Elsie Flemings ’07Elsie Flemings ’07

Elsie Flemings ’07 served as a state legislator for two, two-year terms after working for an Ohio Congressman, initially on his campaign around fair trade organizing in Southeastern Ohio and later in Washington, D.C. as a Legislative Aide.  She is currently the Executive Director of Healthy Acadia, a not-for-profit organization coordinating public health programs and services in Hancock and Washington counties, after serving as their Community Relations and Development Director for four years.  She enrolled at COA after a year at Columbia University and two years of work in farming and social services. 

Reflecting back on her high school years, she recalls being “involved in various community service efforts” and being “community-engaged in various ways.” She also notes that at the time, she did not “see the avenues around organizational governance work.” Being involved in COA governance “was a really new experience to have those opportunities.”

Before coming to COA, she reflects, her “understanding of governance was that it was something other people do ‘over there, up there.’ I might have gotten involved in a political campaign from a volunteer standpoint, but wouldn’t have thought about myself in a policy-making role.”

Building up a strong foundation

Thinking back on how she got involved in COA governance, it appears that there was a steady progression from sitting in on All College Meeting, serving on Steering, serving as an ACM moderator, on a search committee, and then helping to re-establish the investment committee by giving students a voice in board decisions about the college’s endowment.  She recalls attending ACMs and then getting involved in one particular issue or another until she was “pretty involved in governance in a variety of different ways.” 

In her last year, she got involved with an investment committee which had been dormant. Meeting with a founding trustee, Les Brewer, was just one part of a series of discussions to increase student participation in decisions impacting the investment of our endowment.  Flemings recently “finalized an investment policy for Healthy Acadia with significant socially responsible screens, so it feels like a full circle, it’s exciting.” 

When asked if there were any barriers she encountered, her response expressed a general disposition.

“It was so amazing to me—it wasn’t something I realized coming to COA—how much of a participatory system COA governance is. Back in the day there were lots of conversations about how COA governance could be more participatory and more equitable, but that was part of the learning process—to wrestle with those issues: how the system could be stronger, even better. In terms of engaging, I didn’t realize how many opportunities there were to be engaged.  When I was at COA, I learned that it was possible to have a voice in so many ways. For example, I had the opportunity to serve on a search committee for a faculty member. It was a thoughtful, comprehensive decision-making process among the staff, faculty and myself as a student representative. It was empowering in terms of discovering what I was capable of.”

Some of the things she feels she has gained from participating in COA governance include “new skills around public speaking, facilitation, community organizing to bring people together around issues, and policy development.”

She cites all of her participation in governance as providing her with a foundation for the work she has been involved in since graduation.  The committees she served and roles she played there were instrumental in helping her recognize and practice exercising her voice.

It created “a sense of empowerment that I could in fact be a part of a voice in a collaborative effort to steer an organization, to implement policy, to address challenges that I see in an organizational and political way—Before COA, I didn’t have that sense of having a voice to impact the communities in which we live, whether a school or town or state.”

Flemings didn’t grow up in an area with a town meeting format of governance, which would have promoted local engagement. She had been out of school for a few years, so, she says, “COA and its strong participatory governance had a powerful effect on me.” She appreciated the integrated governance structure at COA, “with students and staff and faculty working together. The learning wasn’t just about how you make policy or how you deal with organizational process but the learning was also between and among the staff and students…We wrestled with questions like ‘Did students have the right kind of voice? Did each part of the system have the right kind of voice? Wrestling with those kinds of questions are a fundamental part of governance.”

Success after COA

Getting this variety of experience and practice prepared her for involvement in the political process beyond voting and volunteering on campaigns.

Soon after COA, Flemings “was involved in various political and policy efforts, first in [her] work on campaigns and on Capitol Hill in a Congressman’s office and then running for office and serving in the State Legislature.” She says, “I don’t know that I would have done those things were it not for the kinds of experiences that I had at COA—I learned so much both about how to do policy work but also about what was possible in terms of the role I could play.”

Flemings has since moved away from the legislature, but still has many other organizational governance responsibilities in serving two counties with 22 staff, a community health coalition, a broad-based participatory coalition, and an advisory council with dozens of partners around the region.

“We do a lot of organizing and convening, so the governance and organizational skills that I was able to learn from COA governance have continued to support or help me whether it’s facilitating a meeting or working on an investment policy or recruiting board members…COA’s governance has provided a critical foundation for all that work.”

Advice to students

When I asked her what she would recommend to new or continuing students about participating in COA governance, her suggestion was to try new things and to participate in some way.

“I personally would recommend participating in some form because it’s such an invaluable opportunity. It’s so rare an opportunity.  There are so many things we can all learn from participating in governance, whether we decide we like it or want to stay engaged. There are so many learning opportunities, learning about what’s out there, what’s available to be involved in, checking it out and seeing what’s interesting and maybe pushing beyond our comfort zones.  We can see what we might be capable of and find things that we’re interested in. We can build important skills from working together to address challenges and make improvements in how we do our work together or how our community functions. That active engagement is so important.  That’s what changes the world.  That’s what helps us be the kind of community we want to be a part of and helps us grow as people.”