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Five Auburn students ready to live, learn in Alabama communities

Five Auburn University students will be living and learning in Alabama communities for ten weeks this summer as participants in the College of Liberal Arts’ Living Democracy initiative. The 2019 Living Democracy Fellows are Melissa Dennis, Laura Thompson, Hannah White, Whitt Watts and Jack West. Throughout the summer, the students will create civic projects working with community partners in Camden, Chatom, Collinsville and Elba.

Melissa Dennis, a junior majoring in social work and minoring in community and civic engagement, will spend her summer in Chatom, a new Living Democracy community in southwest Alabama. She will be working closely with Jessica Ross, director of the Washington County Public Library

Dennis said, “I have the opportunity to meet new people, get involved, and get a glimpse of what life is like in Chatom. My goal is to become so involved in the different relationships I will build, and the different projects that I will be a part of, that this community will begin to feel like home.”

For Dennis, living democracy is about “being willing to work with your neighbor to create the change you hope to see in your community and/or society.” A graduate of Shades Valley High School, Dennis is the daughter of Tawanda and Mark Dennis.

This summer, two Auburn students will be living and learning in Elba, a Living Democracy community since 2012. Whitt Watts, a political science major, will be primarily working with the nonprofit organization Restoration154

Jack West, an Auburn sophomore from Huntsville, will be working with Ferrin Cox and Linda Hodge at the Elba Clipper newspaper

West, a graduate of Madison Academy in Huntsville, is the son of Susan Slade and Glen West. The journalism and history major said he is eager to learn more about the role of community newspapers in civic life.

Watts, a political science major from Vestavia Hills, will work closely with Restoration 154 leaders in Elba. He said, “I am thrilled to take a step into a different side of the same state and see life from the small-town perspective, while assisting in the efforts of Project 154.”

The son of Anna and Brant Watts added, “The first thing that caught my eye about Elba is the incredible grassroots movements they have that are focused on improving the community. Project 154 is an excellent example of passionate citizens making a difference by making a change.”

Hannah White, from Madison, will spend her summer in the northeast Alabama community of Collinsville, a Living Democracy community since 2012. She will be working closely with Jennifer Wilkins, director of the Collinsville Public Library.

A graduate of Saint John Paul II Catholic High School, White is the daughter of Sean and Teresa White. She said, “I have discovered that the people of Collinsville care deeply about their town, and most of them have deep roots there. I’d love to explore that more and find out what keeps people there, in addition to finding out ways they’d love to see their town adapt and grow.”

The political science major said she defines Living Democracy as “being involved and caring about your community and the issues that affect it.” White added, “This means being aware of local, state, and federal issues that could change your town and advocating either for or against them. Local government is often underestimated in importance, but true living democracy is being involved in the problems and concerns that affect you and your neighbors daily as opposed to simply focusing on national issues.”

Laura Thompson, a social work major, will be returning to her hometown of Camden as a Living Democracy student.  She will be working with Sulynn Creswell, executive director, and Kristin Law, arts programs and marketing director, at Black Belt Treasures

Thompson, the daughter of Deborah Thompson, is a graduate of Wilcox Academy.  Growing up, she participated in many art enrichment opportunities sponsored by Black Belt Treasures and looks forward to giving back to programs that inspired her. She said, “I have always loved Camden, but the Living Democracy experience will give me the opportunity to really dive deep into the community and help improve it.”

Living Democracy students serve as Jean O'Connor Snyder Interns with the David Mathews Center for Civic Life Started in 2010 by Dr. Mark Wilson, director of Civic Learning Initiatives, and Associate Professor Nan Fairley, Living Democracy originated as a Kettering Foundation project focused on the role of higher education in preparing citizens for public life. Deborah Witte, in the 2012 Higher Education Exchange, described the initiative as a "pioneering approach to civic engagement" because of its community-based approach and impact on students.

In the end, the goal of Living Democracy is to teach students just that: to live democracy and show that true change, understanding and progress comes from being engaged and active in your community, wherever that may be, Dr. Wilson said.

Graduate Assistant Aaron Carpenter is coordinating social media accounts produced by 2019 Living Democracy students. You can follow stories students write about their adventures on the Living Democracy Facebook page and the Living Democracy blog