From Churchill's Heartbeat to Leadership's Pulse: The Journey of Eric Campbell
By Tiffany Murray-Robertson
There's a telling old African proverb: "It takes a village to raise a child." For Eric Campbell, that village was the historic Churchill neighborhood of Richmond. The village didn't just raise the boy; it breathed life into the man he would become, the leader he is today.
Before the winds of gentrification swept through Churchill, it was here that Campbell's formative years were shaped. Guided by the unwavering strength of a single mother, he walked the corridors of Armstrong High School (later Armstrong-Kennedy) High School. "We might have been labeled 'underprivileged' or 'at risk'," Campbell reminisces, "but we had a community where your neighbors felt like kin. The Churchill I remember wasn’t about pristine streetscapes; it was about heartbeats. It was a defined supportive community."
And as every good story has a twist, Campbell’s came at Hampton University. Initially enticed by the allure of psychology, he considered diving into organizational development. But life had its plan. A harbinger of opportunity appeared in the form of Dr. Mamie Locke, a stalwart political science professor soon to grace Virginia's senate. It was she who saw the untapped potential in Campbell and nudged him towards the Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, a move that would lead him to the esteemed corridors of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, where he earned a master’s in public administration.
This past June in a heartwarming turn of events, Campbell led students in the very Athenian Oath that once inspired him, at a convocation for current Maxwell MPA students. The oath's guiding principle, "to leave the community better than we found it," is etched on the foyer of Maxwell and has long been the bedrock of Campbell's illustrious career. During the ceremony, Campbell was recognized by the Maxwell School, receiving the Public Administration Alumni Award, a testament to his dedication and impact.
"It's not always about the next rung on the ladder. It’s about the view, the lessons learned, and the expansion of responsibility at every step.”
-Eric Campbell, MPA
From Hampton's Halls to Maxwell's Majestic Memories
Laurels aside, don’t be misled into thinking Campbell's story is a straightforward upward trajectory. His unique understanding of leadership gave him the wisdom to know that sometimes, to truly grow, you have to move side-to-side, not just up. "It's not always about the next rung on the ladder. It’s about the view, the lessons learned, and the expansion of responsibility at every step,” he explains. This belief carried him from Petersburg, Virginia to roles in Charlotte, Dallas, and eventually to the historic position of the first African-American city manager of Harrisonburg.
Charlotte showcased some of Campbell’s finest hours. His meticulous orchestration of public safety during the Democratic National Convention wasn't just about management. It was a lesson in diplomacy, collaboration, and navigating the intricate dance between local governance and federal entities like the US Secret Service. Then there was the herculean task of co-hosting the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Centennial conference, proving once again that he could bring together disparate teams and create harmony.
In the broader spectrum of public service, challenges are constant. When the pandemic reared its head, Campbell faced arguably the most demanding phase of his career during his tenure in Harrisonburg. "The pandemic wasn't just a manager’s crisis; it was a human one," he notes. “The dedication to keeping the machinery of basic services like trash collection and public safety running was a testament to the relentless spirit of local governance.”
Navigating the Ebb and Flow of Leadership
Beyond the academic sphere, Campbell remains rooted in the trenches of local governance. Collaborating with colleagues, spearheading professional development initiatives, he doesn’t just belong to the profession; he’s its ambassador. His association with the Virginia Local Government Managers Association (VLGMA) is transformative. It's not just about identifying training gaps; it's about creating bridges between the academic and the practical. And through these endeavors, he enriches the learning environment, welcoming fresh talent and ensuring the profession's vibrancy.
Within the Wilder School, Campbell is more than a lecturer. He’s a living bridge, connecting generations, weaving his vast journey with the vigor of youth. "Local Government Administration" and the MPA capstone "Seminar in Public Administration" under his direction transform into lively explorations into local governance, with a special spotlight on Virginia's unique context. With the aid of Zoom, Campbell ensures that students aren't just reading about governance—they’re hearing from its architects, with current events serving as real-world case studies. And the cornerstone of his counsel? "Discover your passion." This isn’t a throwaway line—it’s a clarion call from someone who has walked that very path.
Bridging Gaps, Building Futures
Outside the academy, Campbell is an emblem of change and representation in places like ICMA. In spaces where white males are often the default voice, Campbell has been an indispensable voice of diversity. "Being present in these spaces isn't just about me; it's about all those who look like me and see a future where they belong,” he underscores.
The rhythm of Campbell's journey isn't a straightforward ascent. Instead, it reverberates with stories of communities revived, futures imagined, and barriers dismantled. While accolades and titles might dot his path, they're not the markers he cherishes. Instead, it's the echoing progress of a rejuvenated community, the ignited spark in a young leader, and the trails he’s blazed for others to tread. Campbell’s service speaks to leadership in its most authentic form: not merely as a navigator through tumultuous storms, but as a craftsman who, after building sturdy vessels, empowers others to take the helm.
His core values and lessons, deeply ingrained, trace back to his roots in Churchill. It's an influence felt in the policies he's shaped, the teams he’s led, and the many communities that have been touched by his vision and dedication.
For every student who finds inspiration in his words, every community that's felt the gentle push of his transformative hand, and every budding leader who sees in Campbell’s journey a map for their own, he stands as a beacon. A poignant reminder that leadership isn't about titles or awards, but about the heartbeats you sync with, the futures you help mold, and the immeasurable impact of dedicating oneself to the collective upliftment, one community at a time.