A Project for Students and Citizens

Archive for July, 2012|Monthly archive page

Marion: Week Eight

In Marion on July 31, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Mary Afton Day is living democracy in Marion, Alabama. Mary Afton is a junior majoring in public administration major at Auburn University.  Living Democracy is a yearlong collaboration between students and citizens on issues that matter to local communities.

Marion has widened my eyes, in various and amazing ways. As hard as I tried, I did start the summer with preconceived notions and some bias. The first day at Sowing Seeds of Hope eased all my fears as Ms. Anne and Ms. Faye immediately welcomed me. Everything was going to work out all right and excitement began to replace the anxiety.  Though I was readily welcomed into the SSOH family, the community still remained distant. It was and is, a challenge I willingly accepted.

Marion is a town unlike any other. Earlier in the year we heard the expression, “if you’ve seen one Alabama town, you’ve still only seen one Alabama town.” Marion embodies this expression tenfold.  This is a community with a rich history of war heroes, Civil Rights activists and once-booming agriculture now struggling with the stagnant economy.  I have learned that the citizens of Marion, who some label as uncaring and nonchalant, are in their own unique ways bettering their future and their town.  Despite a divide between some citizens and officials, change has occurred and is occurring and will occur.

The dreams of the elder citizens are to involve the youth, to keep them home. The most common description when I ask Marion citizens to describe their town is “home.”  Marion is Marion because of one simple truth: it’s home.  The empowerment of youth is a growing movement in Marion and Perry County as a whole. Parents, grandparents, elders can see that some youth are racing from the comforts of their home to find opportunities and build a life elsewhere. What I’ve witnessed up close this summer is the older generation’s efforts to involve the youth, whether it is a sports camp, trips to prominent Civil Rights monuments in the surrounding areas, or creating a leadership class in the schools. These activities are based on the knowledge that the youth are the future of Marion.

Working with Sowing Seeds of Hope has been an amazing opportunity outlet for myself and for Erica, the teen who I worked most closely with this summer.  The director, Ms. Frances, opened so many doors for networking and projects.  Erica is learning real-world responsibility and leadership skills, and I am learning how this community operates. Marion is complex in its own unique way. There is a hierarchy of officials, but the existence of programs and organizations like Sowing Seeds of Hope are proof of daily change in the town.

I anticipated a divide between races.  Everyone knows it is an issue, but many are working to mend and reestablish relationships for the future of Marion’s citizenry.  As the end of my summer nears, I know that my own acceptance into the community is proof that the love of a human, an individual, outweighs any tensions. Educated and eccentric outsiders who have moved into the community are devoting themselves to the area.  Citizens like David Austin, Laurette Turner, Don Coley and Jim Blanchett are bringing in diversity not only in race but also in beliefs and views.  Marion seems to be expanding and developing in unique ways and adapting to a changing society. Personally, Marion has found a special place in my heart. I see her faults, and I understand that there is a long road ahead for ongoing community development and change. If I were to introduce the world to Marion, I would compare her to a quilt, a community quilt—like the ladies of the West Perry Arts & Crafts Club create. An individual with his or her own story makes each stitch. The Marion community is made of varied individuals sewn together to create a beautiful work of art that is a home. Simply put Marion is a quilt, handmade, beautiful and based on the values and traditions of her history.

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Elba: Week Ten

In Elba on July 31, 2012 at 10:57 pm

Alexis Sankey ended her summer of  living democracy in Elba, Alabama, with a public celebration on Friday, July 27.  Originally from Highland Home, she is a sophomore majoring in psychology at Auburn University. Living Democracy is a yearlong collaboration between students and citizens on issues that matter to local communities.

I finished my final week in Elba with a great celebration.  As I leave to return to Auburn University this fall, it is with a much more bittersweet feeling than I ever anticipated. We ended the actual JumpstART classes on July 24 with our class field trip to Coffee County Lake. We had a blast there! The kids were excited to be outside doing art, but I think they were a little more excited about the pizza picnic that was provided! Some really great artwork came out of the trip, as well as some more fond memories for everyone.  The final event of our whole summer, the art show on Friday, July 27, was everything we had been working toward for the entire summer. We had a great turnout! The coffeehouse was full of the JumpstART students and their families and friends.

Before the program began, we held a showing of all the art pieces the kids had been working on. The students were so excited to see their own masterpieces framed and put on the walls next to their peers. Seeing their faces light up from their own accomplishments was probably my favorite part of the night. We had some refreshments and an awards ceremony after the gallery viewing. When that part concluded, we had a special presentation, which consisted of a slideshow of our summer memories of JumpstART. It featured candid shots of all the students doing art and having fun throughout the program. It was a great event overall. The response and attendance was well above anything I expected.

This Living Democracy experience in Elba has done a great deal to shape my views and understanding of community and civic life. In terms of community life, being here this summer taught me that it takes the vision of one with the support of many to get an idea off the ground and running. It is important to make connections and relationships with anybody you meet because you never know when you might need their support or insight on something. The connections that are made in a small town are a big part of community and civic life. In terms of civic life, I have learned that there is no issue too small to be decided upon by the local citizens. Citizens are actually given a lot of freedom to make choices about how their town is run and in what way they would like for things to happen. It takes a lot of decision making to run a town, but when the citizens and the local government work together and listen to one another, it is definitely not impossible.

I have so many wonderful people to thank for making my summer experience everything I ever wanted and more. I’d like to first thank my community partner, Mart Gray, for realizing the need for visual arts in the city of Elba. I’d also like to thank Patti Johnson and Jerrice Davis for allowing me to hold the program and do whatever else I needed in Just Folk Coffeehouse. There were many days where I needed help planning something or printing out information, and they were always right there to lend a suggestion or a helping hand. I’d like to thank Mayor Mickey Murdock for making me feel welcome in Elba. He also welcomed me to the city council meeting where I introduced myself and the project to the citizens of Elba. I appreciate the tour I was given of City Hall and all the other little tidbits of information Mayor Murdock offered.

I really appreciate Laurie Chapman and Justin Maddox for allowing me to interview them and document their amazing businesses and stories. I gained so much insight on small businesses and how they can help small towns. I also would like to thank Brandy Cohen and everyone else working at the Senior Citizens Center. They allowed me to step in and volunteer my time to work with them. Because of their help in providing me that opportunity, I met so many people and heard stories that would not have been possible to know without working with them. I would also like to thank the regular people who attend the center for recreation. They were so nice and accepting of me being there and helping out. I know how hard it can be to accept new people, so I really appreciate their understanding. Other than the art program I was working on, I would say that working with the Senior Citizens Center was the most rewarding experience I had in Elba. I have made relationships that will hopefully last for a long time.

Very special thanks go out to Farris English. She was the volunteer who helped me work with the children during the whole summer. I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done without her help. She was such a good sport about everything we had to do. I asked a lot of her and sometimes felt guilty about it, but she never did anything but deliver great results every time. Not only did she help me with the art program, but because she was from the area, she was able to provide me with vital information that I might not have known otherwise. She was a blessing to work with and a great person to get to know in general. It’s rare these days to get teenagers to want to work with children or do anything outside of what they already have planned. It is always great to see young people in a community work hard for something in their community.  I’ll never be able to thank her enough.

Last, but not least, I’d like to thank Bob and Melanie Roberson for opening up their home to me while I was in Elba. They were such great people. I was really glad to have found them because they made me feel so comfortable. I didn’t feel like I was completely alone in the town after I moved in with them. They actually cared about the program and about how my time in Elba was progressing. Although we didn’t see each other much because we were usually on different schedules, the conversations we did have were priceless to me because they made me feel welcome and tried to keep me informed about their lives and everything that was happening in Elba. I won’t ever forget the kindness that they showed me in my time there.

I’ve gained so much from being in Elba this summer. I have definitely gained more self-assurance. I know that I can do so much more than I ever knew possible. I realize that progress is not easy, especially when working with and depending on lots of different people. However, it’s always possible. In one way or another, you can get ahead and do good things. There were times this summer where I was just completely drained and a little discouraged. However, with the encouragement of everyone else in Living Democracy I realized that I wasn’t alone in facing roadblocks. Hearing how they overcame and pushed through situations helped me to do the same. I’m a different person because of this summer. I can’t wait to apply everything I’ve learned to my own life and to future community endeavors that I hope to be involved in, wherever I may be. I’m blessed to have been a part of such a unique and progressive program like Living Democracy, and I won’t hesitate to use the knowledge gained here to help other people.

Hobson City: Week Eight

In Hobson City on July 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Marian Royston is living democracy in Hobson City, Alabama.  Originally from Roanoke, Alabama, she is a senior majoring in history at Auburn University. Living Democracy is a yearlong collaboration between students and citizens on issues that matter to local communities.

Looking back on my initial impressions of Hobson City now after having spent eight weeks here, I now realize I had barely scratched the surface of this complex and unique municipality before I arrived. While I still believe in the validity of some of my first observations, I also believe that I was only seeing one side of a multifaceted puzzle. Hobson City is a town striving to shake off the shadows of the past and step into a brighter future, but the journey to where the town is now, on the road to progress, has not been simple nor has the process been linear. Additionally, the work has not been the effort of a single party, group or entity. Hobson City’s progress has come from the work of dedicated individuals from all different walks of life and perspectives.

Everything I knew about Hobson City in the beginning came from the point of view of my community partners, the Hobson City Community and Economic Development Corporation (HCCEDC). Everything I learned from them was wonderful introductory information for the community, and all of it proved to be true once I arrived. At the same time, however, I made new discoveries about Hobson City.  Sometimes we have to experience things to truly understand the situation.  Additionally, there were some limitations because everyone I talked to has their own unique perspective on this historic place. As an outsider, I have no such limitations, and I have been free to roam the town and speak with a wide array of individuals. What I’ve found is that a single person, place, thing or idea can have a radically different meaning for different individuals.

My partners with HCCEDC are driven and ambitious with their plans to improve economic opportunities in Hobson City. The HCCEDC has a strategic plan that they have been tirelessly pursuing since their inception in 2007. There are other individuals in town who care just as much as my partners about the welfare and future of Hobson City, but they have taken different approaches in their work. I also learned that there are different values among the citizenry. Some want an industrial base in the town and more businesses. Others are very concerned about preserving the town’s historic and cultural heritage. I fully believe that it is possible to marry these two values with proper planning and have the best of both worlds.

Through my work in the community, I have a newfound respect for my community partners as well as everyone who is working to enact change in town. There are barriers that must be broken down in order to find success, and they do not move easily. There are internal and external factors working against Hobson City. One major obstacle is a pervasive wall of hopelessness that must be battled daily by the town’s developers. Additionally, there is a divide between the town’s leading change agents.  Although the end goal for everyone is a better Hobson City, there is disagreement over the best means to that end as well as who over who should lead the effort.   Work to bridge the divisions is a crucial step that could bring concerned citizens together to be much more effective, in my opinion.

After being here for nearly an entire summer, I have a greater understanding of what the community needs. The most important need is for unity among the town’s leadership. There is also a need for recreational outlets for everyone, but especially youth. Also, citizens need to become more engaged with civic life. Many people are just content to let life pass them by without taking control of anything.

I strongly believe Hobson City is going to survive. The town’s history reveals strength among the citizenry that has helped them weather one storm after another for more than a century. I think my prescence here has helped to reinvigorate civic life to a small extent. Everyone has been excited to discuss what he or she thinks the town needs and what they are proud of.  I hope the discussions I have had will help citizens realize that they have to fight for what they deserve.  There is a lot of work to be done in Hobson City to restore the town to its former glory, but the work is well worth it. I believe everything can only improve in Hobson City, but it will take the continued persistence of concerned, hardworking people to make the hopes and dreams of the community become a reality.

Bayou La Batre: Week Eight

In Bayou La Batre on July 30, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Angela Cleary is living democracy in Bayou La Batre, Alabama.  Originally from Birmingham, she is a senior majoring in interdisciplinary studies at Auburn University.  Living Democracy is a yearlong collaboration between students and citizens on issues that matter to local communities.

The things, people, and places of Bayou La Batre have molded me into a more understanding individual, student and leader. There have been moments where I question what I’m seeing, and there have been moments where I question my perspective. The impressions that I have made and that have been made on me are so unique to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In the 10 weeks I’ve spent living democracy in the Bayou, the citizens taught me lessons about their hopes, dreams, and challenges, and also lessons about my own.

I am under the impression that the hopes and dreams of Bayou La Batre’s citizens are something similar to those of any other community: the American dream. But what is the American dream? It could mean a number of things to different people, in different walks of life. In my opinion, locals want to provide a way for their families to be happy and healthy. They want to live in safe neighborhoods. They want to spend time together. They want to be able to afford some luxuries. And most importantly, they want their children to live better lives than they did. My impressions of Bayou La Batre’s hopes and dreams didn’t change much from the beginning of the projects until now. However, I have learned more about the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis.

Challenges can be seen as things that hold you back or something to overcome. Bayou La Batre has been challenged by disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill. The hits to the area’s seafood industry created ripple effects across the job market, affecting the morale of the community. These roadblocks stand as an obstacle to a higher quality of life for many citizens. The question I couldn’t answer before now is: “Will these challenges defeat the citizens of Bayou La Batre, or will they persevere?”

From speaking with dozens of people this summer, I now believe the majority of citizens are ready to persevere in the face of adversity to achieve their hopes and dreams. They are no strangers to battening down the hatches when confronted with a challenge. However, I have learned that these challenges run far deeper than surface issues. From living here for 10 weeks, I have learned a little about what it takes to survive, to create change, and to function with group politics in this small community. I believe Bayou La Batre is like any other community in its lessons on how to survive. You have to be aware of your surroundings. It is better to make friends than enemies. You have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone.  Most importantly, you need some optimism.

I believe optimism is how one makes changes. You have to believe you can do it and that everything will work out the way it is supposed to. Before arriving this summer, I was under the impression that most people were somewhat optimistic on achieving their hopes and dreams. I have learned that is not always the case. Maybe that was my optimism making assumptions about a place where I hadn’t lived yet. In reality, there are as many CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) people as there are hopeful ones. Hopelessness is a vicious problem in Bayou La Batre, and communities everywhere. I believe hopelessness is something that takes time to create and time to get rid of. It is easy to slip into a doom and gloom attitude when it comes to politics and creating positive change for the future. I cannot say I have had any direct or indirect influence with my optimism, but I do believe a positive attitude is something that can spread from even one individual. I have tried to use uplifting language and actions to motivate citizens to inspire hope in Bayou La Batre.

Through working with Boat People SOS, I have learned there are certain hierarchies that must be followed if things are going to be accomplished. This is true internally and externally. The process for gaining trust, approval, and respect comes from working tirelessly up the ladder. As an outsider, I learned that having an unbiased voice that’s not afraid to cross lines or ask for favors can be a good thing. I think my extroverted personality helped bridge a few gaps that existed between groups, organizations, and individuals in Bayou La Batre. There was a need to break down the barriers and tension to attempt to work together toward a common goal.

I also learned through BPSOS’s youth empowerment program, that sometimes, all you need is a role model. There is a need for positive people who spend their time working to create motivation and change. I learned Bayou La Batre certainly doesn’t expect someone to be perfect in every way, but having someone who at least tries to set a good example is a great influence. It is healthy to make mistakes and learn from them.  It shows people you are working, you are approachable, and you are human.

In Bayou La Batre, one third of the population of this small town of 2,400 is South Asian. There were language limitations, but I learned not to let that get in the way of being respectful, friendly, and helpful. Communication can be largely body language, and the fact that I didn’t speak Vietnamese didn’t keep me from making friends with citizens who didn’t speak English. Something as simple as a smile, or offering a glass of water while a client waits creates a good feeling of mutual trust and respect. I have also learned that at least attempting to learn about Asian culture is widely respected. Trying to learn key words, asking questions about the culture, and trying new foods are all important to strengthening bonds between individuals of different backgrounds.

After the time I’ve spent here, I would introduce Alabama’s Seafood Capital, Bayou La Batre, to the world using the metaphor of a clam. This town has grown a tough exterior shell to protect a soft inner core. Through the storms, oil spill, poverty, crime, and other community problems, the town and its citizens have adapted to protect themselves from the elements. They don’t open up very easily to strangers and cluster within their own comfort zones. But once you break past the shell, the inside is very soft, tender, and endearing. The town and its citizens care about one another and hold their values very close. Lastly, there is an amazing pearl of hope tucked away in Bayou La Batre.  There is such potential for growth and positive opportunities for change. The uniqueness of this town is such a beautiful, prized possession, but also like clams, everyone’s taste is different. Some individuals enjoy seafood, others, not so much. For me personally, nothing will ever be able to change the appetite I’ve acquired for the town, customs, and people of Bayou La Batre, Alabama.

Marion: Week Seven

In Marion on July 29, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Mary Afton Day is living democracy in Marion, Alabama. Mary Afton is a junior majoring in public administration major at Auburn University.  Living Democracy is a yearlong collaboration between students and citizens on issues that matter to local communities.

This week was an amazing opportunity to interact with Marion’s history—face to face. The 19th Biennial Lincoln Normal School Reunion was hosted at the school on Lincoln Street in Marion. Individuals from Fort Wayne to Chicago to Buffalo, N.Y., were in attendance. I enjoyed the Lincoln reunion with graduates from 1949 to 1966. Janet Howard, 1966 graduate, Chicago Chapter, is one of the remarkable Lincoln graduates I met. She recalled her role in historic Civil Rights era events.  She was in attendance at the Civil Rights meeting where Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot and participated in the March to Selma that followed.  She was a patient at Good Samaritan Hospital for three days, recovering from injuries sustained during the march. Today, looking back on her role in history, Howard’s smile never falters and she claims to be “blessed beyond measure.”

I was also introduced to Nancy Kynard at the Lincoln Reunion. Kynard, 97, was crowned and sashed by Robert Turner as the oldest living Lincolnite.  Kynard was excited that the reunion was going to be held at the school this summer and vowed to attend.  Fellow Lincolnites helped make Kynard’s attendance possible, making it clear that the group form a family, a family of tradition and pride.

Following the Lincoln Reunion Picnic, I attended another inspiring event, Youth Converts Culture.  Created and implemented by two enthusiastic educators, Daniel Whitt and Beth Sanders, Youth Converts Culture was designed to inspire the youth of Perry County to use technology to influence their future and the world. The students expressed themselves in their final community presentation, teaching those of us in the audience to listen and understand the power of technology. The event also took aim at complacency, an issue that the participating students are willingly and currently working toward. These students are the future leaders of Marion and other communities in West Alabama. They realize their influence will create a strong basis for the future in Marion, Uniontown and Greensboro and now have new tools to help make effective change happen.

I also attended a Perry County Commission meeting. It was a great meeting, filled with information on the progress of Marion’s various projects as well as an insight into the political structure. I learned a lot about how these individuals interact and how issues are solved. But I wished that more of the actual day-to-day citizens affected by these projects were in attendance. What I realized during this busy time is that the commission is formal and necessary while Marion’s citizens are also active in their own way. You can’t have one without the other. It is a modern ballet of citizen-official interaction. I believe the Lincoln School graduates, an empowered youth, officials and other active citizens are working to bring positive change and amazing stories to Marion.