Courtney Smith, Craig Medlin and Stephen Green never really knew one another. All three work in the City of Tucker, but in very different fields where paths rarely cross. It would take a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-type effort to connect Smith, the Deputy Director of Community Development for the City of Tucker, with Medlin, a Major at the DeKalb County Police Department’s Tucker Precinct, and to Green, the Superintendent of the DeKalb County School District.
Those three relative strangers – along with 52 others – are now family, as this month they become the newest graduating class of Leadership DeKalb.
Leadership DeKalb is a ten-month program committed to developing and connecting professionals who work and live within DeKalb County. One Thursday per month, participants put their busy work lives on hold for “program days”, a chance to explore a different aspect of life in DeKalb. These program days include deep dives on topics like culture, education, criminal justice and economic development. Participants see presentations from well-known leaders in those areas, oftentimes Leadership DeKalb alumni themselves.
“The program days are the best part,” said Smith. “I really enjoyed getting to know more about the different characteristics of DeKalb County, especially the parts that I hadn’t really explored before. As an expectant mom who just bought a house in DeKalb, Education Day was one that really opened my eyes to everything DeKalb has to offer!”
The woman who has driven Leadership DeKalb for the better part of the past decade is Maria Balais. Although short in stature, Balais, the organization’s Executive Director, is a larger-than-life persona, who runs a tight ship. Program days are planned out meticulously. Every last detail is confirmed and put into an agenda, which participants follow down to the minute. If a participant is late to a program day, they get fined, no questions asked.
“At Leadership DeKalb, the ‘be on time culture’ is a sign of integrity and a show of respect for other people’s time,” Balais says. “We acknowledge from the beginning at orientation that everyone in the program are high performing leaders and that they are among peers. We also realize that perfect attendance can be a challenge, particularly regarding illness and family emergencies. So, we outline specific rules of engagement which include opportunities to be absent when necessary. Though we are strict, we are also reasonable and can be flexible, as needed.”
Tucker has been well-represented in the program in recent years. City Communications Director Matt Holmes was a 2018 graduate, while City Councilwoman Anne Lerner, a member of the Class of 2014, has stayed active in volunteering her time and is now serving on the organization’s board.
“Leadership DeKalb gave me the opportunity to meet leaders from across the County and from various sectors,” Lerner says. “I continue to learn from these amazing leaders and am proud to call them my friend. I want to ensure Leadership DeKalb remains a strong and vital organization so others have the chance to experience those same opportunities.”
Leadership DeKalb is about much more than connecting a group of professionals to one another; it’s about connecting those professionals to the community. Each year, the class is split into small groups for Community Service Projects. A pool of non-profits across DeKalb apply to be selected for assistance with a certain project, projects that oftentimes far exceed their budgets. Those non-profits then work directly with Leadership DeKalb participants to utilize their varied talents to accomplish objectives that can make a huge difference for those groups.
“The Leadership DeKalb Community Service Project developed an expansion plan for our Good Neighbor Grocery Alliance, formerly known as our grocery co-op,” says David Fisher of Tucker-based NETWorks, which was chosen for a 2018 Community Service Project. “They looked at marketing avenues and tactics we could employ to grow membership, and they looked at expenses of adding on new alliance groups, including in potential new locations.”
One of the projects for this year’s class was to devise a marketing plan for Decatur’s Woodland Gardens. Smith says it was a highlight to work with a group just down the street from Tucker.
“The project challenged us as leaders as we had to work in a group setting outside our normal comfort zones,” she says, adding the entire 2019 class enjoyed “[giving] back to the various nonprofit groups that make DeKalb a wonderful place to live, work and play.”
The experiences and lessons provided by Leadership DeKalb have had an impact across the County for more than 30 years. Even in a new city like Tucker, the program is paying dividends, whether it’s aiding the nonprofits or simply creating new friendships.
For more information about Leadership DeKalb, visit