I was raised in Roanoke, a small town in the southeast piedmont of Alabama. Several generations of my family have called the east Alabama and west Georgia region home, first in the bondage of slavery and now as proud and active members of the community. Singing “Old Negro Spirituals” in the family church every Sunday gave me an appreciation for the tenacity of the human spirit, while interacting with members of the community at civic events and Friday night football games taught me the importance of human connection. Growing up in such a close-knit community, I developed a strong sense of place. Yet, despite my love for my hometown, I knew I would have to leave because there were no opportunities for me in a town struggling to redefine itself in a post-industrial economy.
Roanoke, like so many towns in rural America, is facing economic hardship. Businesses have been forced to close their doors and countless textile jobs have been eliminated and relocated overseas. Social ills like teenage pregnancy, drug use, and adult illiteracy are endemic. Rural America is facing challenges like never before. Unlike in the past when farm and mill jobs would return after economic slowdown, the present day rural economy, attendant with mechanized and industrial food production and outsourcing of low skill jobs, is not likely to rebound. This, in turn, leads to a rural brain drain and loss of human capital leaving the poorest and most vulnerable behind.
Entering college, I knew I wanted to prepare myself to influence positively the lives of others living in rural towns like Roanoke, so I decided on a career in public interest law, majoring in History and minoring in both Political Science and Community and Civic Engagement. In retrospect, I realize that I neither fully understood the magnitude of the rural crisis nor believed that there was a way I could personally work towards fixing the problem. Quite frankly, I did not know my college experiences had the capability to help me find the link between my past and future while still allowing me the opportunity to impact the world in a meaningful way.
Through my involvement with the College of Liberal Arts’ Community and Civic Engagement Initiative, I started working in the black belt town of Notasulga, Alabama. The beautiful, lush landscape of the town stands in stark contrast to the dire social and economic conditions its citizens face. In Notasulga, I was able to connect my experiences in the classroom with the experiences I was having beyond the campus gates. I became involved with a program called the Macon County Youth Initiative and have worked to assist teenagers in developing college readiness and general life skills.
The schools in Macon County, where Notasulga is located, do not adequately prepare students to compete with their peers across the state, and the students are well aware of these deficiencies. They feel forgotten, and truthfully, they are. Through the program, we enable the students to seek success in their lives while connecting them to resources that can help them achieve their dreams. One of my students, Alexis, expressed interest in a career in journalism, but with no school newspaper or journalism class, she had no way of exploring the possibility. Fortunately, one of my professors coordinates a high school journalism workshop every summer, and I was able to get Alexis enrolled with a scholarship. Now, as a senior, she is more excited than ever to be a journalist. It is not the fact that I used my resources to help her that meant the most to Alexis; instead, it was the fact that I invested in her future. Empowering others to believe that change is possible, I learned, is a huge part of creating that change, first on the personal level and then on the community level.
I carried those ideals with me as a Living Democracy Fellow in Hobson City, Alabama (Alabama’s first incorporated all-Black town) while working on issues of community needs and historic preservation. Living and working there, I experienced the difficulties related to enacting real, lasting change in a downtrodden community. Walking door to door in the hot Alabama sun conducting needs assessments gave me the opportunity to get to know the citizens better, and I was able to understand the attitude of hopelessness that permeated the town. The town has been in a state of economic decline since the 1980s, and a large amount of the population lives in poverty. The citizens of the town do not understand why conditions cannot improve. Just like the students in Macon County, the people of Hobson City are left behind.
From working in Macon County and Hobson City, I feel a connection to the figures I have studied in my Civil Rights Movement class. Instead of working at a freedom school, educating community members about citizenship, I teach college and life skills to teenagers. Rather than travelling the dusty roads of the Mississippi Delta in search of individuals willing to register to vote, I walked the streets of Hobson City interviewing citizens about their community. Instead of the 1960s, it is 2012, but like those organizers of another era, I too am fighting to give a marginalized group the right to better social and economic opportunities.
My experiences in Roanoke, Notasulga, and Hobson City have convinced me that there is much work to be done in rural America. The one sixth of American citizens who live there have been forgotten and left to fend for themselves. Most rural policy is still tied to agriculture and ignores other pressing issues. I believe that rural America deserves better, and I plan to use my graduate and legal education to advocate for and develop better rural policies.
Last Updated: July 17, 2014