Living Democracy is a service learning project launched by the College of Liberal Arts Community and Civic Engagement Initiative. The program began in fall 2011 and pairs six students with six communities to inspire each citizen to participate in policy and community affairs.
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These six students will be living in each community for 10 weeks to work closely with the citizens and encourage a more democratic community. The communities include: Bayou La Batre, Cahawba, Elba, Hobson City, Linden, Marion, Selma and Valley.
“The focus is to learn how to facilitate and moderate conversations in a community setting, and the dialogue that people need to have to discuss change and set goals on how to make that change happen,” participant, Angela Cleary said.
Cleary has been placed in Bayou La Batre, a small town outside of Mobile and the seafood capital of Alabama. The senior is looking forward to the opportunity to work with local community members to generate a more democratic society.
Cleary was asked to apply for the program by Dr. Mark Wilson, one of the founders of the project and community and civic engagement coordinator. Because of her interest in ecotourism and involvement as an ambassador for the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, Wilson knew that she would be a good match for the project and for Bayou La Batre.
Majoring in interdisciplinary studies with three concentrations: Sustainability Studies, Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Community and Civic Engagement made Cleary the ideal candidate for this opportunity.
Wilson lent Cleary the book, “In the Path of the Storms” by Peggy Denniston, Frye Gaillard, and Sheila Hagler and she instantly felt a connection with the community. The book talks about Bayou La Batre’s battle to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina and then being affected by the oil spill.
“I took home the book and absolutely fell in love with the community and I told Dr. Wilson that if he made me fall in love with this community and I wouldn’t get to work with them- we would have problems,” Cleary said.
The next week Cleary was assigned Bayou La Batre.
Living Democracy is divided into three parts. First, the students take an introduction course to community and civic engagement, learning how to ask the right questions to make the members of the community create change. In the spring, participants take a community journalism class with Dr. Nan Fairley, another founder of the program, to learn the importance of documentation. Students are taught to “save the soul of the town” by blogging and writing feature stories to highlight the changes being made.
The culmination of the project results in each participant living in their community for 10 weeks to create common goals and work with the communities so others can help continue to carry out the goals at the conclusion of the internship.
Cleary will be working with the nonprofit organization, Boat People S.O.S. This organization caters to refugees of Southeast Asia such as Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians who moved to Bayou La Batre in the 1970s to escape war, famine and political turmoil in their countries. She will be partnering with the nonprofit to recruit members of the community to discuss the changes they want made to their town and how to obtain those goals.
Southeast Asians make up a third of the population in the community with the rest of the people being predominantly white or black. Cleary is anxious to work with the diverse community to help ease the tensions and competitions within these groups.
Another challenge Cleary faces, is the general distrust of political leaders. For example, Mayor Stan Wright, has recently been indicted for embezzlement of FEMA funds. Cleary wants to help build up trust by asking members to be more politically active.
“The project is about creating an open dialogue and an open table of people that don’t have to be on top of the totem pole to inspire change, just your average joes who are willing to work,” Cleary said.
In addition to diversity and political issues, Cleary will be working with “Bayou HOPE,” a youth-empowerment program encouraging students to speak out within their communities. She will serve as facilitator of the conversation between adult leaders and high school and middle school students.
As an outsider, Cleary is both hopeful and nervous about her impact on the community. She hopes to focus on breaking down the cultural and language barriers of each group so that each citizen can speak out on their ideas of a healthy community.
“Trust is earned. These people have gone through so much and people think that they can come there and play Superman and save this community and it’s not about being saved, it’s about saving yourself,” Cleary said.
At the end of the 10-week term, Cleary plans to celebrate her time spent in Bayou La Batre with a seafood barbecue. She wants the citizens to reflect on what they accomplished and how to continue on the path to a more democratic community.
“That, to me, is what makes a successful project. When you leave, it keeps going,” Cleary said.
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