In a joint press conference at the University of Lynchburg on Wednesday morning, University and city officials announced an initiative that has been in the works for most of President Dr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar’s one-year tenure: Lynchburg Tomorrow.
The collaborative project brings together organizations, nonprofits, agencies, schools, government, faith-based institutions, business and industry, and citizens “to promote a culture that will lead to creating a thriving city.”
Housed at the University, Lynchburg Tomorrow is led by Morrison-Shetlar with support from a community-based steering committee that includes city and University leaders. Among them are:
- Dr. Roger Jones, co-director of the Center for Education and Leadership, associate provost and dean of graduate studies, and director of the Doctor of Education in Leadership Studies program.
- Dr. Owen Cardwell, co-director of the Center for Education and Leadership and Rosel Schewel Distinguished Chair in Education at the University and pastor of Diamond Hill Baptist Church.
- Dr. Ed Polloway, professor emeritus, former vice president for community advancement, former dean of graduate studies, and former dean of the School of Education.
- Treney Tweedy ’97, ’20 MBA, chief operating officer at Virginia University of Lynchburg and former mayor and current at-large council member for the city of Lynchburg.
“We are thrilled to finally announce this vibrant collaboration, which has been in the works for many months,” Morrison-Shetlar said. “Lynchburg Tomorrow will connect areas of need and potential in the city with our campus’s unique resources, such as the leadership and expertise of our faculty, staff, and students. The University of Lynchburg is Lynchburg’s university, and we are here to serve our community.”
Lynchburg Tomorrow will support The Lynchburg Plan — the city’s strategic plan — by directly targeting two areas of need first identified by Centra Health, another local partner: affordable health care and access to healthy food.
The city’s strategic plan for 2020-24 outlines two related priorities: to increase employment opportunities and to “create thriving neighborhoods … [by] allowing the community to design solutions that improve quality of life.”
The latter will require not just collaboration with those neighborhoods, but also a great deal of data gathering and analysis — and that’s one area where the University of Lynchburg comes in. Its existing structure and “reimagining” of resources, according to Lynchburg Tomorrow committee members, make it a perfect candidate for a University-based research center.
In addition to yielding vital data, the center will provide research opportunities for faculty, staff, and students.
“Lynchburg Tomorrow and the University Research Center give us the opportunity to match research needs in the community with University of Lynchburg students and faculty members who wish to work on significant research questions,” said Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Allison Jablonski.
Cardwell, who is closely involved with the research center, noted that the initiative is already seeing two tangible results.
One is a food security evaluation project that involves funding provided by the Greater Lynchburg Community Foundation to five nonprofits: Red Truck Ministries, Meals on Wheels of Greater Lynchburg, Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, Lynchburg Grows, and Lynchburg Daily Bread.
“The evaluations are being conducted by faculty volunteering through our emerging research hub,” Cardwell said.
“The other project,” he added, “is a grassroots leadership development effort in the Diamond Hill and White Rock Hill neighborhoods. We will identify 25 potential and emerging leaders who will participate in leadership development training.”
As laid out in the city’s strategic plan, that training will not be prescriptive — rather, it will be tailored to what each neighborhood identifies as a unique need.
Cardwell is working with a group that includes Cindy Ferguson, who directs the University’s Center for Community Engagement, Dr. Crystal Edwards, superintendent for Lynchburg City Schools, and Ryan Zuidema, chief of police for the city of Lynchburg, to identify potential leaders and find out how to best empower them to lead their communities.
Using a process called asset mapping, the group picked Diamond Hill and White Rock Hill as the pilot geographical areas. Others will soon follow.
Jones, who has spent decades working at the University and with community organizations, explained that the city’s strategic plan relies on “building and furthering relationships with anchor institutions in the city,” and that’s what makes the University of Lynchburg an ideal partner.
“Lynchburg is one of those anchor institutions that is ready to step up and help make a difference,” Jones said. “We hope many other institutions will join us.”
Bill Bodine ’78 ’89 MAd, president of the Greater Lynchburg Community Foundation, the organization funding Lynchburg Tomorrow’s food security initiative, agreed.
“The foundation is proud to be involved with Lynchburg Tomorrow,” he said. “We see it as an opportunity to provide a bridge between the resources available through the University and local nonprofits working hard to make this area an even better place to live and work.”
Improving access to healthy food “is just one example of the benefits Lynchburg Tomorrow could provide,” Bodine said, adding that another is the untapped potential of getting faculty, staff, and students involved through the research center, so they can help assess how resources are distributed. “I am not aware of this type of thing ever having been done here.”
And it’s more than research and data. Recently, Lynchburg Tomorrow received 40,000 pounds of canned goods and bulk food donated by the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The food will be distributed by area nonprofits.
Ultimately, Lynchburg Tomorrow is the result of countless conversations between Morrison-Shetlar, other campus leaders, and city groups to assess how the University might best serve its community.
Those conversations led to the development of three pillars that have guided Morrison-Shetlar’s vision at the University — diversity, equity, and inclusion; leadership development; and innovation and collaboration — and the development of three task forces associated with each pillar.
Members of all three task forces are involved in various aspects of Lynchburg Tomorrow. One of them is Dr. Jeremy M. Welsh, dean of the School of PA Medicine and senior associate dean of the College of Health Sciences, who leads the Task Force on Innovation and Collaboration. Also a member of the University’s COVID-19 Task Force and Gov. Ralph Northam’s task force on primary care, Welsh is heavily involved in Lynchburg Tomorrow’s focus on health care.
Earlier this month, Lynchburg announced an enhanced partnership with Community Access Network. Starting this fall, faculty and students from the School of PA Medicine will be placed at the nonprofit health care provider on Fifth Street to help expand and improve patient care.
“We have been working with the University of Lynchburg senior leadership to establish a partnership that is mutually supportive,” Christina Delzingaro, CEO of Community Access Network, said. “This expanded partnership brings together two of Lynchburg’s top people-centered institutions and establishes a collaboration to create significant opportunities for students, patients, faculty, and staff of both organizations.”
With its focus on health care and food — and education — Lynchburg Tomorrow offers lots of promise for Lynchburg City Schools, too. It also pairs well with the school system’s emphasis on engaging the community.
“One of the goals in the Lynchburg City Schools Strategic Plan centers on engaging families and the community,” Edwards said. “This collaboration with Lynchburg Tomorrow will strengthen the network of external support and empower local neighborhood leaders to help us address and remove some of the obstacles and barriers to student success.”
That community support is what’s most thrilling to Edwards as Lynchburg Tomorrow begins to take shape.
“We are most excited to see the emphasis on the neighborhoods and improving the quality of life for our students and their families,” she said. “In Lynchburg City Schools, we are focused on the ‘7-8-9’ experience for children. Our students spend seven hours in school receiving a high-quality education. Ideally, they receive eight hours of quality sleep each night.
“Through the collaborative efforts of Lynchburg Tomorrow, we have the opportunity to make a real difference and have a positive impact on the nine hours each weekday that children spend with their families and in the community.”
The coming months will show how the pilot project is panning out in the Diamond Hill and White Rock Hill neighborhoods. From there, it will be tweaked and scaled to other areas. Then there’s more to come in health care, food security, and the research center.
As far as the president and her community partners are concerned, this is just the beginning.
“This is an exciting time for the University of Lynchburg,” Jones said. “Dr. Morrison-Shetlar’s vision around the three pillars has been a catalyst for moving Lynchburg Tomorrow forward.
“As a University, we are excited to see what we can do together in this city to enhance the quality of life of its citizens and, in turn, provide our faculty, staff, and students the chance to ‘live’ the values of diversity and community through active-learning experiences.”