Diversity and Democracy

“Fair Hope”: Places, Stories, and Education for Life with Alabama Towns

In November 2010, we met with a small group of citizens from seven Alabama communities and our colleagues from Auburn University in Fairhope, Alabama, to plan a new venture. Fairhope, which overlooks the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, was particularly inspirational for our purpose. In 1894, another small group of citizens from Des Moines, Iowa—followers of the economic theories of Henry George—began a colony based on cooperative individualism and a “single tax,” which allowed individuals to become shareholders of the cooperation that owned the land. They chose the Eastern shore, according to legend, because they saw a “fair hope of success.”

Our venture would not be quite so bold as that of the original Fairhope residents, but we would launch it in the same spirit of cooperation and with the realization that the experiment might fail. The Auburn University team wanted to see if the citizens were interested in collaborating on a new project named Living Democracy, where undergraduate students would embark on living-learning experiences in communities and develop skills to become committed citizens in a democratic society.

Rather than ask about community needs, we asked for community stories, tales of service that shaped the lives of those around the table—a schoolteacher/mayor, a director of a health-related nonprofit organization, a city clerk, a historic site director, a minister, an artist, and others. Through Living Democracy, students and communities would create new stories related to civic engagement, community assets, personal growth, and adventure.

We asked our friends what they thought their communities could contribute to an undergraduate’s “education for life.” The common refrain related to working with diverse (and sometimes ornery) people, experimenting with new ideas, and learning from things that do not work out as planned. The project we were creating together would be the real-world experience that students need and deserve, an opportunity to experience how citizens come together (or not) for the common good.

The Living Democracy Experience

Over the last six summers, thirty students have helped create many stories. A few are told here and in Marian Royston's narrative in this issue, and many more are available at http://www.auburn.edu/livingdemocracy. We never intended to build a large program, and the longer we organize the venture, the more we realize that the experience is not one that should be scaled up. With between three and seven students each summer, we believe we are providing communities in our state with the best thing a university can offer: a curious student who wants to grapple with the opportunities and challenges of active citizenship. Students usually take the courses Community Journalism and Introduction to Community and Civic Engagement, which give students context and help them develop skills for the work. But the actual ten-week summer experience, and the ability to reflect deeply on that experience, are what matter most.

Our students, who come mainly but not exclusively from liberal arts disciplines, grow personally and professionally from the experience. They gain self-confidence because they are organizing projects—such as art classes for young people or a river cleanup day—that give them the chance to work with people and understand the political implications of community work. Challenges are unforeseen and many, and they encourage students to cultivate deeper listening skills and an ability to persevere and develop backup plans. Students write an article each week on a civic topic, such as a third space (outside of the home and workplace); a “wicked problem” (Rittel and Webber 1973); a city council meeting; or individuals and organizations who embody civic engagement.

Students often call the experience an internship, as that’s the primary mental model for a practical experience in college. We remind them that in internships, students usually learn an institutional culture from the bottom up. Instead, Living Democracy is a living-learning experience that is more horizontal in nature, where students discover the web of relationships that make a community thrive—and they identify the relationships that should be there. As one student stated, “It’s not an internship where you make coffee; it’s an experience where you have coffee . . . with lots of people.”

Alumni Perspectives

Since Auburn University joined the Citizen Alum network, students in the Introduction to Community and Civic Engagement course have interviewed recent alumni—including former Living Democracy Fellows—about their civic identities and actions.

One of those alumni was Mary Beth Snow, who graduated in 2014 and who described her Living Democracy experience as “the most important thing I did in college.” As an undergraduate, she spent ten weeks in Collinsville, Alabama, where the population is more than 40 percent Hispanic. She established a reading program for immigrant children in a trailer park, among other projects. As she began her career as a bilingual teacher in a Houston elementary school, Snow said she felt better prepared than other recent graduates might because “there’s less fear of the grittiness of real life.” She explained, “I think we’re often shortchanged as undergraduates. We are offered consumer-based, polished study abroad and types of service experiences [that] are just about what you can get out of it.” In contrast, she said, Living Democracy “was the real world. We were given tools and then told to go out and make something working with local citizens.”

Our Living Democracy program connected us to Laurie Chapman, a 1998 Auburn University graduate who is now executive director of Restoration 154, a nonprofit in the rural community of Elba, Alabama. Named for the 154-mile-long Pea River that runs through Elba, the organization ultimately aims to complete 154 projects to improve the community’s quality of life. Six Living Democracy Fellows have since worked with Restoration 154 on projects including a community mural and the Giving Garden, which provides fresh produce to be distributed through the local food bank. Chapman observed, “I really like how Living Democracy brings in young people with outside opinions and energy.”

Perhaps the intersection of Living Democracy and Citizen Alum is the focus on networks. The development of networks and collaborative work around issues of democracy will help us answer the charge that Marietta Johnson, founder of the revolutionary Organic School of Education in Fairhope, Alabama, set forth at the beginning of the twentieth century. “Education must come into its own,” she said. “It must become the conscious agent for building a better world. It must be true to its high mission” (1996, 95).


Johnson, Marietta. 1996. Organic Education: Teaching Without Failure. Fairhope, AL: Marietta Johnson Museum of Organic Education.

Rittel, Horst W. J., and Melvin M. Webber. 1973. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4: 155–69.

Mark Wilson is Director of Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities at Auburn University and Nan Fairley is Associate Professor of Journalism at Auburn University.

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