Third Annual New Faculty Community Engagement Tour Informs, Inspires

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By Sophia Xiong, Yiben Liu and Kirsten Barnes Center for Community-Based Partnerships

The Division of Community Affairs hosted the third annual New Faculty Community Engagement Tour, visiting towns and landmarks in the Black Belt region of Alabama, Wednesday through Friday, May 8–10.

Faculty members, graduate students and University staff visited various sites in Eutaw in Greene County, Greensboro and Newbern in Hale County, Aliceville in Pickens County, Livingston and York in Sumter County, Marion and Uniontown in Perry County, Selma in Dallas County, Thomasville in Clarke County, and Tuscaloosa County.

“The importance of this annual tour is borne out by the growing number of successful engaged-scholarship projects that have been inspired by the tour,” said Dr. Samory T. Pruitt, community affairs vice president, who came up with the idea for an annual tour of the neighboring Black Belt counties as a means of prompting research ideas for new faculty.

Day 1 took the visitors to Greene, Hale and Tuscaloosa counties, Day 2 took them to Pickens, Sumter and Perry counties, and the final day added stops in Clarke and Dallas counties, plus a return to Perry County. During each stop, participants discussed local initiatives and partnerships in a panel format.

The group left Coleman Coliseum at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday. The first stop was Robert Brown Middle School in Eutaw, where panelists and local artists shared stories about their programs as well as their needs for further development.

Panelists were Drenda Morton, lead teacher of the after-school program; Iris Sermon, director of Greene County E-911; Marilyn Gibson, librarian at the James C. Poole Library; Mildred Morgan, coordinator of Greene County Community in Action and facilitator of the Strengthening Family Program; Dr. Carol Zippert, director of the Greene County Society of Folk Art and Culture;, and John Zippert, board member of Greene County Hospital. The Zipperts are also publishers of the local weekly newspaper, The Greene County Democrat.

Morton introduced visitors to the 21st-Century After-School Program, now in its second year of providing after-school activities such as recreation, dance and field trips. Faculty and graduate students discussed potential partnerships with panelists and several mentioned how helpful the discussions were for considering partnerships.

At the Salem Missionary Baptist Church luncheon in Greensboro, in Hale County, Dr. Nicole Prewitt, UA director of Programs and Partnerships for Community Engagement, discussed the role partnerships play in area projects. She encouraged attendees to consider how the assets of a research university could be leveraged through local partnerships. “We are pleased to visit Greensboro and Newbern and learn more about these communities and the ongoing economic development efforts underway focused on human capital — ranging from education to job training to innovative housing research and development,” Prewitt said.

Dialogue with new faculty, staff, students and community members was spearheaded by local panelists including Tyler Clements, ALFA Insurance agent and co-owner of Puddle Jumpers LLC; Mattie Harris, director, Hale County Department of Human Resources; William “Bill” Hemstreet, retired fish health specialist for Alabama Fish Farming Center, Auburn University; Emily McGlohn, assistant professor, Auburn University Rural Studio; Aubrey Larkin, assistant superintendent, Hale County School System; and registered nurse Andrea Whaley, clinical director, Hale County Hospital Home Health Agency.

Llevelyn Rhone, founder, Greensboro Regional Opportunity Works, Inc., which is supported by members of Salem Missionary Baptist Church, was the local site coordinator for the Hale County visit.

A group of youth from the National Association for the Prevention of Starvation (NAPS) and NAPS Abundant Life Academy (NALA) also joined the lunch and panel. NAPS and NALA began working in the Black Belt in 2010 and 2013, respectively, through providing students with educational classes and service learning. After a short introduction, the students from NALA performed songs for the UA visitors.

In the afternoon, the group visited Rural Studio in Newbern County. Rural Studio is a design-build program of Auburn University dating to 1993. The program gives Auburn’s School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture hands-on projects while meeting community needs at the same time. More than 200 projects have been completed by Rural Studio since its inception. The UA group toured several Rural Studio projects, including the fire station project and library project.

The group’s last visit on Monday was The EDGE Incubator and Accelerator in Tuscaloosa. After a short tour, participants heard a panel discussion concerning Tuscaloosa’s Five-Year Consolidated Housing Plan, whose purpose is to promote housing diversity, assist lower-income households and preserve the character of Tuscaloosa’s neighborhoods.

Ashley Crites, Tuscaloosa planning director, hosted the panel. Other panelists were Brock Corder, president of the Builders Group; Daphne Curtis, agent for RealtySouth; Chris Hall, director of development for the Tuscaloosa Housing Authority; Heather Hill, associate director of Tuscaloosa’s HOME Investment Partnership Program; Brandon Kasteler, construction manager for Habitat for Humanity; and Dr. Theresa Welbourne, executive director of the Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute and The Edge.

UA faculty members expressed their appreciation for the chance to explore areas near the University, which provides opportunities to create new partnerships. As Dr. Holland Hopson, assistant professor from New College, said, “You need to find yourself a place in the community, and then start to engage and serve in it.”

He continued: “As was discussed during the luncheon panel, combining Rural Studio’s development of affordable, sustainable housing in rural areas with our College of Engineering’s wastewater treatment research addresses two critical issues faced by residents throughout the Black Belt. Partnerships like these, with two of the state’s leading research institutions working together right here in Hale County, can make a difference.”

On Thursday, the tour visited the Aliceville Museum in Pickens County, Hill Hospital in Sumter County, and Judson College and Francis Marion High School in Perry County.

At the Pickens County Aliceville Museum, the tour group viewed the Aliceville World War II Prisoner of War Camp documentary and attended a panel discussion with Pickens County officials. Sarah Quick from UA/Pickens County Health Care Teaching Partnership facilitated the discussion. Panelists were Terrence Windham, Aliceville city council member; Cynthia Colvin, Aliceville First Baptist Church member; Chelsie Skinner, nurse practitioner with Pickens County Medical Center; Shawn McDaniel, vice principal, Pickens County College and Career Center; and Edgar Pruitt, Aliceville Chamber of Commerce director.

Health care for women prisoners and retaining teachers in early education systems were two major needs panelists identified. Health care in prison, Windham said, is understaffed, especially for female prisoners. “They [women prisoners] do need care and they are very grateful to get care,” Skinner said. McDaniel said it is very hard to keep the teachers in early education; most leave after a year. “You can fool adults, but you can never fool children,” he said. He asked for support to enhance the sustainability of teachers.

At Hill Hospital in Sumter County, the panel discussion was facilitated by Chris Spencer, director of Resource Development for Community Engagement at UA’s Center for Community-Based Partnerships (CCBP). Panelists included Rev. Edmond Bell from Shiloh Zion Baptist Church; Loretta Wilson, administrator of Hill Hospital; Lindsey Truelove, director of the Sumter County Chamber of Commerce; and Anthony Crear, board member of University Charter School in Livingston.

Bell emphasized the importance of developing young people by increasing the literacy rate and maintaining summer programs of arts and sports for youth. Bell welcomed UA faculty and students to become involved. “We don’t want our young people to think they have to leave Sumter County to be someone. We want young talent to stay here,” he said.

Speaking for York Mayor Gena Doggett Robbins, Truelove discussed the “Sumter Renaissance” initiative, which promotes Sumter to the outside world. She encouraged UA students to join in the effort.

The third stop on the tour took participants to Judson College and Francis Marion High School in Perry County. Former Circuit Clerk Mary Moore facilitated the discussion. Panelists were Frances Ford, executive director and healthcare coordinator of Sowing Seeds of Hope; Dr. Cathy Trimble, Francis Marion School principal; and Col. Ed Passmore, vice president of Marion Military Institute.

Trimble said there were two major jobs she and her group are endeavoring to do: First, to guarantee the basic living condition for the students when they are studying in school. “If they don’t feel well, they will not learn,” she said. And second, “We need to train them to be productive citizens.”

Panelists stressed that health care was Perry County’s most urgent need. With no hospital in the county, they said, it takes hours for people to get medical care. Col. Passmore hopes for long-term, deep collaborative initiatives with Perry County because so far initiatives have been limited to brief visits several times a year.

Moore concluded: “We are not sitting on our hands but looking for every possible way to help ourselves. We are not looking for a handout, but a ‘hand up’.”

After each panel discussion, UA faculty and students talked to the panelists and discussed the possibility of building collaborative initiatives.

Day 3 made stops in Uniontown and Thomasville, and ended in Selma with the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the historic civil rights landmark.

During a stop at R.C. Hatch High School, the group was served a hot breakfast of catfish, grits and biscuits before being led in a discussion by Emefa Butler, founder of C.H.O.I.C.E. (Choosing to Help Others in our Community Excel).

“When we come together as a community we can make great changes, not only in Uniontown but for all of rural Alabama,” said Butler, who also teaches at Hatch. “For those of you who don’t know, community and opportunity both end in unity. So, we must unite to bring about changes.”

Tour participants heard from Dr. Leslie Ford, principal of R.C. Hatch High School, police corporal Jamarus Allen, schoolteacher Kay Dudley, Shawn Hall, pastor of Cowboy Church of the Prairie and Detre Langhorne, librarian at the Uniontown Public Library.

Dr. Julia Brock, assistant professor of history, began working at UA in 2018 and wanted to know more about rural Alabama and how she might use this knowledge in her research. “I work for and in partnership with the community to share and preserve the past,” Brock said. “Because my work is so community based I’m looking to see what the community needs are and see if I can connect with community members and other faculty.”

From Uniontown, the group put on their hard hats and toured the still-under-construction Thomasville Regional Medical Center, led by Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day. The group was shown a state-of-the-art facility that will provide residents with a full-service hospital that includes an emergency room, urgent care center, 32-bed hospital, and a full-service surgery center. There will be a helicopter on-site to transport patients to larger facilities when needed.

The facility “will prevent our residents from having to travel great distances for diagnostic services such as CAT scans. Instead of having to go to Tuscaloosa, Birmingham or Mississippi, they can have those services here,” Day said.

After this tour, the group dined at the Thomasville Civic Center where they heard from Thomasville City Schools Superintendent Garth Moss, Dr. Charles Shepherd of Coastal Alabama Community College, Erika Turflinger, a UA co-op student from Centreville and Liz Megginson of the Thomasville Public Library.

Once again the panelists discussed how their ability to work together as a community has created and attracted industry so that the city can retain its residents — especially its youth — with jobs.

“We are southwest Alabama’s rural success story,” Day said. “We service the Black Belt and we partner with the Black Belt on many initiatives.”

Dr. Drew Pearl, director of Community Engagement Research and Publications, attended all three days of the tour. “Being new to Alabama and Tuscaloosa, this was an eye-opening experience, especially as it related to the overlap of needs from the different communities that we visited,” said Pearl, who joined UA during the 2018–2019 academic year. “My research focuses on community engagement, so I wanted to learn how we can connect our resources to some of these issues.”

The final stop on the tour was a visit to the Selma Interpretive Center, where the group heard from Sheryl Smedley, executive director of the Selma Chamber of Commerce, Black Belt Community Foundation President Felecia Lucky, District Judge Bob Armstrong, Black Belt Community Foundation Head Start Director Patricia Stiles, and UA Director of Resource Development for Community Engagement Chris Spencer.

Not only did this group talk about combining resources for a better community, they also discussed how helping and supporting youth, including helping and supporting their parents, has been key to their success.

“In 2008 I sent more children to juvenile prisons than any judge in the state. I wasn’t proud of that,” said Armstrong, who has since solicited grants and set up a policy council to help prevent some of these children from being incarcerated. “We created a system of services that deal with root causes of problems and we revamped the juvenile court so there are very fair, but consistent and appropriate, consequences for their actions. In the last three years, we’ve only sent four children to the Department of Youth Services.”

After a period of informal conversations with the panelists, the group ended the tour by embarking on a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Site coordinators for the tour were Emefa Butler, Uniontown; Ashley Crites, Tuscaloosa; Lillie Jones-Osborne, Eutaw; Mary Moore, Marion; Amy Prescott, Thomasville; Sarah Quick, Aliceville; Llevelyn Rhone, Greensboro; and Chris Spencer, Livingston and Selma.

Members of the Planning Committee from The University of Alabama were Dr. Peter Hlebowitsh, dean of the College of Education; Dr. Jennifer Greer, associate provost for administration; Dr. Susan Carvalho, associate provost and dean of the Graduate School; Dr. Samory T. Pruitt, vice president for Community Affairs; Dr. Jim McLean, CCBP executive director; Carol Agomo, director of Community and Administrative Affairs for the Division of Community Affairs; Dr. Nicole Prewitt, CCBP director of Programs and Partnerships for Community Engagement; and Whitney Sewell, Community Affairs program manager.

The value of the trip, Pruitt said, “is hearing firsthand from community members, which helps us to be a better partner, one aligned with local priorities and needs. This enables us to fulfill our mission of forming life-changing partnerships with the communities with whom we work.”