By Nathan Simone
Far from being a native, I can see now that my residence for four years in “The Loveliest Village on the Plains” had tricked me into thinking that I could ever know enough about such a diverse state to be able to honestly say to people “Alabama, yeah I’ve lived there. Let me tell you about it.”
Football, farmers and fisheries constituted my “vast” knowledge of what comprised the majority of Alabama resident’s time and, to be completely honest, I never saw a reason to step out of these boundaries because most people I met could associate excitedly with one of the three.
For almost my entire four years of college I also didn’t own a car, so beside walking and effectively using Tiger Transit as Auburn’s own version of mass transportation (a great way to see the city), my actual scope of the state was limited to a few trips to Birmingham, a passing through Montgomery and a much-remembered trip to a friend’s house in Little River where I was introduced to “mud ridin’.”
Fast forward to spring semester of 2013, where I was blessed with finally owning a car (the suave and often-quoted Kia Soul) and given the opportunity to work with a program that had a more-than-interesting name: Living Democracy. My job? Travel around the state to the seven communities where Living Democracy students were residing and document their unique experiences with words and images. Furthermore, I would have conversations with members in the community to discuss its assets, problems, hopes and possible solutions, simply hoping to create an engaging dialogue. In this respect I was able to meet a wide variety of Alabama citizens on a personal level, if only for a short time.
My stays in some of the communities such as Collinsville and Bayou La Batre were both exciting and eye opening. On one hand the students usually had plans that I would tag along with, offering me glimpses of their new everyday lives, relationships formed, hardships overcome and a truer sense of what it meant to be a local. On the other was simple observation of my surroundings, things that cannot and will never be described accurately by a textbook, report, photographs or even video. Much like the indescribable spirit of Yes, rural Alabama has its problems, but it also has untapped solutions that reside within the residents of these areas if only leaders within their own community can appropriately rally individuals to see the change working for the greater good can bring to everyone, including themselves.
The events I witnessed and stories I wrote speak for themselves on our blog, aulivingemocracy.wordpress.com, so I won’t get into details or mistakenly favor the experiences of one community over the other, but I ask that readers realize that to know and try to understand a place, you must visit. In thinking of what I learned in school versus what I learned on the road and in the various settlements across the state, I’m reminded of a quote by the late Steve Jobs:
“I’m not dismissing the value of higher education; I’m simply saying it comes at the expense of experience.”
It rings truer than ever to me now. While I loved Auburn’s journalism school, there’s only so much you can learn in a classroom before it’s time to hit the streets, no matter what your profession.
To say the least, the idea of “community” has been forefront in my mind ever since I moved back to Atlanta from Auburn. I can’t decide whether it’s living in a “big city” that makes people act a certain way or if the act of community is becoming a lost art, but business transactions seem awfully stiff unless I genuinely ask someone how their day is going or address them by name. Some respond warmly, others don’t. I’ve also tried asking people in grocery stores for recommendations on things, but the response has also been mixed. I haven’t given up hope that at their core people are decent and kind individuals, but before I participated in Living Democracy I was oblivious at how individualistic, busy and (sometimes) cold people in America have become. How hard is it to smile?
Sometimes when I can’t get to sleep at night, I’ll lay awake and think to myself “What is community? How do you build it? What would happen if I knocked on all my neighbors’ doors and asked for help on a project?” The answers to these questions and more seem like they would be incredibly simple, but are far from it.
I’m intensely grateful for participating in a one-of-a-kind program that jumpstarted my critical thinking to such a degree that I’m conscious of how friendly and engaged I am on any given day, realizing that parts of where I live are incredible assets and not just buildings or geographic formations. In a sense I feel like I’m finally living democracy, and that feels good. Maybe that’s all America needs to be reminded of these days.