Coming Full Circle: The Life Cycle of Living Democracy

I entered Auburn University in 2009 with a surface-level understanding of community service and engagement. Through family example and school and community expectations, I had become hardwired to volunteer. I participated in every organization possible and volunteered in the community because I could leave those activities feeling “good.” By my freshman year of college, however, such a feel-good lifestyle felt exhausting and empty. I wanted authentic experiences that would lead me to something deeper.

At Auburn, I found what I was looking for and more as a Community and Civic Engagement (CCE) minor. Of all the CCE opportunities I participated in, Living Democracy was by far the most authentic. I first learned of it in an Appalachian Community Development class with Dr. Mark Wilson. That class, coupled with a course I had taken on the Civil Rights Movement, made me to want understand what can happen when citizens gather around a common cause. Living Democracy was too good an opportunity to pass up. Then Dr. Wilson told me about a placement in Hobson City, the first municipality in Alabama to be founded entirely by African Americans. It married my two loves, of history and community development. I was in.

Hard-Learned Lessons

Dr. Wilson and Professor Nan Fairley assembled an amazing group of Living Democracy Fellows. We all had different reasons for participating, but we shared a desire for an authentic experience.

We threw ourselves into the task of preparing for our individual summer 2012 placements. We researched our sites by speaking with our community partners, visiting the towns, and reading everything we could. In addition, we read literature on democracy, civic engagement, community development, and grassroots organizing. Most beneficially, in my opinion, we were required to take a class in community journalism. Although I told myself that I was not going to Hobson City to save the world, consuming so much theoretical knowledge without testing it through application gave me a false bravado. I was ready to go to Hobson City and interact with the community the right way.

In reality, no amount of theoretical knowledge or prior warning can prepare an individual to experience civic life in a new community. I’m thankful for the preparation I received, but the beauty of Living Democracy is that it allows naive, idealistic students like me to get their hands dirty and find out what happens when academia hits the streets.

Living Democracy in Hobson City was the most challenging ten weeks of my life. My original project—to complete a comprehensive community needs assessment with a group of youth volunteers (lofty, I know)—fell flat. I knew the project was failing long before I would admit it, but it was what the community wanted and, steeped in literature about pushy academics foisting their ideas on community partners, I did not speak up. In adopting such a mindset, even with noble intentions, I undermined the purpose of the program. Listening to the community is important, but speaking up is important, too. Eventually, we landed on a backup plan: collecting oral histories and creating an exhibition with historic photos. The new project maximized the town’s historical assets while developing my talents.

The lessons I learned in Hobson City were hard, but they were worth it. I learned that any population, no matter how small, reflects a diversity of perspectives. Prioritizing one group over another is risky, no matter how legitimate we feel their concerns are. Community partnerships mean that all present should be able to use their gifts for the benefit of the community. By skewing my role into that of a “community servant,” I failed to take ownership of the town and its issues as I should have. My unique perspective on the community was almost lost.

Through Living Democracy, both students and citizens should gain new knowledge. But the servant mindset was hard to break. Above all, I learned that in civic life, relationships matter the most, and I left Hobson City with many rela­tionships that continue to be meaningful to me.

The Living Democracy Mindset

After Living Democracy, I was named a George J. Mitchell Scholar, and I spent a year in Northern Ireland (NI) obtaining a master’s degree in leadership for sustainable rural development from Queen’s University Belfast. I took the Living Democracy mindset with me. Although I knew my time in NI was finite, I still dug into the community, built relationships, and searched for the heartbeat of my temporary home.

As a degree requirement, I spent four months working for the NI Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, consulting with stakeholders and drafting a funding program for rural social enterprises. The Living Democracy mentality made the project personal for me. It wasn’t about a passing grade; it was about building a program that would benefit rural citizens. It felt like a continuation of my fellowship in a different place. I realized that no matter how long or short my time is in a community, people will feel the impact of my presence—positive or negative—long after my departure.

Now I’m back home in Randolph County, Alabama, teaching social studies at Handley Middle School, which I attended as a student. Before that, I spent two years as program director of the Randolph County Youth Development Initiative, where I worked closely with another Living Democracy Fellow, Joy Porter, in 2015. My home county will soon have a deficit of leadership, business development, and workers unless we can plug the brain drain that we have been experiencing. Through my work with youth, I hope to equip our next generation of leaders.

Living Democracy left me with a mentality that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. To be engaged in community life, listening and doing are important, but so is speaking. I am no longer afraid to do any of those things.


Marian Royston is a 2013 Graduate of Auburn University.

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