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Living Democracy Reporter Nathan Simone’s lessons from the road

In Uncategorized on August 26, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Hall's Gap CollinsvilleWhat I learned while driving around Alabama in a Kia Soul while searching for my own

By Nathan Simone

Selma nathanI thought I knew Alabama.

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 tonathan in soul 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 theirNathan%201 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.

Nathan in MobileThe 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 livingnathan pic 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?

nathan cahawbaSometimes 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.

sunset in Collinsville

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Living Democracy in Marion: Week Ten

In Marion on August 26, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Marion Week 10 1Marion Deserves Big Thank You

By Catherine Tabor

There are many things I can say about the last ten weeks I’ve spent in Marion. I learned a lot about Marion, the rural South, the Black Belt, and myself.  I also learned a grand life lesson: Nothing ever works out as planned.

marion week 10 pic 4I came into Marion thinking that I would change it, in some way, for the better. I was going to bring the community together. I was going to educate the youth. I was going to do things to help Marion. What I didn’t expect was that Marion would change and help me.

None of what I had planned ever came to fruition. The documentary, the festival, the mock trial and chess teams, or anything else I had envisioned when I was in a classroom at Auburn University. But none of it had to because that’s not what Marion wanted or needed this summer. And it wasn’t what I needed either.

I could list and state all of the things that I did end up accomplishing this summer, but instead of touting my success, I want to praise and thank Marion for their utter successes.

First, I would like to thank Katrina Easley, my community partner and county extension coordinator for Perry County’s branch of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Without her, I would not have had the contacts I needed to do or attempt to do any of my projects. Nor would I have been able to get around town. Katrina was an invaluable asset, and I am so grateful I had her as I was working my way through Marion.  As I’m thanking Katrina, I would also like to thank Melanie Hogue, the administrative support associate, who helped me get into contact with Katrina, took down countless messages, and answered any inquiries I had.

Second, I would like to thank Judson College for allowing me to stay at Elmcrest, the oldest building on campus, and for being so helpful when I had anyMarion week 10 pic 5 questions. Even if the question was as simple as, “Where’s the dumpster?” the staff at Judson was always more than happy to answer. The campus was beautiful, and the food in the dining hall was fantastic.

Third, I would like to thank the Marion Presbyterian “Women in the Community” Book Club for welcoming me with open arms. The ladies in that group were some of my first contacts in Marion and the first I made on my own. Thank you for being there with me, ladies. I hope you have lots of good books to read in the future.

Fourth, I’d like to thank Mr. Charles Flaherty, owner of As Time Goes By, for always sharing his cool stories and for running a really nice bookstore that I will miss. I probably bought at least 30 books when I was in Marion and I think I spent maybe $15 on them all.

There are so many more people I need to thank and absolutely no way I’ll remember them all.  In no particular order, here are some more of the spectacular people I met on my journey in the Black Belt. Thank you to Zion United Methodist Church and Mrs. Childs in particular. Thank you for welcoming me at that first service and for allowing my family and me to volunteer at your Vacation Bible School. We had a blast. Thank you, Marion Presbyterian, for also allowing me to partake in a service and to the generous person who bought my mom’s and my lunch at Kalico Kitchen following the service.

week 10 pic 3Thank you to Frances Ford and everyone at Sowing Seeds of Hope. Thank you for helping out whenever I needed it. Thank you to Carli Ludlow and Chelbie Greenhaw for being there to drive me around and bounce ideas off of. The sports camp, although short-lived, was an experience.  Mr. Don Coley, thank you for sharing your wonderful folk are with me. I hope you get better soon.

Thank you to the Marion-Perry County Library and Searria Easley for helping me with the book giveaway. Thank you to Jean Dean Reading Is Fundamental in Auburn for donating books. Thanks again to Sowing Seeds of Hope for the Frisbees. Thanks to Golden Flake for donating the bags of chips. And a big thank you to everyone who came.

Nursing Home Art show pic1Thanks to both Southland and Perry County nursing homes. Spending time with the residents was really a lot of fun. Seeing their artwork on display was such a joy, but seeing how happy they were was just amazing. And I’ll definitely visit in the future.  Finally, thank you to my mom and my family for helping me in this endeavor. I couldn’t do it without you. Thank you so much.

Marion, Ala., was a town I knew almost nothing about a year ago. I learned a little in the months leading up to the start of my Living Democracy Fellowship, but I learned the most when I was in the town. Thank you. Like Carrie Underwood sings, “I will see you again. This is not where it ends.” So, Marion, until next time.

Living Democracy in Marion: Week Nine

In Marion on August 26, 2013 at 3:36 pm

CT perry lakes 1Some lessons, like trees, take time to grow

By Catherine Tabor

“The earth has music for those who listen.”George Santayana

Nature is a majestic sight to behold. Painters, poets, and photographers have all tried to capture the beauty of nature throughout history. What is it? Why is it so gorgeous? The Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, and other natural wonders are all revered sights to be looked at and praised.

In today’s world of concrete jungles and smartphones, nature is often a forgotten relic of the past. There is something mysterious about it, and mankind tends to shy away from what it does not understand. Who made it? How did nature come to be?

Yet these questions are not pressing issues in Marion.  Nature is there to be observed and learned from. It is there, and the citizens of Marion come to appreciate at a very special place.

ct perry lakes 2

The Cahaba River flows through Perry Lakes Park near Marion. (Photo by Catherine Tabor)

Perry County Lakes Park is the name of that place. It is located 5 miles east of Marion next to the State Fish Hatchery on State Highway 175. Driving by the hatchery, one could easily miss the nature reserve. But hidden in those woods lies a natural piece of art.

PerryLakes.org states: “The Perry Lakes Park and Wildlife Sanctuary contains about 600 acres available to the public for outdoor recreation, education, scientific research, and other activities. Interpretive nature trails (fire lanes and primitive paths) make walking through the woods fairly easy and fun.” With so many acres, visitors are able to discover something new each time they come to explore.

A favorite spot for visitors of Perry County Lakes Park is Barton’s Beach. There people are able to swim in the Cahaba River in relative privacy. There is even sand at the “beach” so those in the Marion area are able to go to the beach near their hometown.

Auburn University also has a special tie to Perry County Lakes Park because the Rural Studio built a birding tower in the park that provides a view of the floodplain forest and the birds in the upper canopy of trees.

Every day of the year people can come from all over the country to see the sights at Perry County Lakes Park. They just have to be sure to arrive after sunrise and leave before sundown.

perry lakes 3 CT

Turtle eggs are one example of abundant natural treasures found at park. (Photo by Catherine Tabor)

The best part about Perry County Lakes Park is that it is free to all visitors. Varied ways to entertain oneself within the park’s limits include hiking, bird watching, swimming or geocaching. All of it is completely free of charge.

This YouTube video showcases the absolute beauty of the park: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPFx3BOr6mk.

My summer in Marion was often hectic and stressful, so it was nice that I was able to discover such a relaxing and beautiful spot at Perry County Lakes Park where I was able to retreat to from time to time with family and friends.

Even though I was busy trying to figure out how to go about my Living Democracy projects, I was able to take a few hours to relax and enjoy myself. I was able to walk through the woods on a well-beaten trail and take in the fresh air. I was able to see the wonder of nature with my own eyes. The magnificence of trees that reach unbelievable heights and a section of the Cahaba River that I had virtually to myself were just some of the amazing things I was able to experience at Perry County Lakes Park.

Sometimes, people lose sight of what is important. In the race to the top, we forget the simple things. We are hungry for success, money, fame, and we miss the small moments that can really change us.

This past summer that I spent in Marion as part of Living Democracy was probably one of the slowest summers I have ever had. I was busy every day, and I was constantly on the go. But when I reflect on my time, it feels like I was spending every second looking forward to the next. I was anxious to get my projects done. I was nervous about not doing my job the way my supervisors expected me to do. I was ready to start fall semester classes so that I could begin the next chapter of my life and progress through my checklist of things I have to do in order to attain a high profile career.

perry lakes 4 CT

Slowing down can help you win the race, appreciate wonders of nature. (Photo by Catherine Tabor)

But just because I was trying to be fast about what I wanted to do, Marion wasn’t having any of it. The town is small, with a population numbering close to 4,000 people, give or take a few hundred. These people have lived there for generations. It is an hour from Tuscaloosa and roughly half an hour away from Selma. There is no Wal-Mart or McDonald’s.  People in Marion move at a slower pace than people do in bigger towns.  As funny as it sounds, I had to slow myself way down in order to catch up to their pace.

I was a fish out of water and I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. But the ten weeks I spent in Marion taught me that being the fastest isn’t always a guarantee of victory in a race. And eventually I was able to learn about Marion’s citizens and what they wanted or what they needed instead of trying to implement a project because it was what I knew, was familiar with, and wanted to do. I slowed down, and I was able to win my race.

And I learned that slow and steady wins the race when I was walking on the trails of Perry County Lakes Park, trying to reach Barton’s Beach and taking in the nature around me. It was beautiful. All of the trees and flowers were really amazing to see, and I know that they took their time to grow.

‘Bayou Baseball Boy Makes It Big!’

In Bayou La Batre on August 14, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Brandon Cupp 2By Laney Payne

Brandon Cupp is a blue-eyed bayou soul with dreams of making it big and the talent to back it up.

The baby boy of four siblings and a sophomore at Alma Bryant High, Brandon is eager to get his voice heard in more ways than one. Not only does the 15-year-old know how to sing a tune, but he wants his voice to mean more than just karaoke skills for his community. A Coden native and now Bayou La Batre teen, Brandon is ready to shine.

“I want to make a name for Bayou La Batre; let people know that it’s not just all about shrimpin’. People see all the bad stuff here, but they need to see the talent,” said Brandon, donned in his navy Bryant baseball gear outside the local McDonald’s hang out.

Brandon and Chris Cupp

Brothers Brandon and Chris Cup play baseball on Alma Bryant team. (Photo by Laney Payne)

Upon meeting the 15-year-old baseball player, one doesn’t peg him as a vocalist. Ready to hit the dirt in his white baseball pants, Brandon leads with his baseball spirit. As the younger of two brothers on the Bryant team, he explains how much playing with his brother has meant to him.

“My brother, he’s my best friend, we do everything together. Sometimes in the middle of a game if he’s pitching bad, we’ll walk up and talk to each other behind our gloves. It’s just what we do, and it works. He’s always there for me,” explains Brandon.

But is hasn’t always been fun and baseball for this young man. At 13, Brandon and his family took just the essentials and started over. Now living in a bayou hotel with his family of four at his side, he says that he wouldn’t change a thing.

“The struggle has helped my singing. Whenever I get mad, I sing. Sometimes when things get too cramped, I go out and sing in the truck. I turn up the radio, and people even come out to listen and clap for me. It’s motivating and keeps me going,” Brandon said.

The close quarters, however, often turn into personal jam sessions that quickly involve the entire family.

Brandon 4

Brandon Cupp plans to catch big dreams. (Photo by Laney Payne)

“Brandon sings 24/7. He’s always singing something. Momma has to tell him to keep quiet when he’s in the shower. But, you can tell it helps her when he sings. It shows her that we are patient, and we aren’t worried about our situation. It keeps us all positive and keeps up going,” said older brother Chris as he pitched ball after ball to his brother in the summer heat.

Growing up a southern boy, Brandon has always favored country music. Looking up to artist Scotty McCreary, Brandon said he hopes to one day follow in his footsteps and become a star. Relating to the messages that lie within many country lyrics, Brandon said he always knew he’d sing country music himself one day.

“I like the message that life can get hard. But, if you work at it, you can pick yourself back up,” Brandon said.

The son of a Horizon ship painter and Ole Maria’s waitress, Brandon understands the value of hard work and is ready to pay his dues to get where he wants to go. By setting high goals and dreaming big, the baseball player/singer hopes to go far.

“My goal is to play college ball in Tennessee. Then, I’ll pitch for my Philly’s and sing country music,” Brandon said.

A favorite among the regular Ole Maria’s karaoke crowd, Brandon takes whatever chance he can to get his voice heard. Without a shy bone in his body and a contagious sense of confidence, he is ready to belt a tune whenever the moment allows.

“If I get nervous, I’ll shake my leg a little. But I love singing in front of people, especially my girlfriend. When they hear me, it motivates me to keep going,” said Brandon.

Thankful for his local listeners, Brandon explains how each and every individual has driven him to make it big one day.  “They want you to succeed, and they are all behind you. It feels good.”

From the corner of his hotel room home singing along to mp3’s to having a microphone in hand each and every karaoke night at Ole Maria’s as he waits to walk his mom home from work, Brandon dreams of success in the big leagues.  He is determined to make it not only for himself, but also for the community he calls home.

I asked Brandon how he felt about me writing something all about him. Without skipping a beat behind a thick smile and southern drawl, he replied, “Laney, I already got the title. Bayou Baseball Boy Makes It Big.”

Bayou basket-making class weaves memories

In Bayou La Batre on August 14, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Laney Basket 6

By Laney Payne

Laney Basket 4With an eloquent southern draw, soft pink attire, and hands eager to help, Dorothy “Dot” Dowling, or “Mimi” to those who know her best, is far from a basket case.

However, on a July Friday, a group of women and young girls in Bayou La Batre gathered to learn the art of basket weaving from one of the craft’s finest.Laney Basket 3 With over 30 years of experience with basket weaving under her belt, Dowling loves teaching others an art form that is fading fast from today’s generation.

“Oh, I love it. I guess you could say I’m obsessed. When I’m weaving, I’m in hog heaven,” said Dowling.

And Dowling shared her little piece of heaven with the bayou through a lesson filled with “over and unders”, spokes, weavers and raw pleasure. Using all-natural reeds, sea grass, and time-tested methods, Dowling and her students got busy creating a piece of art as unique as the individuals doing the weaving.

“Glue, that’s what I call the “g” word. These are all natural, and each one is different. You couldn’t make two the same if you tried. I love that about it,” said Dowling.

While creating their first baskets, Mrs. Dot’s students quickly picked up the trade and were thrilled watching their baskets take form and come to life.

But baskets weren’t the only thing being woven together. Sitting on the edges of cafeteria tables in a small fellowship hall on a Friday morning, the women in Dowling’s class took time to invest in each other and weave relationships.

Laney Basket 1Ranging from young brunette JROTC members, sisters, grand-daughters, retired bus drivers with shiny pink nails, and even a boy in the mix, the students of Mrs. Dot’s class shared stories and laughs in between the “in and out’s” of weaving.

“I’ve seen people do it, but I never thought much about it,” said student Diane Collier.

Another student, Brianna John, said, “I’ve woven, but not like this!”

As the group put their finishing touches on their work, and Dowling made her final rounds answering each “Mimi, what’s next?” smiles and prideful looks were seen around the table.

As Dowling packed her bag with reeds and tools, she looked at me and said, “Laney, I hope they enjoyed that as much as I did.”

What Dowling doesn’t realize is the lasting impact her investment made here and the lasting impact she continues to make on me as her grateful granddaughter.