from Evans Elementary School in Columbia County.

The other day I had the opportunity to speak for a group of children participating in the Horizons program for gifted educational students at Evans Elementary School in Columbia County. It has always been a real passion of mine to speak to kids for the simple fact that in the end, I learn as much from them as they do from me. I’ve always been a believer in cross generational learning and I believe some of the students’ observations and perspectives are definitely worth sharing.

Through the invitation of my friend, Taryn Josey, who’s a teacher in the program, I was asked to address the group comprised of 4th and 5th graders. My topics were leadership and collaboratively overcoming issues facing our community. The class is currently focused on animal welfare and habitat protection in Columbia County, which happens to be one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. Pretty big picture issues for a group of elementary schoolers to deal with!  After my remarks on leadership and how we all have to work together as a team to overcome issues facing our communities, the question and answer session showed me that they are up to the task.

One of the things that struck me at the beginning of the Q&A was how passionate these children are in making a difference in the world around them and just how much they’re paying attention. One of the first questions I had to field was from a little boy on what to do about animals displaced by their habitat being destroyed by overdevelopment. I don’t know about you, but this wasn’t the type of thing which concerned me when I was eight years old. I pointed out that this was a concern as animals displaced from their habitats and their food sources can become a very real problem to deal with in communities nationwide. Fortunately, I spent four years running both a land trust and the Greenspace Program in Augusta, so their topics of concern played to a passion for land conservation I’d developed many years earlier. My past profession allowed me to educate him on how using conservation easements to protect the habitat ahead of time can help ensure that the animals won’t be displaced in the first place.

Regarding overdevelopment, I was asked by one little girl why developers were allowed to continue building new developments when the county had a large number of neighborhoods with empty houses in them. She added to her question by asking why developers could clear cut every tree in a new neighborhood without planting new ones. I pointed out to her the unfortunate reality that clear cutting trees is a cheaper and faster way to bring homes to market so that the development can begin to recoup the developers investment in a shorter period of time. This led to a discussion on tree ordinances, smart growth and the role local governments play in ensuring good development practices. Believe it or not, I never lost them once as we ran through topics I’ve often found adults having a hard time digesting.

As we went deeper into the topic of habitat protection, I shared with the students that when I became Executive Director of the Central Savannah River Land Trust in 2001, land conservation was a very new concept to our community. However, 18 years later the Land Trust is now a thriving organization which has permanently protected thousands of acres of land while working with local developers to help develop conservation subdivisions. I then made the point that something I knew nothing about when I was their age is obviously a passion of theirs, which gives me great hope for the future knowing that one day they will be the adults leading our community.

Much of the ensuing conversation revolved around local government and what it could do to be more proactive with regards to ensuring sustainable development. During this part of the discussion, one girl asked me why local leaders won’t listen to kids and was this because “we’re just a bunch of kids and we don’t vote?” I was reminded of being asked by people while I was in office why I spoke in so many schools because “kids don’t vote.” I told this story to the students and shared with them that on a regular basis I now have adults who were students in schools where I spoke share with me the impact that my taking the time to speak in their school had on them. I then pointed out that if leaders weren’t listening to them they should be as I got more out of it than they could ever imagine. As three girls escorted me out the one girl who had asked the question about adults not listening proudly held up two sheets of paper and said “I took one and a half pages of notes!” I let her know that I was glad she was listening to me and that I was also listening to her as well.

As local elected officials and leaders throughout our state, I would encourage each of us to take the time to talk to and to really listen to children in our communities. They’re smart, they’re aware and they have real concerns for, and insights into, the places they and their families call home. By the time I left that classroom I was both amazed and inspired by my time spent with a group of students who at that point I’d never met and who now I will never forget. 

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