A Project for Students and Citizens

Posts Tagged ‘Citizenship’

Living Democracy in Elba: Week Nine

In Elba on August 5, 2013 at 2:36 pm
Bridge Shot Elba

Farris English, right, walks with Living Democracy Fellow Sierra Lehnhoff across Pea River bridge in downtown Elba. (Photo by Nathan Simone)

Living Democracy Citizen Award: Farris English

By Sierra Lehnhoff

During the Living Democracy program, each of us is asked to identify one person as an ‘outstanding’ citizen in the community. I spent a lot of time mulling over the qualifications of an outstanding citizen and came to a conclusion: no specific set of qualifications deems a citizen as outstanding to everyone in a community. Every community has different groups and within those groups are intricate webs of relationships. The view of what individuals do in a community can vary from person to person depending on where citizens focus their attention.

To a lot of people I met in Elba, Philip Box, pastor of the Elba Church of Christ, is an outstanding citizen because of his work as a pastor and his efforts with the food kitchen and other community projects he is involved with.  Justin Maddox is also an outstanding citizen because of his work around the community and his willingness to lend a helping hand to anyone who asks.

Farris 2 Elba

Farris English, standing right, helps Sierra Lehnhoff with art class in Elba. (Photo by Nathan Simone)

Pastors at local churches are often viewed as outstanding citizens because they reach out to people in the community. An outstanding citizen to one person in the community may not even exist in the mind of another community member in Elba. Relationships within a community are vast and complex, and I’m sure there are dozens of people I could deem award-worthy in Elba if I had more time to explore and connect with every group of citizens in the community.

But based on my personal experience in Elba this summer, the outstanding citizen who deserves recognition is Farris English. Although she is only a 16-year-old student at Elba High School she took on major responsibilities working with me this summer.  For someone her age, she is well connected with the community. Farris was with me every step of the way during my work on Living Democracy projects such as Elba’s first Zombie Run and our weekly art classes. When one ended she offered to help with the next project, even after learning how stressful such work can be.

I think many people believe that young people can’t be outstanding citizens unless they do something “incredible” on a national level such as the teen who discovered poor water quality in McDonald’s ice during a school science experiment, an effort that received wide recognition by news outlets.

But when one gets down to it on a local level, it’s amazing what the generation of younger people take on. More and more I see stories of ‘the youngest ever’ person to do something great in a certain field.

Farris took on a lot by helping me with projects and putting herself out there to get things done and get people to Living Democracy events.  There were some days I may have literally gone crazy or given up without her help. This wasn’t even her first year helping out a Living Democracy student as she also worked with Auburn student Alexis Sankey in 2012. And she is only just becoming a junior in high school this year.

Zombie Run Elba Week 10

Volunteers and participants gather at Elba’s first summer Zombie Run. (Photo by Nathan Simone)

To me, an outstanding citizen is still hard to describe. I’ve never been good at narrowing down, and it is difficult be able to just pick one person in Elba for this recognition. I know people who devote their lives to others and groups of people that a majority of the world has never heard of. They may never get an award for it. There are people out there in communities all over the world who are probably the next Mother Theresa or Ghandi, but we may not see their face or know their names in our entire lifetime.

All that aside, my personal ‘outstanding citizen’ is Farris.  Although she may not be starting up game-changing community projects (yet) or leading congregations of people, she is working with people who want to help the community on a local level and that role is as important as those who lead and coordinate the events.  After all, what is a community event without the community?

Next time you’re interacting in your community, take a moment and look around. Who is your hero? Although you may not be able to give them some sort of physical award or public recognition, thank them. Thank them for what they may do for you, for your group of peers, your community. Those two words mean a lot for those who work hard to help others.  With that, thank you Farris English for being my outstanding citizen in Elba this summer, and I hope you continue on the path of living democracy in the future!

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.


Valley: Week Four

In Valley on August 8, 2012 at 11:58 pm

Audrey Ross is living democracy in Valley, Alabama.  Originally from Siloam Springs, Ark., she is an honors students majoring in mathematics at Auburn University.  Living Democracy is a yearlong collaboration between students and citizens on issues that matter to local communities.

There are many different civic spaces in which the work of the city takes place. Naturally, the center of the city’s civic work is Valley City Hall. Most of the official business of the city is conducted here, and citizens can attend city council meetings in order to stay up to date with what is happening in their community. City Hall isn’t just a place for business; it’s also the place to start if change needs to occur. What makes City Hall a great civic space are the knowledgeable and caring staff who listen to the citizens’ needs and point them in the right direction to solve their problems. By having access to the many contacts of City Hall, one or a few citizens can get the answers and support needed to make positive strides and changes for the community as a whole.

In addition, Valley City Hall, the police department, the post office, Alabama Power, and EMS are all located in the same complex of buildings. This allows for better connectivity within these entities and brings a variety of people to the same location. Another important civic space is the Valley Community Center. The unique thing about this location is that the community center and sportsplex are combined into one building. This can allow for many different types of events to be held at the Community Center, and it also draws different demographics to the same area. Various community programs and events take place at the Community Center, but there are also the members who come to use the walking track, weight room, and indoor pool.

Another great civic space is the Langdale Mill, which holds offices and hosts a farmers’ market throughout the summer as well as other community events.  But the real potential of the space is to come, with revitalization plans in place to turn the area into a city center. Though the traditional areas of civic commerce in Valley are great, citizens’ work does not stop when we leave city hall. Places such as the beauty shop down the street, the local coffee shop, and the many churches throughout the area are also key locations. Like many communities, much of the civic activity that goes on in Valley happens in these “third places”. Citizens can gather, discuss city issues and politics, and most importantly become a more cohesive group. The majority of these types of places start with a small group of people who understand the value of unity and community. They are able to quickly grow by word of mouth and citizens can accomplish goals by the group’s shared connections and resources. For this reason, oftentimes a city’s third places can be more effective than traditional civic spaces.

One of the things that is lacking in Valley is a city center. Many cities have a downtown area where much of the work and commerce of the city takes place. Shops are located back-to-back and citizens can go there just to browse, walk around, and spend time with their community. Because Valley doesn’t have an area such as this and the community is too spread out to allow for most people to walk from place to place, there are fewer opportunities for everyday interaction between citizens. The plans to revitalize the Langdale Mill recognize this problem and strive to create that “city center”. The addition of the Langdale Mill complex has the potential to greatly improve the overall civic health of Valley by giving citizens a central location to gather, exchange information, and become more connected with their community.

Elba: Week Six

In Elba on July 11, 2012 at 5:41 pm

Alexis Sankey is living democracy in Elba, Alabama.  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.

The Fourth of July is a big deal for the town of Elba. Many of the downtown businesses not only close on that day in observation of the holiday, but for the whole week!  Many of the people I talked to go to the Coffee County Lake for the week while others go out of town for vacation.  Few if any civic meetings or club gatherings are scheduled during the holiday week. However, I was excited to attend a city council meeting held the previous week.  I was excited about attending the city council meeting because it’s the first one I’ve ever been to in my life.

I was interested in learning about the structure and organization of these official meetings.  I have never really had the opportunity to attend a city council meeting because I’m from a very rural area that doesn’t have a city council or even a mayor. I was also eager to attend because I felt like going to the city council meeting would encompass a great deal of what I’m here to learn and understand as a Living Democracy student. The meetings are designed to discuss the issues that really matter to citizens and the decisions communities face on a regular basis.

I was actually quite surprised by the things that were discussed during the meeting. Some of the topics were things that I had never thought about as being a part of the decision-making process.  Of course, they touched on the expected topics like the city’s budget, the expense report, the crime rate, potholes, maintenance of city property, new initiatives, attracting businesses, and more. But what caught my attention were the smaller details, the things that you don’t ever think about. I never thought about how expensive city dump trucks were, or how important it is that every city service (fire department, police station, etc.) is not over budget.  Factors as small as who is cutting the grass on city-owned property and how much it will cost are just as important as the major issues. After that meeting, I looked at Elba, all cities, differently. It really made me appreciate the work that they do. There are so many aspects to their job that I don’t think people realize.

Regardless of how much work that the city council members do, I’ve noticed that citizen participation at the meeting was low. I know the citizens care, but you can’t really tell through the attendance of the city council meetings. I would assume that it’s because of the time frame of the meetings. People are either still at work, or just getting off and not willing to come back out. However, this doesn’t mean that the citizens of Elba aren’t engaged. It’s actually quite the opposite. They are so involved in every aspect of the community that I don’t really think the attendance at these meetings reflects a disengaged citizenry.

Something really special that I noticed at the city council meeting was the way the city council members thought about how their decisions affected the people. I haven’t been to other city council meetings around Alabama, but I doubt that they know their citizens as well as Elba’s city council. The coolest thing I heard at the meeting was during the part where they were discussing ideas to make certain manual labor easier. They discussed getting a machine to do some tasks automatically. Before anyone gave it the ok, they all turned to each other and asked what would happen to the person who has been doing this job for years. They all came up with a solution so that the person wouldn’t be out of a job if they did go with the automatic method. I really thought that was a beautiful thing. If more council members and other government agencies in other places thought about their citizens in that way instead of just looking for shortcuts, I think it would make any town a much better place.

Hobson City: Week Six

In Hobson City on July 6, 2012 at 2:36 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.

All communities are charged with the task of making important decisions at one point or another.  These decisions can be every day decisions that keep towns functioning or they can be pivotal decisions that determine the future course of that community.  Regardless of the gravity of a decision, it is important that members of a community are able to work through issues and reach a conclusion that everyone is willing to live with. During my time in Hobson City, I have not had the privilege of witnessing members of the community making any such decisions. This is not simply because the opportunity has not arisen; it is because ordinary citizens seem distanced from civic matters.

One of Hobson City’s tough issues is the fact that many citizens feel powerless when it comes to determining their future. The town has been in a state of stagnation for so long that many people have come to accept it as a way of life. This is apparent from the conversations that I’ve had with many citizens over the course of my project. Many express their concerns about the community, but they feel that the odds of things getting better are not good. Only a select few members of the town participate in committees and councils that can help determine the course that Hobson City is to take. Many people in the community acknowledge that they are disengaged from civic matters because they feel that there is no place for citizen activism outside of official roles. Others are disengaged because they don’t know how to become engaged.

As a result, everyone is not present at the table when important decisions are to be made in Hobson City. This disengagement can be detrimental to the further development of Hobson City.  I’ve learned throughout my time in Hobson City that community development is not simply making things happen in a community. Community development involves creating a citizenry that genuinely cares about the welfare of its community and empowering that citizenry to make important decisions regarding the future of that community.

There is a spark in Hobson City these days. That spark is present in the people that I interview. Despite the aforementioned level of disengagement, citizens are beginning to believe that change is possible in their home. The spark is apparent in the Hobson City Pride campaign that I’ve written about in the past. When people see progress, they want to be a part of it. That is the case of Hobson City. More people are concerned with the future of their community, and they want to do what they can to help it. That sentiment has been the key to me speaking with many candidates for the needs assessment. When I tell people that the data they provide will help make Hobson City a better place to live, they eagerly offer me the information I seek.

I don’t believe that Hobson City’s residents are apathetic about civic life. Instead, I think that they are simply watching and waiting for opportunities to participate. The community could very much benefit from more open, honest dialogue about the town. If citizens don’t come together and meet face to face they will never know about the challenges and opportunities that the town has. Hobson City is undoubtedly on the path to recovery, but community unification is one of the obstacles that the people will have to face soon in order to move forward. The citizens here are very capable of making important decisions; they simply must be given a fair opportunity to do so.