Leadership Chattanooga: Legos and Teamwork—Working Together to Help Hamilton County Students

Sybil Topel and the Leadership Class of 2016

If you’ve ever played with Legos and talked with Diane Parks in the same day, you might be a Leadership Chattanooga alum. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you could be a good candidate for either Leadership Chattanooga or Insight Chattanooga.

When my husband and I moved to Chattanooga in 2014, Diane Parks, Director of Leadership and Community Development at the Chattanooga Chamber, told us both we needed to participate in Insight Chattanooga, a 2-day program offered twice a year that more than lives up to its stellar reputation. We met Bruce Hartman, the new Chattanooga Times Free Press president, watched Rodney Van Valkenburg waltz into the room and throw down a wicked live rendition of the world-famous song “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” and enjoyed an inspiring overview of what our area businesses, governments, and arts and culture organizations offer. We quickly saw the value that a 10-month program would bring.

Since its inception in 1984, more than 1,200 people have graduated from the 10-month Leadership Chattanooga program.

This year’s class began last August with a two-day retreat that included a team-building exercise to construct an intricate Lego home – an activity that reminded us to listen first, share information and work together toward a common goal.

Hilarity ensued – and the victorious team (alas, not mine, but the wounds continue to heal) graciously offered to help the rest of us when they finished theirs first. More importantly, these lessons came into play over the next 10 months as our five small teams worked closely with Hamilton County teachers and students to complete a variety of teacher-selected projects. Our class of 40 impacted a total of 1,042 students and 25 schools through these five projects.

“Projects that the Class of 2016 completed were designed to help students learn more, play more and connect with their communities,” Parks says. “It’s about the process and no matter how challenging the projects seem at the beginning, I’m always impressed with the results. Teachers and schools always appreciate the interaction and leadership of our local business and civic leaders.”

Keep an eye on to learn more about the program and to see who will become members of the 2017 Leadership Class. Nominations will be accepted in early spring 2017 for the Class of 2018.

“We seek to make each class representative of our community,” Parks says. “Inclusive and diverse, including ages, geography and occupation, as well as ethnic and gender inclusion.” 

Leadership Chattanooga Class of 2016 Projects for Hamilton County Schools

Red Bank Elementary Outdoor Learning Environment

The Red Bank Elementary School team worked with school faculty to create an outdoor learning environment. With teacher input, the team designed an outdoor classroom that includes a privacy fence, carefully designed to eliminate distractions from the nearby playground while still offering a view of Signal Mountain. The team raised existing garden beds and added a butterfly garden. EPB donated large wooden spools used when laying fiber-optic cable, which were transformed into tables that pair nicely with patio umbrellas for shade on hot days. Teachers plan to add a whiteboard, and then the outdoor class will be ready to inspire students.

  • Suzy Anthony, Lighthouse CFO Group
  • Katie Black, Erlanger Health System
  • Michael McGowan, River Street Architecture
  • Chuck Flynn, Berke, Berke & Berke
  • Carol Johnson. Chattanooga Housing Authority
  • Herb Pettit, SunTrust Bank
  • Eliza DeLaughter, CIGNA Healthcare
  • John Ying, Delegator


WeAre#Next, a partnership with the Public Education Foundation’s Teacherpreneur program, provided 34 Hamilton County seventh graders a ‘big picture’ look at the arts in our community.  At the April symposium, leaders from the Benwood Foundation and The Enterprise Center gave an overview. Beginning at Liberty Tower, students enjoyed a bird’s eye view of the city, then toured the Edney Innovation Center and Martin Luther King Blvd., where they learned more about the history of “the Big Nine.” Smaller groups toured one additional community apiece – North Chattanooga, the Southside, Highland Park and Glass Street. Their day culminated in a hands-on art project led by artist Josiah Golson. The team plans to establish  WeAre#Next as an annual program.

  • April Cox, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
  • Karen Estes, Tennessee Aquarium
  • Ken Goldsmith, Chattanooga State Community College
  • Tenesha Irvin, McKibbon Hospitality
  • Jeremy Jenkins, Regions Bank
  • Jessica McCosh, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union
  • Kevin Rose, Henderson Hutcherson & McCullough, PLLC
  • Kirby Yost, Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, PC

100 (100s)

This team mentored student community leaders with the goal of multiplying impact, leading teams of 10 through a process to identify problems, implement creative solutions and evaluate outcomes. Participants represented schools ranging from Orchard Knob to Baylor. The team mentored the group in planning projects and events, creating partnership networks and identifying a blueprint for planning future projects. The main project, a Cultural Christmas Celebration, involved partnering with La Paz to host a holiday cultural event. Students and families from across the city gathered to share cultural holiday foods potluck style and activities included games to encourage mingling and tree decorating. La Paz plans to make it an ongoing event.

  • Carmen Carson, FAVORDD
  • Laura Dutton, Tennessee Valley Authority
  • Katie Hanners, Mountain Education Foundation
  • Darian Paris, Paris Construction Company, LLC
  • Christian Patiño, La Paz Chattanooga
  • Travis Randolph, Southern Champion Tray, LP
  • Anjelika Riano, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Albert Whiting, Baylor School

The Rivermont School Fan Club

The Rivermont School Fan Club project, funded through Causeway, focuses on broadening community involvement for Rivermont Elementary School through two projects. The first, an October 2015 work day, enhanced the school’s landscape and butterfly garden. The team met faculty and staff and worked alongside students and local residents. Completed in March this year, the second project helped students interested in technology and media. The team inventoried the school’s existing media resources and developed a 3-hour training session for the school’s Audio Visual Club based on resources, teaching students basic video production principles like storyboarding, framing, editing and producing content with an audience in mind.

  • Mendy Brooks
  • Tamarah Daniel, Manpower
  • April Holland, Miller & Martin PLLC
  • Erica Jolly, Tennessee Valley Authority
  • Robert Parks, T.U. Parks Construction Company
  • Rex Rutledge, Cohutta Banking Company
  • Charlie Steinhice, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee
  • Shaun Townley, WTCI-TV (PBS)


Unwritten history. The stories we don’t know about because we didn’t ask. Students of Brainerd High School teacher Riley Bogema now know more about the area’s history than ever before – by videotaping their interviews with community leaders. Designed to give students a new perspective and sense of place, working on the project also gave them a deeper sense of ownership in their own community. The team contacted community leaders for students, scheduling 14 interviews. Team members assisted with interviews, and editing and promoted the ‘Premiere’ event unveiling the personal histories to the greater community. Students sought to include Brainerd graduates, several of whom witnessed turbulent events during Brainerd’s integration in the 1960s. Said one student, “We usually learn about racism in school as a state standard, but to actually interview an African American who witnessed it all was an amazing experience.” Interviews will also be available online. The following leaders shared their personal histories:

  • Carol Berz, City Council
  • Pete Cooper, McKenzie Charitable Foundation, Inc.
  • Moses Freeman, City Council
  • Tom Griscom, Communication Consultant and Brainerd graduate
  • Eddie Holmes, Chattanooga Housing Authority
  • Lurone Jennings, Department of Youth and Family Development
  • Reuben Lawrence, retired from Beasley Distributing/Anheuser-Busch
  • Spencer McCallie, former Headmaster, McCallie School
  • Linda Mines, Chairman of the History and Social Sciences Department, GPS
  • Diane Parks, Director, Leadership Chattanooga and Brainerd graduate
  • Tommy Pruitt, Chattanooga Community Kitchen
  • Chris Ramsey, Healthcare Professional and Brainerd graduate
  • Dot Saunders, Family Promise of Greater Chattanooga
  • Edna Varner, Public Education Foundation
  • Brad Bingham, Unum
  • Mary Danielson, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee
  • Zena Hanner-Buckley, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • John Kerns, Preferred Care at Home of Chattanooga
  • Thomas Mosley, FSGBank
  • Sybil Topel, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce
  • Caroline Walker, FSGBank
  • Harry White, Volkswagen Chattanooga

Leadership Chattanooga prepares promising local professionals for prominent business, social and political roles through a 10-month leadership development program. The program’s monthly meetings and experiential learning opportunities serve as comprehensive leadership training for about 40 participants each year. Find out more at

 “The most important thing I experienced in Leadership Chattanooga was meeting new friends from different walks of life. For me, the biggest ‘aha moment’ was learning about the arts community and its impact in our city. I was inspired to become more informed in the arts and other activities in our city. I learned that it takes all type of companies and disciplines to make a city successful. I also feel the need to help bridge the gap between the different cultures and lifestyles in our community.”

Zena Hanner-Buckley, Hamilton County Department of Education

“I worked in New York City for years. It's really difficult for individuals to make a difference there. It's not like that in Chattanooga. If you have a desire to make a positive impact and you understand how important relationships are to affecting change, you can do incredible things. We're more connected than we realize, and Leadership Chattanooga helped me understand that.”

Shaun Townley, WTCI

 “Leadership Chattanooga opened my eyes – or reminded me to keep my eyes open to – lifestyles and realities in our city that are easy to miss or ignore in our day to day business experiences in the city, such as the poverty, and the current crime problems and the city's strategies for addressing them. After needing to rely on public transportation for only a few hours, I learned that it is not a very reliable means of arriving somewhere on time, which is of course a huge problem for someone relying on that to get to work, or to drop off and pick up kids from school, or both. This forced us to recognize a grave reality, which is that there are numerous logistical obstacles totally beyond one's control, which can make it very difficult for someone in a lower socio-economic position, even if that person is doing everything he/she can to succeed and work hard.”

Kirby Yost, Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, P.C.

 “I had no idea how deep the friendships and business connections I would make through Leadership Chattanooga would be.  I have run into either a classmate, facilitator, or someone whom I have met through Leadership Chattanooga at every restaurant, or social function that I have been to in the last six months.  It’s truly remarkable. My biggest aha moment occurred during my police ride along.  I certainly did not realize how important problem solving and communication skills were for the police.  The police officer I shadowed was able to diffuse several potentially dangerous situations by simply rationalizing with the individuals who were involved.”

 Michael McGowan, River Street Architecture, LLC

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