New Faculty Tour Introduces University/Community Collaboration

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By Taylor Armer, Yiben Liu, and Kirsten Barnes
CCBP Graduate Assistants

The University of Alabama’s Division of Community Affairs conducted its first New Faculty Community Engagement Tour of West Alabama counties Wednesday through Friday, May 10–12, 2017. The tour, “Exploring New Places, Meeting New People and Engaging New Communities,” was aptly titled, as before the trip most participants had only limited exposure to an area so important to the state’s history.

The tour was created to help researchers connect with community partners and bring together the interests of new faculty, along with key administrators and undergraduate and graduate students, to community needs through research partnerships. These partnerships help fulfill the University’s mission, which reads in part, “to advance the intellectual and social condition of the people of the state, the nation and the world through … an emphasis on quality programs in the areas of teaching, research and service.”

Day One

A diverse group of UA faculty and staff, graduate and undergraduate students boarded a charter bus at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, May 10. Across each county — Greene, Hale and Tuscaloosa — panelists expressed their pride in and demonstrated their knowledge of the different communities and institutions they represented. Again and again tour members expressed their appreciation for the chance to go on the tour, how much they learned and how enthusiastically they were welcomed at the different sites.

Dr. James Gilbreath, a UA reference and instructional librarian, spoke for many when he said that although he had lived in Alabama his entire life, the tour of landmark civil rights sites and the opportunity to observe so many effective examples of community-engaged scholarship in action constituted an “unforgettable experience.” The Birmingham native said, “I will carry the memories of the trip with me for the rest of my life.”

The first stop was Eutaw, where the group learned about initiatives from members of the county’s Children’s Policy Council (CPC). CPC supports children’s services in the areas of economic security, health, safety, education, parental involvement/skills and early care. Panelists were Phyllis Belcher, executive director of the Greene County Industrial Development Board; Dr. Carol Zippert, Greene County School System board member and co-publisher of the Greene County Democrat; Mildred Morgan, facilitator of the CPC Strengthening Family Program; Dr. James Carter, superintendent of the Greene County School System; and Julie Spree, Greene County probate judge.

Before the panel began, District Court Judge Lillie Jones-Osborne pointed the group’s attention to the large portraits of local civil rights activists that served as the panel’s background. The portraits were placed there as part of the county’s Annual Trailblazer Program, just one of many CPC successful 2016–2017 school year projects.

The Strengthening Families Program, a six-week series of parenting classes, was one of those projects, as described by facilitator Mildred Morgan. During these classes, entire families came together to engage in healthy communication, Morgan said, reinforcing the importance of family gatherings, especially for meals.

At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Greensboro, the visitors listened to a panel led by Buzzy Barnette, owner of one of the town’s best-known stores, Barnette Furniture. Afterward, they shared a catered lunch and dessert from Greensboro’s famous Pie Lab, which has become an international destination. It was established in 2009 in an abandoned pool hall to promote social change over a delicious meal. As the groups soon learned, Pie Lab represented only one slice of the many active community-engaged projects in Greensboro — a town of about 2,500 people.

Other members of the panel were Laramie Long, director of the Greensboro Boys and Girls Club; Osie Pickens, member of the Hale County Board of Education; John Dorsey, director, Project Horseshoe Farm; Evelyn Chambers, member of the Greensboro City Council; Shay Fondren, CEO of Hale County Hospital; and Winifred Cobbs, board president of the Greensboro Opera House.

According to Dorsey, Horseshoe Farm has been a part of the Greensboro community since 2007. Among the many programs of this service and leadership development organization are its youth-based initiatives, such as the after-school program designed to improve local K–8 students’ academic performance on standardized math and reading tests. Its base of operations on Main Street is expanding into adjacent space to accommodate future medical residents coming to Greensboro and for classrooms and other uses.

Another group is working on the Opera House as a multipurpose cultural center. Built in 1903, the building sat empty for more than a half-century until Cobbs and her cohorts raised funds to purchase it. With additional grant funding from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, the non-profit organization has restored the downstairs portion of the two-story building. Cobbs hopes to secure additional grants and funding to restore the upstairs theater so that Greensboro citizens can fully enjoy the cultural experience.

Before leaving Greensboro, the UA group gathered at the Safe House Black History Museum. The Museum, a modest, shotgun-style house, was the exact location where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sought refuge from the Ku Klux Klan in 1968. Enlarged quotes alongside photos and historical artifacts from that era are found throughout one of the property’s buildings. Theresa Burroughs, Safe House director, said the building encapsulates the struggle for civil rights in Alabama. An active participant of the Civil Rights Movement and friend of the King family, Burroughs walked the UA group down the “freedom” trail (a glass hallway) to the connecting “future” building, where several photos celebrate the movement’s achievements in Alabama and America.

After a 50-minute drive from Greensboro, the UA group reached its last stop of Day 1 at Holt High School, a county school northeast of Tuscaloosa. Members of the panel, reflecting community partners, UA faculty and local educators, shared their work on many projects in the Tuscaloosa and Holt communities.

Panelists were Amanda Waller, executive director of Tuscaloosa’s One Place; Debbie Crawford, principal of Holt Elementary School; Helen Sides, chair of Holt in Action; Aundrea Thomas, president of Holt Community Partnership; UA Professor of geropsychology Dr. Rebecca Allen, representing Project SOAR; Dr. Jen Nickelson, associate professor of Health Science, representing Holt Community Partnerships Health Lab; UA Associate Professor of developmental psychology Dr. Jeff Parker, working with local schools to stem pet overpopulation and other projects; UA Assistant Professor of social work Dr. Tania Alameda-Lawson, Alabama TOPS, a program for at-risk youth; and Jay Logan, director of community outreach for the Tuscaloosa County Parks and Recreation Authority.

It quickly became evident that many of the panelists had partnered together in some capacity within the Tuscaloosa, Holt and surrounding communities. For example, Alabama TOPS is a University/community-school partnership among Holt Elementary School, Tuscaloosa’s One Place, and UA’s College of Education and School of Social Work. The two-pronged program teaches personal and social responsibility through a sports-based after-school program that has reached 70 participating students this school year, according to Alameda-Lawson.

The family and community engagement component helps families within the community, many of whom live well below the poverty line. A Center for Community-Based Partnerships (CCBP) seed grant will expand this program to parents with children in Davis-Emerson Middle School during the 2017–2018 academic year.

Waller called attention to the parenting program Changing Habits and Making Parents Stronger (CHAMPS) as a Holt community program that has helped non-custodial fathers interact positively with their children. “We believe that stronger families make stronger communities,” Waller said, and that these programs provide needed resources to families.

Day Two

On May 11, the tour visited Pickens County Medical Center and Pickens County Courthouse; Hill Hospital and Coleman Center for the Arts and Culture in Sumter County; and Judson College and Marion Military Institute in Perry County.

At the Pickens County Medical Center, the UA group attended a panel discussion made up of representatives of Pickens County. Dr. Pruitt, vice president for Community Affairs at UA, opened the discussion by introducing the main purpose and mission of the tours. Panelists then described some of the key engagement projects being implemented in the area and the possible partnerships they hoped to attract from UA. Partners with unique talents, such as experts in nutrition and health care, were mentioned as those needed the most.

Dr. Michele Montgomery and Dr. Paige Johnson from the Capstone College of Nursing said that starting with seed fund grants from the Council on Community-Based Partnerships, initiatives have been implemented that focus on health promotion and disease prevention, as well as engaging the students with rural areas surrounding the University.

Montgomery discussed an earlier initiative of health screening of cardiovascular risk factors for the pre-school children in Carrollton (Pickens County) and Tuscaloosa. Johnson said the College of Nursing is planning to extend the screening process to all of Pickens County. Johnson assured those in attendance that UA “is not going to go away. We’re going to be here!”

Jim Marshall, CEO of Pickens County Medical Center, described cooperative efforts to increase the volume of business of the hospital. According to Marshall, communication and education are very important to a rural hospital like Pickens County Health Center because people’s lack of information of what the hospital can do not only affects their health, but also results in loss of patients for the hospital. He said he hoped future partnerships with UA would focus on information dissemination and follow-ups beneficial to the hospital.

Other panelists were Tony Junkin, District 3 county commissioner; Gordo Mayor Craig Patterson; Superintendent of Pickens County Schools Jamie Chapman; and Courtney Rentas, a 2016 UA graduate and Goldwater Scholar and now a University of Alabama/Pickens County Partnership Fellow.

After touring the Pickens County Medical Center, the group visited the Pickens County Courthouse. Patti Presley-Fuller, County Extension coordinator, told the visitors the famous ghost story of former slave Henry Wells’ image etched in one of the windows of the building. The story of “The Face in the Courthouse Window” became one of author Kathryn Tucker Windham’s famous ghost stories. Some in the group claimed they could see the famous image etched in a windowpane on the upper level of the building.

At Sumter County, the group first visited Coleman Center for the Arts and Culture, a local museum and art education center for grassroots artists. Jackie Clay, director of the Center, said that the center is holding a multi-disciplinary summer camp and is always looking for new partners. The group attended a second panel discussion at Hill Hospital.

Tommie Campbell, chairperson of Sumter School Board, said, “Good things are happening in Livingston Sumter County school system.” She and Tramene Maye, Livingston Junior High School principal, cited a growing reputation for high achievements by students, new facilities and initiatives in process and the ongoing programs aiming to increase student standardized test scores.

Loretta Wilson, administrator of Hill Hospital, stressed the need to maintain partnerships with different organizations to deliver medical services to the community. According to Wilson, with the new federal value-based payment system, the role of prevention has become more important in medical service delivery. Networking with organizations like UA, she said, helps in these goals.

Other panel members were Marcus Campbell, District 2 county commissioner; Tommie Armistead, District 4 county commissioner; and Jackie Clay, Coleman Center for the Arts and Culture director.

The third stop of the tour was Perry County. The group made a brief visit to Jewett Hall on the Judson College campus. Then they reached the last stop, Marion Military Institute. Originated in 1842, the Institute is a two-year military junior college offering an associate’s degree and military training to equip students with leadership skills and character development, as well as the basis for continuing their education at a four-year college or university.

Col. David J. Mollahan, Marion Military Institute president, outlined the history of the college. Chris Joiner, executive director of Renaissance Marion, a local community non-profit organization, and Davis Jackson, coordinator of 57 Miles, a student and faculty engagement program named for the distance between UA and Marion, expressed their desire to continue the establishment of sustainable partnerships with UA to fulfill the promise of Marion’s tomorrow.

Other panelists were Col. Ed Passmore, acting commandant and director of MMI’s Center for Service Leadership, and Amy Butler, coordinator of Faith-Based Service Learning at Judson College.

After each panel discussion, UA faculty members also described their research interests and discussed the possibility of future collaboration. Staff members of the Division of Community Affairs and CCBP also explained some of UA’s ongoing initiatives and programs to them. For example:

After the second day of the engagement tours, participants expressed their appreciation for the tour. “What I like most is how varied the different visits were … we can really see the scope of potential involvement for UA,” said Dr. Susan Carvalho, UA Graduate School dean. “The graduate program can find a great deal of inspiration in the partnerships that could be built or have already been built with these communities.”

Dr. Gilbreath, who had been especially impressed during the first day’s stops at civil rights landmarks, called Day 2 tremendous and the overall program brilliant. Even though an Alabama native, he said he still found the trip really eye-opening.

Katherine S. Eastman, a clinical and technical services librarian originally from California, said, “I have written down probably 500 different ideas. I’m definitely going to pursue more projects,” including helping Hill Hospital in Sumter County with materials related to their emphasis on disease prevention.

Day Three

On the third day of the tour administrators, faculty, staff and student researchers continued to explore new places, meet new people and engage new communities. Several members of the group had attended all three days, while others were just joining the tour. Yet each person on the tour found it informative and thought-provoking.

“I haven’t seen enough of Alabama since I’ve been here and I wanted to understand how student projects are sustainable and what kind of projects can create continuity between the University and the community,” said Carvalho, who spent two days touring with the group and came to UA in July 2016. “I’ve been impressed with the innovation within each of the communities as they work with the assets they have, and I’ve learned more about the resources UA can bring to bear.”

The day began at the Thomasville Civic Center before traveling to the Golden Dragon Plant in Pine Hill, both in Wilcox County. The panel discussion in Thomasville was led by Mayor Sheldon Day, with panel members from the county, city, school and business communities. The group discussed how they’ve created synergy by sharing resources to create more opportunities for citizens.

“What the library was doing in Thomasville was so amazing, making community crossroads for training and workforce development, and access to the Internet,” Carvalho said.

Several tour members were from the Chinese Sisterhood of Tuscaloosa organization and most had no idea there was a Chinese copper factory, Golden Dragon, roughly 100 miles from campus.

“I’m new to the University. This is my second year,” said Professor Di Luo, who teaches history. “I wanted to find opportunities to engage and I enjoyed the tour. It’s impressive to see how people can organize all kinds of things.”

Dr. Yuping Bao has taught chemical engineering at UA for nine years and said she approached Pruitt about assisting faculty and student groups in making these valuable connections with communities to help facilitate engaged research.

“He made it happen. I had no idea there was a Chinese factory in Wilcox County,” Bao said. “We may be able to help Golden Dragon.”

After lunch the group arrived in the Gee’s Bend community located in Boykin, Ala., where they met quilter Mary Ann Pettway, who told them how the quilters began their craft out of necessity, then sang a religious hymn for the group.

“I’m the seventh of twelve children,” she said. “We didn’t have beds, so we made quilts to sleep on the floor. Our homes were not warm enough.” Pettway now travels throughout the country telling the story of the Gee’s Bend Quilters. “They say it’s a dying art, but as long as I have breath, I’m going to keep it alive.” Pettway has served as manager of the quilting cooperative, where the women operate a gift shop and serve baked goods, since 2005. Several members of the group purchased quilted souvenirs.

At a second panel discussion, at the Marengo County History and Archives Museum, Thomas Moore Sr. led a panel composed of two school superintendents and two businessmen. They discussed how their community provides opportunities for its youth.

“Everything we do is moving toward technology and we have done extremely well in that area. Even being a rural school, academics still come first,” said Luther Hallmark, superintendent of Marengo County Schools.

The final panel discussion was led by CCBP Community Development Director Chris Spencer, joined by representatives from the non-profit, religious and business communities. The group discussed ideas for a reimagined and inclusive Selma with a thriving arts district.

“It had never dawned on that collective body that there are lots of communities within our community,” said Martha Lockett, a board member of the Black Belt Community Foundation and a supporter of Arts Revive, as she discussed Selma’s initial strategic planning meeting. “If we get Broad Street looking like gangbusters, and we get shops but people within a 10-block radius of Broad Street aren’t part of it, then we’ve failed in our mission. Some things are top-down, but energy is bottom-up.”

The tour would not have been complete without walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the footsteps of 600 marchers led by now U.S. Rep. John Lewis on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. Reflecting on her daily drive to Selma from Livingston, Felecia Lucky, president of the Black Belt Community Foundation, said, “To this day, when I see the Edmund Pettus Bridge I am often moved and in awe of what took place here and the impact that it had not only on this city, but on the world.”

The tour members said they felt more connected to the extended UA community after the tour.

“We often have opportunities for our students to get out and see things they wouldn’t see on their own, but I wanted that opportunity as well,” said Dr. Demetria Li, who has taught English to international students at UA for more than five years.

In addition to finding out about each community, tour members learned of assistance and training they could receive from CCBP staff and student assistants. Jim McLean, CCBP executive director, invited community members to register for free grant-writing training and told them about K–12 student workshops on campus.

Again and again tour members expressed their appreciation for the chance to go on the tour, how much they learned and how enthusiastically they were welcomed at the different sites. Tour members said they felt more connected to the extended UA community after the tour.

“This tour showed us some amazing things that are happening right in our own backyard,” said Pruitt. “It’s the first time the University has done something like this. We saw firsthand how our core mission of teaching, research and service is having a positive impact on communities in Alabama and beyond. It was especially helpful for some of our new faculty to get out and meet some of the people we are working with and have conversations that will strengthen current partnerships and lead to the development of others.”