Since 2007, more than 150 city and county residents have participated in a city program called the Neighborhood Leadership Initiative, which is a series of workshops and speakers designed to promote citizen involvement in the community.

NLI educates classes of 25-30 participants in community engagement, collaboration and effective communication, and offers an introduction to the city’s boards and commissions.

“It’s a community leadership development program,” said city neighborhood planner Ebony Walden, who organizes the institute. “If you’re interested in housing, for example, you’ll meet the people involved in city housing and who to contact if you want to bring an issue forward.”

While some participants join NLI because of a specific issue, many join out of general interest as well.

City residents Dave Redding and Jean Zearleu both joined because they wanted to know more about how their city worked.

“I wanted to learn more about what’s going on in the area,” Redding said, “and how to better interact with the government and other nonprofits in town.”

“I moved to Charlottesville four years ago and didn’t know much about the city,” Zearleu added, “so I was curious to know about how the city government works.”

As part of the institute, participants are challenged to complete a project to be presented formally to city leaders and some of these projects have proven to be successful community events.

This year’s Bike, Walk, Play JPA was a feasibility study proposed during the 2012 NLI.

“By the time we got to [presenting the study], there was a lot of positive energy around the event,” said Susan Elliott, a Fry’s Spring resident and one of the event’s organizers.

“Bike, Walk, Play JPA wouldn’t have happened without the NLI,” Elliott added. “It gave us the platform to begin thinking about the project, but also the motivation to complete it.”

Similarly, the 2012 Cville Vegetarian Festival had success as a result of Dave Redding’s NLI contacts.

“It looked like the Cville Vegetarian Festival wasn’t going to happen this year,” Redding said, “but because of my experience with NLI, I knew where to go and who to follow up with in the government and the community.”

After completing the institute, participants are more knowledgeable about their communities, and some go on to involve themselves in other civic initiatives, Walden said.

“NLI alumni become more involved and informed citizens because they learn how to be agents of effective change,” Walden said.

Susan Elliott is now more actively involved with the Fry’s Spring neighborhood association.

Jean Zearleu, whose project focused on foster care in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area, applied and was appointed to the city’s Social Services Advisory Board.

Other participants have taken their experience straight into City Council Chambers.

“NLI informed my decision to run for city council,” said City Councilor Dede Smith, a 2010 NLI alumnus. “It made me feel more comfortable to run.”

NLI is currently accepting applications for 2013. Applications will be accepted from Oct. 1 to Dec. 15, 2012. The program is open to both city and county residents of all ages and meets twice a month for four months each year. For more information, email or call Ebony Walden at or 970-3182.