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Time in Elba teaches valuable lessons

Sunday, Aug. 11, was my final day in Elba and the 70th day of my Living Democracy Internship. I drove to Elba on June 3 and covered my first story there the next day. In the intervening weeks I wrote a total of 34 stories for The Elba Clipper and took 1,115 pictures. I covered two City Council meetings and one shockingly strategic bridge club. I ate dozens of quesadillas at Monterrey's and Los Corrales and even more chicken sandwiches at the Rabbit Hole.

In my first week there, I wrote a short editorial about my first impressions of Elba. Now, having spent ten weeks in Elba, I know that much of what I thought was wrong. By spending time with local groups, businesses and charities, I was able to integrate myself, to a degree, in some of the structural aspects of Elba's life. I got the chance to explore the town and learn about the challenges it faces.

I do think I got one thing right in that first article though. I maintain that Elba, like a lot of small towns, can serve as a microcosm for larger issues that our state and country are grappling with. There is no doubt that this town has hard questions to answer, and it is also not the only town looking for answers.

For that reason, the solutions that this town can come up with for issues such as a shrinking school population or outsourced manufacturing should be studied and incorporated into solutions for similar problems on a larger scale. Obviously, none of these solutions will be easy, and none will be a panacea, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth seeking.

Furthermore, many of these challenges can be boiled down to a simple dichotomy—a struggle that seems ubiquitous in small towns, college towns, big cities and nations as a whole. We can call it: Tradition vs. Change.

It is generally easier to do things as they have always been done, and it is usually harder to effect change. Neither way is invariably correct, but both sides should be able to acknowledge the motivations of the other.

For instance, following the flood of 1990, it may have made more sense to move the downtown area to a drier location. Yet since most of Elba's citizens at that time had grown up with the downtown where it was, many sided with their tradition and chose not to move. From an outside perspective, that can seem like the wrong decision, but it's not always about the outside perspective. It's hard to disregard a tradition—to leave a home.

Similarly, my family lived in a house that was too much work for us for many years. It wasn't affordable, and it required way too much yard-work to maintain. Regardless, we stayed there because it was our home. It was our normal, our tradition. Moving would have made more sense, but that doesn't always matter when you are talking about comfort and normalcy.

Acting on tradition, even when doing so solely for the sake of tradition, isn't always wrong. But sometimes, change is good. Take, for instance, moving Elba City Schools to drier ground. Change can make the most sense, but that doesn't make it any easier. Often it takes someone from outside a given tradition to point out its flaws, but it takes someone from inside the tradition to explain why some flaws are actually positives.

In a very roundabout way, I'm trying to say that I have learned how hard it is to create change, even when it seems obvious. I've been forced to reexamine a lot of my choices and empathize with those who want to keep things how they are. There is no moral absolutism when it comes to tradition vs. change; there's just people trying to be comfortable where they are.  

The only reason I can even begin to understand these challenges is because I have spent my ten weeks in Elba talking to dozens of people who care deeply about this town. Over the last 70 days I interviewed three city council members, one mayor, most of Restoration154's board members, a dozen school teachers or administrators, two funeral home directors, multitudes of students, and (again) some of the most strategic bridge players I have ever met.

I was welcomed in by a family, and servers at restaurants know my order. I am grateful to each member of this community in some way. My biggest problem currently is that there are too many people who I want to thank individually. Here's just a few.

Justin Maddox gave me a place to stay this summer. He dealt with my antics and supported my ill-fated dream to grow a bonsai tree. He cooked for Whitt and me, and he gave us a good place to come back to everyday. He was our home base, our launch pad, and I can't thank him enough.

Linda Hodge, Ferin Cox and Heddy Cox gave me a job this summer. More importantly, they gave me direction. Every week I could trust them to show me something interesting and introduce me to someone new. All they asked in return was that I write about it.

Having spent more years in journalism than I have been alive, they taught me things more sublime and helpful than I ever learned in a classroom. This included everything from how people over use the word 'that' in writing, to how small-town, community journalism should understand its place in American life. They showed me how to make stories exciting and how to have fun with them again.

The Maddox/Brunson/Martin family immediately welcomed Whitt and me into their lives. They fed us on Sundays and gave us reference points for exploring the community. They were kind to us, and that goes farther than any material things.

Thank you to the people who sat for an interview or posed for a picture in the last ten weeks. In your own ways, you each taught me or showed me something about life in Elba. You gave me an opportunity to share your story, and I greatly appreciate that. 

Finally, thank you to all of you who read what I wrote in these weeks. This isn't near as much fun without an audience. Thank you for the small comments about my articles and for being kind.

In closing, I want to urge this town and any others to continue supporting their local papers. I am a bit biased, but the decline of local newspapers is one of the greatest tragedies of our American story. These papers and the people who work at them care about their towns. They put in long hours and work incredibly hard to ensure that they bring you the truth. Local journalists serve as your watchdog on local government and as your informer on local events. Fox News, CNN and other national news organizations are never going to be that.

Speaking personally, I can say that every time I sat down with Linda or Ferin to discuss a story, the first question we would ask is how writing about that topic was beneficial to the community. We wanted to make sure every story was unflinchingly honest and at least semi-entertaining. These journalists work for you, and they don't ask for much in return.