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Building Trust as a Community Leader

By Joseph Peele on August 22nd, 2018

A Conversation with Qonell Totten

A couple of months ago, I joined members of our team who are partnering with the Danville Regional Foundation (DRF) to support three local communities, part of DRF’s Opportunity Neighborhoods initiative, as they develop Quality of Life Plans. This planning process gives residents a chance to influence public policies to better reflect what residents envision for where they live. As I began to deepen my involvement in the project, I was introduced to one of the project’s community advisors, Qonell Totten.

Qonell is a life-long resident of Danville. I was struck by how everyone there seems to know him, and he knows everyone else—in part because he always shows up. He helps organize events like Rock D’Block, participates in National Night Out, and is involved in countless other community happenings. Qonell clearly has a special ability to harmoniously bring people together. I reached out to talk about how he is able to so effectively build meaningful relationships that move people to action, and what he envisions for the Quality of Life Plans.

What would you say are some fundamentals to good leadership? 

There are many different leadership styles. For me, it starts with having a vision and being able to share your ideas clearly with others. Learning how to be an active listener, having self-discipline, not being afraid to fail, being adaptable, and being resourceful are a few others. When I was a young boy, I was introduced to civic engagement and 4-H. Throughout school, I was involved in sports and student government, and it progressed from there. My community always poured [energy] into my development and pushed me to be a leader, so it almost feels like a natural ability now.

How do you network and engage communities so well? 

I believe the key to good community engagement is trust. The importance of trust and accountability in community engagement goes a long way. Being your authentic self, being truthful, and meeting with many different groups of people are also important components. Residents can always discern who genuinely cares and who is just there because they have to be. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much  you care.

Other ways to effectively engage people are by simply loving on people and showing compassion, which are both much needed in our society today. I later became better at networking and engagement by taking those principles to heart and just putting myself out there.

"People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care."

What is a difficult decision you’ve had to make as a community leader?

Deciding when and how to share authority among other community leaders. I’m often inclined to take the helm when I want things to move forward the way I envision them. Every community has strong leaders and personalities. I’m constantly thinking of ways to get people to participate in the decision making process. Sometimes it’s difficult for leaders to share a common vision and identify individual tasks or roles to work toward making that vision a reality. So it is important to share. We are all better, together.

What would success look like when the Quality of Life Plans are completed? 

For me, it would be seeing the implementation of all the priorities and ideas we put in the plan. I want to see more residents, leaders, and organizations working together to build a really strong community network on all levels. I want to see it attract new families to the area, break down violence in the community, and for people to learn more about our city officials, about the men and women who serve us, and different services that they may not already know about.

What do you see for your community beyond the Quality of Life Plans?  What is your role in that vision? 

I hope that our communities have a better understanding of our assets and our opportunities for growth. With all of the changes happening in our world, you either have to progress with it or watch everyone else progress. I want to see our great city thriving again.

Joseph Peele

Globally-minded, service-driven Catalyst, and Top 3 International Hugger. Former Project Officer with Healthy Places by Design.