Jennifer Whittard, Senior Manager – Niagara Region
Jennifer Whittard recently joined Niagara Region’s Planning and Development Services Department in the role of Manager, Environmental Planning. Her work focuses on environmental impact studies and conformance with natural environmental land use planning policies, as well as a variety of other environmental planning initiatives. Prior to joining the Region, Jennifer worked for 15 years in private consulting, primarily on environmental assessments and permitting and approvals for large municipal projects. Jennifer completed her Honours Bachelor of Environmental Studies at the University of Waterloo in 2002, attained her Project Management Professional designation in 2012, and is currently finishing her Masters of Planning degree. Jennifer lives with her husband and two kids in rural Niagara, and in her “spare time” she enjoys running, cycling, and spending time with friends and family.
How do you define community leadership?
Community leadership comes in many forms, from the humble retiree collecting litter along their street to the Fortune 500 Chief Executive Officer who chairs multiple boards and attends almost every fund-raising event. It’s the church Pastor who pours their heart into preparing an insightful Sunday sermon while also making time to visit the elderly and volunteer for their local soup kitchen. It’s the mother who helps raise funds for a foundation that assists her child with a disability, and the father who coaches Little League before his shift. Many of these lead just by example, perhaps even out of obligation, not even aware that they are leaders, while others passionately set about to purposefully lead others in making a difference in their community. Regardless, each of these leaders seek improvement – no matter how small – in their communities and perhaps likely even themselves. They’ve identified a need, won’t wait for others to step up to the task, have something to contribute, and help encourage others to do the same.
These people inspire me – in both their everyday small acts of kindness and their longer-term focus on the greater good. That is why I’m interested in further exploring community leadership – there is room for everyone and I too can help make an impact. I love Niagara and want to help inspire others to make it better. No matter how seemingly insignificant the improvements may seem, collectively we can make create big benefits. I am up for the challenge.
What, in your view, is the most significant issue/opportunity facing our community? Why?
Beyond the conspicuous need for a vibrant economy – which remains a serious challenge for many communities in Niagara – is the need for a strong social foundation. Research shows that a healthy, sustainable economy requires that residents and businesses alike feel a connection with their community. If we are going to be successful at retaining and attracting a diversity of talent to grow the economy, we thus need to invest in people, no matter how insignificant the investment. People need to feel they have a say in the issues that affect them. They need to feel welcomed and opportunity to form those connections. A strong sense of community after all, is all about relationships, which in turn fosters community attachment and in turn, community growth.
How would you go about handling the issue?
I personally feel connected to my community. Born and raised in Niagara, I know where to turn when I need assistance of any kind, I am familiar with a variety of opportunities for community involvement, and I have a strong social network, supportive, professional colleagues, and a stable family-life. I fear that newcomers to Niagara however, especially relatively new immigrants, may lack similar opportunity or knowledge. Through the refugee sponsorship program supported by my church family for example, I have personally witnessed the struggles of newcomers to Lincoln. Tackling this issue is no easy task, but by personally getting involved in such programs, being open to new relationships, and encouraging others to do the same, word will spread and Niagara can become an example of “community done right”.
In your view, what’s the most important attribute of a leader?
Effective leaders exhibit multiple attributes or competencies; they don’t rely on just one or two. For example, in addition to being responsible, committed and decisive, good leaders must be empathetic, trustworthy, and respectful. They must be creative, consistent and courageous, and professional, persuasive and flexible. I believe most important however, are the softer skills associated with interpersonal communication. This includes skills such as listening – to both words and body language – and conversing to effectively get your point across. It includes both the “social intelligence” and “emotional skills” popularly reported on various business media platforms. It is the ability to interact with others in a way that makes them feel comfortable, fosters better relationships, and resolves potential conflict situations. People with strong interpersonal skills are highly sought after, both in their professional and personal lives, and thus often make exceptional leaders.
What individual attributes do you hope to develop or expand upon?
I believe I have these communication “soft skills”, but I would like to make a purposeful effort to strengthen them. I would like to become more direct in getting my point across and more comfortable speaking “off the cuff” (without notes) in front of large groups. I would like to become more of an “influencer” to help inspire others to action the way I’ve been inspired by the leaders in my life.