Magazine Feature

Stories to Live and Build Bridges By

How Elon’s Power+Place Collaborative is transforming a university and community

By Sandy Marshall and Danielle Lake

Spring 2024

In the heart of Alamance County, amid the red brick mills and rolling green hills of North Carolina’s central Piedmont region, residents have joined with students and faculty from Elon University at a church near campus to listen and learn together. Their focus on this balmy evening in November 2023: the stories of community members whose lives, experiences, memories, and insights illuminate the county’s complex history of slavery, violence, and work toward racial diversity and equality. For this gathering of the Power+Place Collaborative, a university initiative to promote social awareness and community transformation through storytelling and other projects, the theme is “Spaces of Faith and Spiritual Diversity.” Stories that Elon students filmed and produced with county residents appear on the screen in the church’s auditorium.

In one video, Walter Allison, a reverend and well-known civil rights leader, recalls the days before North Carolina public schools were officially integrated in 1971. “When we had new books come in, they were already old books because they came from the White school,” Allison says, explaining that some books had pages torn out and no room to add one’s name.

Integration later brought its own set of challenges. Allison remembers that the first time he sat down in class at his new Burlington high school in 1967—a formerly White one that had voluntarily desegregated that year—all the White children moved to the opposite side of the room. The next day, when he shifted to the other side, his White classmates moved again. “It was really devastating going to school at that time,” he says.

After graduating and serving a few years with the Navy in Vietnam, Allison returned in 1974 to Burlington, where he spent thirty years as a firefighter before becoming a faith leader. Upon returning he also became active in the NAACP, the Alamance Racial Equity Alliance, and the Alamance Human Relations Commission, working alongside others to advance racial equity. “I would like to see the change of how people think about racial inclusion here,” he says in the video, “and I would like people to know that Alamance County is unique in its scope of diversity right now.”

This shared evening of Power+Place is more than just a one-off project in community engagement—it’s a living embodiment of community building. What began as a project to collect oral histories of residents of this historic county has blossomed into a deepening bond between Elon University and its surrounding community. Power+Place is a dynamic partnership between the university and the African American Cultural Arts and History Center (AACAHC), the city of Burlington’s Parks and Recreation division, and Alamance County Public Libraries. Since 2018, Elon students and faculty have worked closely with leaders from these organizations to conduct oral history interviews with community members—whom we call community storytellers—including local faith leaders, civil rights activists, artists, entrepreneurs, educators, first responders, and city employees. Together, participants have produced a vibrant quilt of community stories, weaving together threads of connection that transcend racial, religious, generational, and geographic boundaries. Consistent themes from the nearly fifty stories gathered so far include the power of connecting across differences, practicing care, breaking barriers, making change, and giving hope. Students and faculty report transformational experiences stemming from their work on this collaborative project.

The idea for Power+Place emerged from the cultural geography course Power, Place, and Memory, taught by one of us authors, Sandy Marshall. The course examines the politics of commemorative cultural landscapes, including monuments, memorials, murals, and historical sites; the power of communities to tell their own stories; and the way certain spaces evoke memory and emotion. This kind of power of place is even more potent when experienced firsthand with others, as with the collaborative’s storytelling project. For students, Power+Place serves as a way to make meaningful connections with the local community, to learn how to ethically engage with others across lines of difference, and to critically interrogate the racialized history of urban development, all while engaging directly in creative community transformation. For participating faculty and for us as founding members of the collaborative, Power+Place has yielded rich relationships with community organizations and groups, as well as a profound sense of connection to the local community, its history, and its future.

In addition, Power+Place aims to achieve Elon’s goal of telling a more inclusive institutional history as the university reckons with racial exclusion in its past. For colleges and universities facing their own problematic histories and seeking to repair strained community relations, creative collaborative efforts like Power+Place, aimed at understanding and retelling more inclusive histories, are a crucial part of bringing about a more just and equitable future.

Above: Jay Mebane, the first African American fire chief of the Burlington, NC, Fire Department, and current chief of the Chapel Hill Fire Department, visits a local school as a Power+Place community storyteller. Below: Students from the 2022 course Race, Place, and Memory meet with community storyteller Lawrence Slade, owner of the L&M Barber Shop. (Elon University)

Today, Alamance County is about 60 percent White, 20 percent Black, and 15 percent Latino. Railroad tracks and a multilane highway split the city of Burlington, which abuts the town of Elon, into a predominantly Black and Latino east side and a mostly White west one, which includes the campus of Elon University. The county is also home to the Burlington Masjid, a community center and place of worship serving some two hundred Muslim families who have settled in the area over time, drawn to job opportunities in health care. Members of the masjid represent more than forty nationalities and include Arab and Pakistani immigrants, African American Muslims, and newly arrived Afghan and Syrian refugees.

The demographic shifts have come with their share of conflicts. When the masjid opened in a former church space in 2016, the neo-Confederate group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ActBac, tried to prevent its opening. In response, faith leaders from Elon and the local area formed a coalition to support the masjid. ActBac then focused its energy on preserving “local heritage.” In 2020, it organized counterprotests to the Black Lives Matter protests against a Confederate statue in front of a county courthouse in nearby downtown Graham. That statue obscures the history of Wyatt Outlaw, the first Black town commissioner and constable of Graham who was lynched by a Ku Klux Klan–led mob near the site in 1870, a reprisal for his crackdown on local Klan activity. Preserving marginalized memories of oppression such as this (no statues or memorials commemorate Outlaw), as well as fostering stories of resiliency, community change, and visions for the future, are part of the work of the Power+Place Collaborative.

The connection between students and local community starts at the beginning of each storytelling project. First, Elon faculty partner students with community storytellers, whom they get to know throughout the semester. Together they take walking tours and visit the AACAHC, local places of worship, and other significant community sites. Students also learn the art of deep listening and interviewing, as well as video editing and storytelling. After they conduct, record, and transcribe their interviews with community storytellers, students distill the transcripts into compelling moments or messages that they share with Elon staff and students, the storytellers, and other community partners for feedback on content and style. The students then edit the interviews with archival images, video, and music to create digital stories. A community-wide screening each fall presents the final stories, which are also archived in a publicly accessible platform that Elon students and staff maintain.

Our research shows that this place-based, relational, and experiential pedagogical approach successfully breaks the traditional boundaries of higher education, allowing students to go beyond the campus bubble. For many students, participating in Power+Place projects shifts their perception of place and community. “I now have a heart for Alamance,” says one senior. “It has a history that runs deep that is really overlooked, especially its history of the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and other people of color] population. I really learned that through this project.”

Recent graduate Madison Gilgo says that Power+Place led her to not only embrace community involvement but to defer graduate school for a year to work on community engagement and dialogue efforts with Impact Alamance, a community-health foundation in the county.

More broadly, the work of Power+Place has contributed to a cultural shift at Elon toward embracing community-based learning and research. A number of higher education institutions and organizations have shown strong interest in this work as well. Since 2020, Southern New Hampshire University has been consulting with Power+Place to infuse more experiential, creative, long-term learning opportunities into its curriculum. Also exploring similar practices are faculty from Clark University in Massachusetts, University of Dayton in Ohio, St. John Fisher University in New York, and High Point University in North Carolina. Our experience shows that pushing beyond the university bubble in this way not only deepens and enriches students’ learning experiences; it also creates a dynamic in which all parties become invested in the changes that define the community’s future and well-being.

More Alamance County storytellers: Donna Vanhook (above) and Kerry Richmond (below, on right). In working on the storytelling projects, students gain deep listening, interviewing, and video editing skills. (Elon University)

Beyond its oral history and storytelling projects, the Power+Place Collaborative encourages campus-community connections through book club dialogues, immersive walking tours, and historical site visits. Through community-led tours of historically Black neighborhoods, minority-serving places of worship, and culturally significant sites, Power+Place participants develop a sense of pride and connection to a place long defined by division and exclusion. The AACAHC, under the leadership of Shineece Sellars, daughter of the organization’s founding director, Jane Sellars, regularly hosts tours of its exhibitions for students from Elon University and local K–12 schools.

Power+Place has also held intergenerational, multifaith community events where individuals from diverse backgrounds can come together and share perspectives on crucial social issues from policing to local election reform. The result is a deeper understanding of different viewpoints and the encouragement of productive dialogue. “Sometimes we are so focused on our own hardships that we don’t realize what is happening in other communities,” said one attendee at the 2023 Power+ Place screening. “Learning from other stories has been so impactful. I didn’t know we had so much in common.”

In response to recent research by Impact Alamance and the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation indicating the important role that faith institutions play in enacting community change, the collaborative has developed more partnerships with local faith communities, including historically Black churches, rural churches, Latino-serving institutions, and the Burlington Masjid.

“I am a product of the whole community rearing young people—the church, the school, the family, and community all contributed to who I am today,” says Helen Styles, a youth mentor and emeritus preacher at the First Baptist Church in Burlington. The historic church has roots stretching back to the days of slavery; a congregation founder and some of its past preachers were formerly enslaved men who went on to establish businesses and other churches in the community. “I want to make sure that the people around me are able to benefit from me,” Styles says. “If you can’t find anybody, find me.” Finding one another and creating a caring community is at the core of the storytelling work of Power+Place.

Another historically significant site, the once-segregated North Park in Burlington, became the hub of Power+Place during the pandemic. Faced with social distancing, faculty and community partners debated whether we could safely and ethically continue to have students interview older community members. Feedback from community partners stressed the need for connection with others during this time, so the park’s outdoor spaces became the site of socially distanced meet and greets between students and community storytellers. Faculty, community partners, and students forged lasting relationships through regular meetings and informal check-ins to adjust their storytelling projects and get personal well-being updates from one another. This experience helped participants embed an ethic of care and flexibility into the heart of Power+Place.

The park remains an important community space for Black residents, some of whom recall a time when the spot was their refuge from rural areas that lacked resources. “Going to North Park was like going to Disney World,” with its carousel, boats, and swimming pool, recalls one community storyteller, John Sellars (no relation to Jane or Shineece), in his recorded interview. Sellars attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where a swim instructor commented during his swim test that “Black folks can’t swim.” Sellars says he decided to demonstrate that “Black people could swim” by showing off the freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly techniques he had learned at North Park. “When I got out of the pool,” he says, “I turned around and said, ‘Yeah, Black folks can’t swim.’ And turned around and walked away.” Today, after a multimillion-dollar remodeling of its pool, North Park attracts children and families from all backgrounds and neighborhoods. Sellars hopes that a new generation will find the camaraderie and role models at the North Park pool that he did as a youth and perhaps one day produce an Olympic swimmer.

For all the importance of documenting the county’s hidden histories, the true magic of Power+Place happens during the public story screenings, where diverse audiences find themselves transported into a space of collective consciousness-raising. During breaks between the viewings of personal stories, grouped in thematic sections such as “Faith in Action” and “Learning across Difference,” students facilitate small-group discussions and note salient points on sticky notes, which are then displayed around the auditorium. Faculty members later compile the notes into reports that inform ongoing changemaking efforts. The deeply moving video stories create an atmosphere that is ripe for dialogue. During the open discussion after a screening, one participant remarked how hearing about what others experienced during racial segregation helped her understand both the discrimination she has felt as a Mexican immigrant and the community’s progress toward eliminating such prejudice.

To better understand the long-term impact of Power+ Place work on students, faculty, and community members, we and several colleagues at Elon interviewed and analyzed the written reflections of seventy Power+Place participants. We found a striking pattern: our storytelling projects act as a catalyst for personal growth for students and community storytellers alike, who gain greater understanding, enhanced empathy, and an increased capacity for collaboration. Faculty members indicate that they feel equally empowered and invigorated. Traditional models of education often confine faculty to predefined roles, but this collaborative effort emboldens educators to step outside their comfort zones and embrace the organic, sometimes unpredictable nature of creative collaboration and learning alongside community partners, community members, and students. Faculty members report having a stronger sense of belonging and connection and being more willing, prepared, and committed to engage in community-based learning.

“The stories grounded me in place and connected me to where I work. They gave me a sense of whom I am working with,” says Vanessa Drew-Branch, associate professor of human service studies. Other faculty report that Power+Place has motivated them to integrate place-based learning like site visits and walking tours into their classes or encourage others to do so, creating a ripple effect that extends beyond the boundaries of a single course.

Community members, students, and alumni attend public screenings of the Power+Place stories, which are grouped by theme, such as “Faith in Action.” During breaks between sets of stories, students facilitate small-group discussions, jotting down interesting points on sticky notes, which are then posted around the auditorium. (Elon University)

Importantly, the collaborative process builds trust between the university community and the local community. Power+Place storytelling is not a paternalistic service project; it is a cocreation of narratives that fosters a deep understanding between diverse communities. The word “understanding” is frequently invoked by community partners in our research, emphasizing the importance of this collaborative process in building bridges.

As director of Elon’s Center for Design Thinking, one of us authors, Danielle Lake, has extended and deepened the collaborative’s partnerships, involving more Elon faculty in the School of Education and departments such as Art History, Arts Administration, English, Interactive Media, and Strategic Communications. Adopting a flexible and organic model of collaboration allows faculty members to contribute as their capacity permits, while also creating opportunities for community partners to work directly with them on new courses or initiatives.

We have also intentionally sought to keep students, storytellers, and community partners further engaged with internships, research, and other opportunities. For her honors undergraduate research project, Lucy Garcia mapped the urban dislocation of the historic Black Bottom commercial district, creating an interactive map that is now on display at the AACAHC. Other students have served as teaching assistants, conducted community workshops, and designed K–12 curriculum with local schools based on Power+Place work, resulting in a collaborative project with high school students and summer youth camps focused on community history and storytelling. Community storytellers and partners have also gone on to share their perspective at academic conferences, K–12 schools, summer youth camps, and community organizations.

Long-term, community-engaged initiatives that traverse disciplines, institutions, and sectors are still too rare in higher education. Our current educational paradigms tend to emphasize grant-funded research, faculty autonomy, disciplinary expertise, and quantifiable outcomes. They undervalue the lived wisdom of our communities and the intangible results that emerge from experiential learning based in them.

Power+Place participants are currently working to install story walks across the county, featuring our community stories on a series of panels. Cocreated with Alamance’s parks and recreation department, public libraries, and public schools, these story walks will encourage visitors to share their own perspective and hopes for the county. The collaborative is also reaching out to archivists to ensure these oral histories are linked to state and national archives. As these narratives ripple through the community and beyond, Power+Place seeks to inspire a broader reimagining of community engagement among educators at colleges and universities.

Lead photo: Main Street in Burlington, North Carolina (Alamy)


  • Sandy Marshall

    Sandy Marshall

    Sandy Marshall is associate professor of geography at Elon University.

  • Danielle Lake

    Danielle Lake

    Danielle Lake is director of design thinking and associate professor of human service studies at Elon University.