WestStar marks two decades of developing region's leaders
Posted: Monday, March 23, 2009 10:31 am
The Messenger 03.23.09
In a 20-year history, the WestStar leadership program at the University of Tennessee at Martin has spurred many of its 500-plus graduates to take responsibility for the growth and development of their state, communities and counties.
Graduates have gained elected office, been driving forces in countless local and regional initiatives and have taken volunteerism to new heights.
Still others have made it a priority to see that the networks and collaborations formed by class members during the program thrive and that WestStar continues to prepare participants to assume future leadership roles.
WestStar, serving 21 counties of West Tennessee, is the state’s oldest and largest regional leadership program.
“WestStar was a dream that a regional approach to leadership development would help identify and inspire civic-minded people to become more involved in the economic and social growth of the entire region,” said Dr. Bob Smith, WestStar co-founder, who also helped create numerous individual community leadership programs.
Smith, now president of Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and still a WestStar supporter, added that problems and opportunities do not know political boundaries. The vision was that “a new generation of leaders would see a compelling agenda for positive change through collaboration and regional thinking than competing within small fiefdoms.”
Dr. Nick Dunagan, UT Martin chancellor emeritus, also a co-founder, served as executive director for six years. David Belote is the current executive director, with Charley Deal serving as the assistant director. Virginia Grimes has served as WestStar coordinator for 19 years, organizing seminars, conferences and other WestStar projects and programs.
“WestStar is an important part of UT Martin’s economic development and outreach missions,” Dunagan said. “What could be more valuable than helping sharpen the leadership skills of the region’s business and governmental leaders?”
“I’ve seen the WestStar experience inspire individuals to take on significant leadership roles,” Grimes said. “They see the importance of being involved and making a difference in local communities and in the region.”
WestStar was created in 1989 at UT Martin to serve the multi-county area by providing leadership development and training for selected participants. Class members typically have a diverse range of professions and volunteer leadership experiences. There are chamber of commerce and economic development professionals, bankers, government personnel, educators and business executives. What they have in common is a strong devotion to their civic responsibility.
The program consists of seven specially-designed seminar programs addressing contemporary issues important to the future of West Tennessee. Each seminar takes place over a two-day period January through May in various locations throughout Middle and West Tennessee. Topics vary, year to year, depending on changing events in the region.
Focusing on the challenges and potentials in West Tennessee, WestStar stresses the importance of regional and civic responsibility for progress and prosperity. From sessions about economic development and government to education and tourism, presenters are some of the most knowledgeable people in their fields.
“TACL (Tennessee Association of Community Leadership), a volunteer-driven association created to assist and foster the development of leadership programs across the state, turns to WestStar frequently in the sharing of ideas, programs and insights, as the premier regional leadership program,” said Judy Renshaw, TACL historian and director of Leadership Jackson. “WestStar is an integral part of the development of leadership not only in West Tennessee, but across the state. We have every reason to be proud of that heritage of developing future leaders for our communities and for Tennessee.”
Recognizing the benefits of WestStar, sponsors assist with the development program each year. Sponsors include First Bank, First State Bank, Haywood County/City of Brownsville, Gibson County Utility District, Tennessee Valley Authority, The TENNERGY Corp., TLM Associates Inc., USDA Rural Development, West Tennessee Healthcare and West Tennessee Industrial Association.
Seeking to make changes via government, some WestStar graduates have sought and been elected to local and state public offices after completing the program.
WestStar not only develops class members each year, but also has offered a number of leadership opportunities to the public. Among those are the annual African-American Leadership Conference, the Working Women’s Conference and the Economic Development Conference, in addition to assisting with youth leadership development.
The organization maintains a Web site and speakers bureau and has published and offered online versions of regional festival and dining guides.
Another aspect of WestStar is an alumni base whose goal it is to maintain and expand the network and collaboration of leaders after each class graduates.
“The WestStar program has created a great networking opportunity over the past 20 years and has made West Tennessee a better place to live, work, play and raise a family,” said Dennis Henderson, president of TLM Associates Inc. in Jackson, a member of the 2001 class, Board of Trustees member and current WestStar Alumni Council president. “The old saying ‘two heads are better than one’ can be rewritten to say ‘over 550 WestStar alumni are better than one,’ meaning those alumni are a ‘community’ of individuals making a difference. The continuation of WestStar is critical to the leadership development in West Tennessee.”
University of Tennessee at Martin, WestStar leadership program