I was skeptical at first, cynical even.

Forced fraternization with 15 strangers? Impossibly enthusiastic facilitators? Tedious team-building exercises? Not really my thing. 

This program, this Leadership Monroe County thing, couldn’t possibly work as well as everyone claims. 

Let’s see, select 16 adult applicants with vastly different jobs, backgrounds, family lives and political beliefs from a 125-mile geographic area.

Throw them together in Key West for two full days in September. Force them immediately to learn about each other and their surroundings. Divide them into teams and instruct them to negotiate make-believe foreign policies. Then put them into golf carts for a competitive (though well-lubricated) scavenger hunt. 

Summon them again a month later and send them into the Everglades for three days of nonstop environmental education, swamp tours, booze, nature walks, air boats, more booze, mosquitoes, museums, more mosquitoes and inebriated mayhem. 

Repeat this process, minus the booze (usually) for one or two Fridays every month for nearly a year. Pack all 10 hours of every session with important and relevant information about various facets of the Florida Keys. 

There’s no way this could work. 

My class alone, Class XXIX, had for-profit bankers and nonprofit directors. Public school educators, private sector employers, pilates instructors and restaurateurs. Elected politicians, appointed officials and wary reporters. Cops and college professors. Youth advocates and union members. Head nurses and health care executives. 

In today’s divided and hyper-critical world, what could possibly go wrong?  

Turns out, not a damn thing. 

Before we’d finished our first drinks on our first night in the Everglades (and long before I could find my hotel room in the dark), we had stopped being strangers. We were a team, united by inside jokes (boop!), outdoor adventures and adult beverages. We named our class Delta Force due to the pandemic timing and our desire to make a difference. 

Had I not been part of it, I wouldn’t have thought it possible for 16 adults to get along, work together for eight months and form a lasting bond. We were genuine and productive. We listened with a desire to understand. We considered all opinions. Individual strengths became shared assets. We communicated effectively and disagreed respectfully. We empathized. We acknowledged what we didn’t know or hadn’t considered. We were everything that’s absent from civil society and social media. We were clearly rocking this Leadership thing. 

But we weren’t breaking new ground. Apparently, it’s been like that for all 28 classes before us. (Well, so they say. I can’t imagine anyone doing it better than Delta Force.)

This program, Leadership Monroe County, exists solely to bridge gaps among the communities of the Florida Keys, to strengthen bonds and create informed leaders for a better future. And God, are we informed. The classes spend one or two Fridays a month entirely immersed in one aspect of the Florida Keys — environment, military, law enforcement, the legal system, tourism, government, education, health care, housing, social services, the arts, media, public safety, poverty and the pitfalls of life in paradise.  

I’ve lived in and written about Key West for nearly 24 years, and learned countless new things about how our island chain works — and doesn’t.

Our Delta Force team, Class XXIX, graduated last weekend from Leadership Monroe County and joined the realm of enthusiastic alumni and local leaders. I’m proud and humbled to be a part of this program, and I’m grateful to my classmates, the facilitators, alumni, sponsors and presenters. Thanks also to my bosses for recognizing the value of LMC, for investing in me and for excusing my Friday absences.

To anyone who hasn’t considered Leadership Monroe County, check it out at leadershipmonroecounty.org

And finally, to my Delta Force friends  — Nick, Brandi, Levi, Brad, Paul, Marianne, Amber, Tyler, Nancy, Patricia, Pang, Lindsay, Mick and Buddy — thank you all for changing my mind and my world in a thousand different ways. You’ve all made me a better person. I have no doubt we’ll make this a better place — and have a hell of a good time doing it.

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.