Auburn University program puts student in Hobson City for summer, aims to foster civic engagement
by Eddie Burkhalter
Jun 07, 2013 | 3158 views |  0 comments | 48 48 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Audrey Ross plays cards with children at the Hobson City Library earlier this week. Photo by Stephen Gross.
Audrey Ross plays cards with children at the Hobson City Library earlier this week. Photo by Stephen Gross.
HOBSON CITY — Audrey Ross sat at a table Wednesday explaining the rules of a card game called spoons to a group of children from Hobson City.

“Any questions?” she asked, waiting on a few more children to show for the meeting. “Remember. We’re going to go fast. Everybody ready?”

The same sort of speed she applied to the game could well represent Ross' effort in helping those children devise a project or activity that will benefit their town for years to come. She has only 10 weeks to accomplish her goal.

The 19-year-old junior in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University is part of a year-long project at Auburn called the Living Democracy Program, which puts students in seven rural cities across the state. Other students are currently working in Bayou La Batre, Cahawba/Selma, Collinsville, Elba, Linden and Marion.

This will be Ross’s second summer in the program, having worked last summer in the once-bustling textile town of Valley. There Ross guided another group of youth in several projects culminating in a basketball tournament and community day.

A native of Siloam Springs, Ark., Ross said that in Hobson City she’ll again spend much of her time with youth, but she won’t choose what kinds of projects the children will work on. That’s up to them, she explained.

“They have a whole bunch of ideas and they don’t have anybody telling them that it’s not going to happen,” Ross said. “The main point is not what project we do. It’s that we’re doing projects that they come up with.”

Mark Wilson teaches at the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn and oversees the program, part of the college’s Community and Civic Engagement minor program. Now in its second year, Wilson explained that it’s meant to give students hands-on experience in community building.

“It’s kind of an experiment. Of course everything in education is really an experiment,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the program asks students to “figure out where groups are in the community who are working for change, trying to get things done, and figure out how to work across all the lines that tend to divide us. Race, class gender etcetera.”

Now an Auburn graduate, Marion Royston was the first student from the program to work in Hobson City.

Royston found herself struggling to get local volunteers to help with a community needs assessment survey, in part, she said, because they were sceptical of her motives.

“When people keep hoping for things to get better, and people promise them that it will but it doesn't, that creates a bad situation. I'd be distrustful too,” Royston said.

Ross said that it can be hard to engage members of a community, but that’s never been a problem for her when working with youth.

Ross said she’s spending her first days in Hobson City watching and listening, trying to find out how she can help existing programs in the community. She’s already partnered with the Hobson City Community Economic Development Corp., which last month held a grand-opening on the renovated J.R. Striplin Park.

The oldest black incorporated town in the state, Hobson City has suffered in recent decades from declining revenues. After six years without a police department, which closed due to lack of funds, regular patrols from Calhoun County Sheriff’s deputies began in May.

“One of the things that they really need to do, and struggle doing, they’ve told me, is connecting more on a personal level with the community,” Ross said of the Economic Development Corp.

And to help the group in that goal, Ross said she hopes to “connect with all the groups. Not just their economic and community board, but connecting with the librarian and the Sable Learning Center and the Town Hall.”

She’ll do that by guiding the children through projects that will require help from all four.

“Even though they’re not always on the same page, or even on the same team sometimes, I’ll try to connect with all those so that we can get something productive done,” Ross said.

Economic Development Corp. president Eric Stringer explained that what excites him about the program is the effect it can have on the children of Hobson City.

“Hopefully it will inspire them to understand the kinds of opportunities they may be able to experience, and bring back to the community,” Stringer said.

“It’s a great program. I’m not sure if we fully capitalized on the potential that it brings our first time around, but we’re hoping that we learn from our mistakes,” he said.

Stringer and Wilson both say that the nonprofit’s largest project to date, the park renovation, will not have lived up to its potential until residents understand the meaning behind the action, that it’s about people working together to enact positive change.

“Until they understand the role that that park plays in the big picture, when people start to see that, that’s when we’re really going to move miles ahead,” Stringer said.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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