Strengthening Communities Forum Series
The Mathews Center had the privilege of facilitating forums in six counties in south Alabama on the subject of “Strengthening Communities” during the first two weeks of December 2011. The Community Foundation of South Alabama, with help from the United Way of Central Alabama, sponsored a series of forums to better inform their understanding of the needs and desires of the rural counties in their region. Over the space of two weeks, ten forums were conducted in Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia, Monroe, and Washington counties with participation from approximately one hundred and fifty citizens.
The Mathews Center adapted a framework developed by the Kettering Foundation entitled “A Community’s Challenge: What Kind of Community Do We Want to Live In?” to guide deliberation in each of the forums. The three approaches in the issue map focus on economic development, public safety and security, and services available in the community.
The conversations in each community reflected the unique needs and dreams of each town, city, and county, but they also produced a number of common threads that seemed important to strengthening the fabric of each community regardless of size or geographic location.
The theme that recurred most often throughout the forums was that of retaining young people. All six counties voiced concerns about the need for “more jobs for the new generation” and the lack of preparedness for existing jobs that many of the counties’ high school graduates exhibited. Highlighted throughout each forum was a desire for a greater emphasis on workforce development, and the implementation and expansion of career and technical programs. Each community had ideas about working with education, industry, and others to maximize their community’s economic potential.
Another key, according to forum participants, to retaining young people involved bringing more recreational outlets to the county. The needs in each county and community varied, but several communities wanted to see Boys and Girls Clubs brought to their community or expanded, others needed help to improve or build cultural arts and community centers, some wanted movie theaters and bowling alleys, and those with existing community recreational programs expressed the need for more volunteers.
Though heavily emphasized, economic prosperity concerns were not limited to their affect on young people. One gentleman in Evergreen remarked that economic prosperity is the “life and breath” of a community and as such must be strengthened and cultivated. Many others regretted the decisions of a number of their fellow citizens to shop in larger cities rather than supporting local small businesses and improving the community’s tax base.
Problems with communication, both internal and external, arose in every county. Forum participants bemoaned the duplication of services, the lack of communication between various groups and organizations, and the underutilization of existing programs and resources. The difficulty of getting the information to all citizens, including those without regular internet access, often came up. Others felt that their community needed to do a better job of advertising its assets to those outside the community in order to attract more business and tourism.
Transportation to programs and services for the rural underprivileged arose as a major reason for the underutilization of some programs, services, and opportunities. The six counties are mostly rural and geographically large.
Citizens in each forum, not only commented on ways to improve their community, but they also highlighted things about their community they valued. The comparative safety and security of living in a small community where neighbors know one another was often highlighted as a deterrent to crime. Others discussed the friendliness of their community, the abundant natural beauty and resources that each county possesses, and the events, festivals, and parades they organize to benefit their community.
The comments, concerns, and suggestions of all forum participants were recorded in digital and audio formats during the forums. These recordings, along with post-forum questionnaire responses, will be compiled in a report, which will be sent to the Community Foundation of South Alabama in February 2012.
It was a pleasure working with so many different communities and we look forward to hearing of their future successes! Thank you again to our community partners and everyone who participated in this forum series!
For a complete list of forum conveners please visit our Strengthening Communities blog/press release here!
Also, several photos from the forums can be viewed on our Flickr page!
- Cristin Foster (DMC Assistant Program Director)