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The 5 Truths I Learned from Living in Linden

I applied for Living Democracy on a whim.

I was captivated by the idea of living in a new town, learning about a strange, new place, and getting to do what I love---writing about my experiences. I was pleasantly surprised when I was offered a position on the Living Democracy team.

When I told friends and family about my summer opportunity, the common question “What’s the point of this?” was asked.

My typical response: “I’m going to serve in a rural community this summer.”

That is not what I did this summer.

This summer, I observed a community that is working to “serve” itself. I watched as local leaders assess unused assets and strive to utilize them for the town. What was once an abandoned gym will now become a grocery store that will provide local jobs and keep tax revenue within the county.

On a personal level, I learned firsthand the struggles of working to bring a community together. I learned the pitfalls you will face as a leader. I discovered the lines that will separate groups of people. I found that although it may be a small town, news of a new community event is not spread by “word of mouth” alone. But, I also discovered the importance of bringing a community together. It strengthens ties among citizens and develops a sense of ownership among those who call a community home.

I now know the answer to the question posed by my family and friends at the beginning of the summer. I realized the importance of the study of community engagement through these five truths about building communities.

Where you are from shapes who you are.

Ever since I left for college, I have become accustomed to the question, “Where are you from?” However, in Linden, I noticed it was more than standard small talk; people were genuinely interested in my answer. Once, when I replied that I was from a small town in Northeast Alabama, the person sat back and said, “Oh, well you know how a small town works then.”

I learned what people in rural towns value and what they are willing to sacrifice in order to lead the life they want. They value the peace and quiet of the country and are willing to travel longer distances to work and school. They would rather live at a slower pace than keep up with the busyness of city life. They prefer to know everyone by name, rather than hide in the anonymity that a big city provides.

A new story is everywhere.

I thought I had to travel across the country or halfway around the world to find something I had never experienced before. Nevertheless, I found new experiences at a country store, where I discovered Southern delicacies I never knew existed. I found new experiences at Gee’s Bend, where a group of women are keeping the art of quilting alive and sharing the history of their ancestors with the next generation. All around us are everyday citizens working together to create the unique culture of our communities.

Being a part of a community means being engaged in the conversation.

Whenever I went to the local community pool in nearby Thomaston, I always brought along my headphones and a good book. I never finished that book because each time I visited the pool, I was invited to play in a children’s water game or I was chatting with the women sunbathing. It was as if, for them, part of the excitement of going to the community pool was interacting with whoever was going to be there that day.

For communities to work, we need that same engagement and inclusivity. Communities need the wisdom of the elders, as well as the energy and creativity of the youth. We must strive to erase the lines that divide us---whether it is age, racial, gender, or religious barriers---if we truly want a better community. We are doomed to make decisions that do not represent the entire community if not all groups are welcomed to the decision table.

Change is not a bad thing.

Before this summer, I was afraid of new experiences and changes tended to leave me fearing the unknown. I learned this summer that change is necessary for me to experience growth.

In the same way, Linden needs to experience change in order for it to experience growth. During the spring forum, the high school students I heard from believed Linden’s weakness was that “there is nothing to do here”. So, this summer, the Linden Youth Council and I hoped to change that in a small way. We organized a color run and children’s event.

As I took calls for registration, one mother told me it was on her daughter’s “bucket list” to run in a color run. Others told me they were excited to be a part of a local run because the nearest color runs were held in Tuscaloosa and Mobile.

Small towns can become quickly discouraged from trying new events in their communities because they simply do not have the financial resources and manpower that bigger cities have available. However, it is important that communities have galleries, festivals, and runs. It may be on a smaller-scale and may not look exactly like a “big city” event, but these events build relationships and instill community pride. It creates a sense of ownership that will build upon itself in the future.

A community must be composed of producers, not just consumers.

I learned from the citizens of Linden that we cannot wait for opportunities, we must create them. I learned this from local lawyer Tom Boggs. He saw the need for a veteran’s memorial and local sports hall of fame. He helped develop both of those for his hometown.

It is easy to sit back and wait for government to pass a bill into law that will bring change we would like to see. But, how will they know to take action if we never speak up? What if they cannot provide the change we wish to see? We also must be willing to take action on our own for the benefit of our community. I see this boldness at Linden’s Forest Hill Baptist Church as they work to serve their community in new ways.

I hope to carry with me the truths I have learned in Linden. I can carry this knowledge to my hometown and the future communities I will be a part of throughout my life. “Living the good life in Linden” gave me a vision for how I can and will make a difference in my community.

Tags: Linden

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