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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


2013 Living Democracy Fellows

In Uncategorized on February 15, 2013 at 5:00 pm

DSCN1741Seven Auburn University students are living and working in diverse Alabama communities in the summer of 2013.  These students are part of the Living Democracy Project in the College of Liberal Arts, a yearlong collaboration between students and citizens on issues that matter to local communities. Participating communities include:  Bayou La Batre, Cahawba/Selma, Collinsville, Elba, Hobson City, Linden, and Marion. 2013 Living Democracy Fellows are:  Kaleb Kirkpatrick, Sierra Lehnhoff, Laney Payne, Audrey Ross, Mary Snow, Catherine Tabor, and Taryn Wilson. Journalism student Nathan Simone is working with the group as a communication consultant.

The projects they are working on range from environmental projects, such as a community garden and a canoe trail, to youth leadership and economic development efforts.livingDemocracy-1

Living Democracy results from a College of Liberal Arts’ collaboration with the Kettering Foundation to explore the role of higher education in preparing citizens for public life.  
”The goal is to make political engagement the focus of a sustained experience rooted in the curriculum,” Derek Barker, the project’s Kettering Foundation program officer, said. After a year of instruction in the classroom and conversations with partners, the students will spend the 10 weeks of the summer semester immersed in the community and executing their collaborative project.

Taryn Wilson, an entrepreneurship and family business major at AU who will be working in Old Cahawba/Selma, said, “To me, living democracy means going in and making our mark using the community’s “pen”. We aren’t there to bring attention to ourselves, but to show the local residents the potential that their community has had all along, using the resources that they already have.”

Sierra Lehnhoff, Elba’s Living Democracy Fellow, is working with her community partners to develop a wide range of art and recreation opportunities focused on the downtown area. Kaleb Kirkpatrick, Linden’s Living Democracy Fellow, will be also be working with local artists on downtown revitalization efforts. Catherine Tabor is planning activities such as mock trial competitions and a community festival for her summer in Marion.

Audrey Ross, who is looking forward to her second summer of Living Democracy, will be working in Hobson City. She said the experience is helping her realize “how much power citizens have in their own communities.” She adds,  “I see that even I, a newcomer in a fresh new town, can motivate citizens and make a difference.”

The students are led by Nan Fairley, associate professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism, and Mark Wilson, director of Civic Learning Initiatives. “This program is a trailblazer,” said Wilson. “The immersion in the community and the deeper connections where students are working with and not ‘working for’ the community are important.”

Laney Payne, who will be working in Bayou La Batre, agrees. She said, “To me, Living Democracy means having a say in how things are run in our society to create an air of possibility for everyone. In order to live democracy, we all have to do our part to get actively engaged and gather together to achieve common goals.” Student Mary Beth Snow, who will be in Collinsville, said, “Living Democracy means taking an active role in improving the world around you. If I see something that needs changing, and I don’t work to do it, who will?”

The 2012 Living Democracy projects involved more than 200 citizens in community initiatives. However, the goal is to go beyond a successful project into a process that accelerates student growth and understanding of civic action.

Contact Dr. Mark Wilson at mwilson@auburn.edu for more information.


Living Democracy at Your Town Alabama

In Uncategorized on June 11, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Seven students participating in the Auburn University Living Democracy project took a short detour from their summer work in Alabama communities to attend the 2012 Your Town Alabama conference May 29 to June 1. They, along with Living Democracy co-director Nan Fairley, joined civic and community leaders from across the state at the conference held at Camp McDowell in Nauvoo, Ala.

The Living Democracy students gained technical advice, inspiration, and hands-on training related to community planning and design decisions. Keynote speakers, including Cheryl Morgan, director of Auburn University’s Urban Studio’s Small Town Design Initiative, and Nisa Miranda, director of the University of Alabama’s Center for Economic Development, inspired students.

The Living Democracy group also enjoyed the opportunity to make deeper connections with citizens and civic leaders from across the state at Your Town, including Living Democracy community partners Jim Jones and Martha Cato of Valley, Mayor Mitzi Gates of Linden and Mayor Mickey Murdock and Mart Gray of Elba.  The students are now back in their host communities armed with new information and invigorated passion for creating positive change.  The group hopes to return to Your Town Alabama 2013 to share their own stories of community engagement.

In their own words, hear what Living Democracy students had to say about Your Town Alabama 2012.

Angela Cleary, Living Democracy in Bayou La Batre

“We heard a number of case studies, two of which were from Living Democracy’s friends, Mayor Mitzi Gates from Linden, and Jim Jones with Martha Cato from Valley. These connections reminded me how important it is to network. Knowing and keeping in contact with other motivated, positive thinkers across the state is beneficial, regardless.  The retreat allowed us to return to our communities with a heightened sense of awareness on the importance of planning to long-term economic viability and promoting the “feel good” emotion a successful small town can provide.”

Mary Afton Day, Living Democracy in Marion

“Who knew two and one-half days of no cell phone service, no Internet and a room full of concerned citizens could be so fun? Well, I didn’t at first but I can tell you by noon on June 1, I did. As a 2012 Your Town graduate, I learned that failure is the best ingredient for progress, and I am not the only one seeking change in Alabama.  So many times we fail to realize how close we as change-seekers are to one another—we are neighbors. I gained hope that my energy will not dissolve as years pass because I have neighbors who will support me.  I accept that failure is part of the game.  It is a process, and I am proud of what I am doing, what Living Democracy is doing.”

Blake Evans, Living Democracy in Linden

“I want to learn more about how communities and cities function, and this conference taught me a lot in those areas from just listening to the conversations that my group had. The hands-on aspect of Your Town cemented some really important ideas in my mind that will prove beneficial throughout my Linden Living Democracy experience and then well beyond.”

Andrew Odom, Living Democracy in Selma/Old Cahawba

“We strongly need to reacquaint ourselves with what makes our state unique and build upon that. We are Alabama, and do not need to try to replicate anyone else in order to be successful and attract tourists. People love our state for who we are, and we need to work to bring out that character! Through the many hours of brainstorming and discussion options with people from all over the state and all different backgrounds I was able to learn many unique viewpoints and ways of looking at a community and defining assets and what the community can do to highlight those assets.”

Audrey Ross, Living Democracy in Valley

Networking and chatting with city planners, architects, and other individuals who are an important part of their community was one of the best aspects of this experience. As I was driving back to Valley, I started to notice things that I hadn’t thought about before: the lack of sidewalks, local businesses, landscaping. I realized that I learned that small things like this have a huge impact on the community, and I began to think of ways to fix them. I am glad that I can take the things that I learned at Your Town to Valley this summer. I hope that I can incorporate some of these lessons into my project, and do all I can for the citizens of Valley, Alabama.

Marian Royston, Living Democracy in Hobson City

“I find it refreshing to know that I’m joining a movement, rather than blazing a new trail. Your Town gave me a glimpse of what it’s like to work towards revitalizing a community. Nothing is beyond repair. That’s what I learned. As long as I employ patience, everything will fall into place. Assets-based planning is of utmost importance to a state like Alabama. If we take our positive attributes and enhance them, the solution to our other troubles may very well lie therein. I will most definitely keep everything I learned at Your Town close in mind as I continue my work in Hobson City.”

Alexis Sankey, Living Democracy in Elba

“I really liked the fact that I was able to meet different professionals at Your Town. It’s kind of enjoyable to think that you could go just about anywhere in the state of Alabama and know someone who matters within range of your location. I received several invitations to visit these small towns and cities at the end of the retreat. It’s very interesting how powerful networking can be. Your Town is a true example of that.“