The Appalachian Regional Commission recently christened a new class of leaders whose focus is strengthening the Appalachian communities in which they live and work.

The commission announced that 38 fellows recently graduated from the Appalachian Leadership Institute, a leadership and economic development program the ARC sponsors. Members of the Class of 2021, along with friends and family, attended a July 15 ceremony, with 24 taking part in-person in Washington, D.C. and the remaining 14 participating virtually.

"We congratulate the 2021 class of Appalachian Leadership Institute Fellows," ARC Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin said in a press release. "In addition to network-building, the fellows have been hard at work over the last nine months building skills needed to help their communities thrive.

"The program offers a unique opportunity to learn first-hand from those who have provided leadership to help bolster the economic vitality of their communities. I can't wait to see the amazing things these leaders accomplish."

"You navigated this tumultuous year with grace and determination," Manchin told participants. "You are the driving force of change in your communities… I am honored to congratulate you today on your achievement."

Manchin presented certificates to the fellows on July 15, the first face-to-face meeting of the cohort during the run of the program.

Included in the graduating class was Violet Burdette, a development specialist for MountainHeart Community Services, Inc., a Community Action Agency which provides a variety of services targeting low-income individuals, families, communities and businesses throughout West Virginia. Burdette, who has been with MountainHeart for nearly 12 years, works in the Princeton office but serves all counties in the scope of the agency's purview. The agency also offers consulting services to organizations throughout the state, said Burdette.

"The Appalachian Leadership Institute brought together individuals from the 13-state Appalachian region," Burdette explained. "It was an opportunity to increase leadership and development skills, share information with others and learn from a wide variety of resources. There was an established curriculum with opportunities to network with other participants and program leaders.

"The program included travel to states within the region to visit towns and facilities, but Covid-19 prevented that this past year. The meetings were held virtually and were a combination of instruction, interaction, hands-on activities, projects and leadership development events. Books were provided prior to each of the meetings that supported the learning sessions.

"I was honored to be selected as one of three West Virginians to serve for the 2020-21 year."

Rachel Dyer, the owner and president of This Place, a business services and consulting company in Fairmont, and Ron Scott Jr., a program director of cultural diversity and community outreach in the Ohio Valley who has been involved in addiction counseling and other areas of outreach over the years, were the other two ALI fellows from West Virginia.

"This was a tremendous learning and growth opportunity," said Burdette, who has an undergraduate degree in social work and a master's degree in management. "I would highly recommend it.

"The fellows are now alumni and will be involved in ongoing events. The synergy of this program will help support and lead Appalachia."

The group including Burdette is the second class of the ALI program. The third class will begin meeting in October 2021, she said.

In the nine months leading up to graduation, fellows participated in six virtual sessions, all of which included skill-building seminars with regional experts, peer-to-peer learning and case study analysis. Aspects of the curriculum were designed to equip them with the knowledge and network needed to create positive change in their communities.

ALI fellows participate in an extensive training curriculum developed by the ARC in partnership with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; The Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy; Tuskegee University; and Collective Impact.

"The Appalachian Leadership Institute gives local leaders the tools to make their communities stronger and more resilient," said ARC states' co-chair, Gov. Ralph Northam. "Congratulations to the 38 graduating fellows from the Appalachian Leadership Institute. The skills these fellows have built over the past nine months will spur positive growth throughout the Appalachian region.

"We know that local solutions are the best way to address the unique challenges facing Appalachia, and that remains true as we work together to recover from the pandemic and its impact on our communities."

Fellows will continue serving their communities through civil service, finance, health care, recovery, tourism and a variety of other public and private sectors. Also, they are now part of the ALI alumni network, which will allow them to continue connecting with, and learning from, other leaders across Appalachia.

Phil Cooper, a community recovery leader, ARC INSPIRE partner, and the institute's class speaker, discussed the importance of collaboration in overcoming challenges and facing substance use disorder recovery in Appalachia head-on. "No community survives without its people ...," he said. "We're talking about human infrastructure. We have to normalize talking about recovery and recovery services. We have to look at the people who need help the most because we’re only as strong as our weakest link. In order for Appalachia to stay strong, we have to stick to our shared values."

The Appalachian Regional Commission is an economic development agency of the federal government and 13 state governments focusing on 420 counties across the Appalachian region. ARC's mission is to innovate, partner and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia to help the region achieve socioeconomic parity with the nation.

For more about the ALI Class of 2021, visit

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