Didlake Vice President of Advocacy and Public Policy Rachel Payne was recently accepted into Lead Virginia, a statewide leadership program that brings together senior leaders from across the commonwealth to discuss emerging trends and embrace shared responsibility for advancing Virginia’s future. With the goal of building social capital, Lead Virginia annually selects a group of leaders to visit each of Virginia’s distinct regions, exploring the unique opportunities and challenges facing those areas.
“It’s an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the commonwealth as a whole and to make connections for the greater good,” Payne said. “I’m super thankful for the opportunity to be in a space with experienced and diverse individuals. I’m also excited to stretch myself a bit and learn more about how what I do intersects with others and what they do.”
Touring Hampton Roads
While the program typically runs April to November, the class of 2020 session was delayed due to the pandemic and kicked off with an opening session held Sept. 23 in Hampton Roads, Va. For the next three days, participants immersed themselves in the region, learning how past events brought us to today and discussing current trends that are shaping the future.
“It was neat to see the region I am from and to learn about things that I had no clue about,” said Payne, who was born in Newport News. “I’m so proud I’m from that area because we’re doing all these great things that have a huge impact, not only in our state, but also across the country.”
For example, the class toured the Brock Environmental Center, a state-of-the-art environmentally smart building that uses solar panels and wind turbines to produce nearly twice as much energy as it uses. The Center is home to the Virginia Office of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the largest independent conservation organization dedicated to saving the Bay. The Center meets the strictest environmental standards in accordance with the Living Building Challenge™.
Other stops around Hampton Roads included the Port of Virginia Norfolk International Terminal and Fort Monroe. At Port of Virginia, participants observed international shipping containers being loaded and unloaded for distribution to locations around the world. At the Fort Monroe National Monument, the class reflected on one of the most significant events in our nation’s history – the 1619 landing of a ship carrying the first enslaved Africans, marking the beginning of 246 years of slavery in the United States.
Hampton Roads was the first of six regional sessions, each of which are focused on the area’s response to the issues of economy, education and health. The class reconvened Oct. 15-17 in New River Valley. Local community activist and historian Jordan Bell led the group on a walking tour of historic Gainsboro, describing the town’s rich history and how urban renewal displaced Black residents in the area. Other highlights included a book talk by Beth Macy, author of “Dopesick”; a presentation on research and innovation from higher education leaders in the region; and a panel discussion on innovation and partnerships. The class also visited Virginia Tech to tour the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) Smart Road, which is one of the world’s most advanced testing facilities for transportation technology and safety research. Participants also toured the Virginia Tech campus and athletics complex, and even got to run through the renowned football tunnel at Lane Stadium.
The group will meet in Richmond in November; Southwest Virginia in March; Southern Virginia in April and Northern Virginia in May. The session will conclude with a graduation ceremony on May 22.
However, many of Lead Virginia’s 600-plus graduates continue to network and participate in alumni events throughout the year. Didlake Director of Business Development Valerie Spencer, who completed Lead Virginia in 2018, now serves as Chair of the Lead Virginia Alumni Council for Northern Virginia and continues to build fellowship and social capital, focusing on Lead Virginia’s areas of focus – economy, education and healthcare. For example, the alumni council presented a webinar featuring hospitality leaders in the region to discuss ways to support the hospitality industry, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Regarding her experience in Lead Virginia’s Class of 2018, Spencer said, “I thought it was a great opportunity to make connections in the community and get to know leaders across the state. I also met a lot of entrepreneurial people who are invested in Virginia. I saw it as an avenue to share Didlake’s great work supporting people with disabilities beyond Prince William County while I learned about issues impacting the state and how other organizations are managing them.”
Payne also plans to leverage the opportunity to raise disability awareness and share Didlake’s mission.
“I see Lead Virginia as another way we can create more opportunities for people with disabilities. It’s an opportunity to bring awareness of what we do and help other organizations see the importance of employing people with disabilities,” Payne said. “It will also help me to think about what I can do to make Didlake better and to further our mission.”