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Leadership Chattanooga's Diane Parks poses for a portrait at the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
some text Leadership Chattanooga's Diane Parks poses for a portrait at the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

On the walls of her Chamber of Commerce office, Diane Parks displays 19 group photos of the graduates from each year's Leadership Chattanooga program she has led since she took over leadership of the training and networking program two decades ago.

Parks, who serves as director of Leadership and Community Development for the Chattanooga Chamber, will add a 20th photo to her office wall Friday when the 2019 Leadership Class graduates another 41 local managers, executives and leaders who are the latest to complete the 10-month program.

To many of the hundreds of participants, Parks is known as "Momma P" or "Miss Di" for her role in running the programs and keeping its members connected and engaged.

Leadership Chattanooga, which the Chamber first launched in 1984, prepares promising local professionals for business, cultural and political roles through a 10-month leadership development program. The program, which cost participants $2,750 (although some scholarship money is available), includes a 2-day retreat, monthly meetings, a trip to the state capitol in Nashville to meet with the governor and legislative leaders and community service projects to help participants learn about different parts of Chattanooga and to develop their own leadership and networking skills.

"Leadership Chattanooga enhances our ability to develop and retain leaders who have a deep understanding of the Chattanooga area as well as the broad and inclusive mindset needed for community stewardship," said Molly Blankenship, vice president of Talent Initiatives at the Chattanooga Chamber. "The success of the program to date is due in large measure to Diane's leadership and personal commitment to the people and community topics that are at the core of the program."

Parks, who began working at the Chamber as a clerical assistant when she was still in college at Chattanooga State studying secretarial science, has done nearly every job at the Chamber except finance and running the place over the past 42 years.

"I've done a lot of jobs here and it's been great to work with so many volunteers who care about Chattanooga," she said. "But I tell everyone that Leadership Chattanooga is by far the best job because you get to work with so many people and watch them grow in their own life and in the community. It's very rewarding to see what many people go on and do with what they learn from this program. After 10 months, you almost feel like they are a part of your family."

The participants are selected every year from among 75 to 80 applications usually submitted each year. A selection committee picks participants to help ensure a diverse mix of leaders, not only by race and gender, but by occupation, background and interests are in each class.

"We've tried to promote diversity and I think Leadership Chattanooga has helped build the connections to engage a lot more people from a more diverse background in our community organizations," Parks said,

Leadership Chattanooga is one of more than 90 such leadership programs across Tennessee. Parks said such groups try to learn from one another through the Tennessee Association of Community Leadership (TACL), which Parks was president in 2012, and a nationwide Association of Leadership Programs.

In each class, participants work on a community task in schools, at a non-profit or at their own initiatives they might create to improve the community. Such work exposes many leaders to different parts of the community where they may not be familiar and helps them build both teamwork and leadership skills in the process.

In the past year, the Leadership Chattanooga class worked with the five of the "Teacherpreneur" programs where teachers pitched ideas to improve local schools or the community.

Part of the benefit of Leadership Chattanooga is getting participants out of their comfort zone and interacting with different people, situations and challenges to help them grow both personally and professionally, Parks said.

From among the 1,300 graduates of Leadership Chattanooga, about 200 are now dues-paying members of the Leadership Chattanooga Alumni Assocation (LCAA). Last week, former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who also is a graduate of Leadership Chattanooga, met with the LCCA and urged members to stay engaged with the community and one another.

"I think its helped our community and I know it's been fun and rewarding for the participants," Parks said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340

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