“Strengthening Montevallo’s Future” Public Forums
March 14, 2013
Over the past three weeks, the Mathews Center moderated a series of three public forums in Montevallo, Alabama on “Strengthening Montevallo’s Youth.” The forums were held at the Parnell Memorial Library (Feb. 25), the American Village (Feb. 28), and the Montevallo First Baptist Church (Mar. 7). Approximately 50 Montevallo citizens engaged in the deliberations, several attending more than one forum. Participants included educators, parents, students, local elected officials, Montevallo business owners, University of Montevallo staff and faculty, and representatives of local civic and community organizations.
The forums are a follow-up to the inaugural Students’ Institute, which took place at the John W. Stewart Student Retreat Center at the University of Montevallo on November 15 – 16, 2012. The Institute was developed and facilitated by the Mathews Center, the University of Montevallo Office of Service Learning, and Mr. Ron Holsombeck, Montevallo Middle School Gifted Resource Class (GRC) teacher. During Students’ Institute, thirty-two 7th and 8th grade GRC students explored what it means to be an active citizen. The Institute emphasized civic skills related to citizen decision-making.
The students were then challenged to craft a vision of their community that would sustain youth interest and energy for future generations. The students framed a discussion guide that identifies community needs and potential action steps for sustaining youth interest and energy in Montevallo. The issue guide, entitled Strengthening Montevallo’s Future: How can we help our young people find the “good life” in Montevallo?, features three approaches to addressing the issue with examples of what might be done and consequences to consider listed for each approach.
The Mathews Center and the UM Office of Service Learning organized three follow-up forums to fulfill the GRC students’ desire to provide an opportunity for members of the broader Montevallo community to participate in the conversation.
Each forum began with a word of welcome and introduction from Dr. Hollie Cost, Director of the UM Office of Service Learning and Mayor of Montevallo, or Mr. Ron Holsombeck, Montevallo Middle School GRC teacher. Mathews Center staff and Jean O’Connor-Snyder interns then provided a brief introduction of the Mathews Center, Students’ Institute, and public deliberation.
Transitioning into deliberation, forum participants examined a number of strategic facts on youth in Montevallo. After reviewing the statistics, Jessie Evans, MMS GRC student, read the perspectives of her fellow GRC students on the issue. After hearing the GRC students’ perspectives, participants reflected on their personal stake by responding to the question: “What concerns you about strengthening and sustaining youth engagement in Montevallo?” Responses highlighted a desire to see Montevallo young people further engaged in local recreational, academic, and community service opportunities.
The group then deliberated through the three approaches in the issue guide developed by the GRC students: “Build a Youth Friendly Community,” “Focus on Improving Our Public Schools,” and “Provide Youth Leadership Development Opportunities.” In each forum, participants talked through action ideas, weighed tradeoffs, examined costs and consequences, and identified common ground.
Unique perspectives were shared at each forum, and several common themes emerged:
Community Center: In every deliberation, forum participants talked through their desire for a community center. They suggested that a community center could serve as a safe place for young people to gather, get homework done, participate in extracurricular activities and academic courses, and have fun. The group recommended making use of an existing building in Montevallo, working with retired citizens and University of Montevallo students to staff the center, and seeking grants for funding.
Student Leadership: Forum participants encouraged the young people at the forums to make their voices heard and seek out avenues for actions they could take. The group shared that parents, educators, community members, and potential project sponsors might be receptive to student voices and student-initiated action ideas. At the final forum, two GRC students relayed actions they had taken at their school as a result of the second forum to encourage a leadership club they’re involved in to take further action. Students and other forum participants expressed support for involving students in City Council meetings and increasing the role of student councils in the schools.
Advanced Courses: Forum participants expressed a desire for more advanced courses for middle school students. Citizens suggested that the GRC students survey their peers to find out what courses other students might want and make their requests known to their teachers and administrators. Others advocated incorporating extracurricular courses and tutoring at a community center to address the desire for more advanced courses. The group also suggested seeking out partnerships with University of Montevallo faculty and students to provide opportunities for students to further pursue their academic interests.
Community Service Opportunities: The group found common ground in seeking out further opportunities for students to engage in community service. Specifically, forum participants thought through ways to expand the “Gimme Five” community service program to middle and elementary schools. Citizens also discussed providing opportunities for students to participate in the University of Montevallo’s “Big Event” service day, as well as increasing collaborative opportunities with the UM Office of Service Learning.
Citywide Wireless Internet: Many forum participants expressed a desire to provide citywide wireless Internet. The group felt that doing so would encourage UM students to visit more places in the city, while also increasing access to online resources that may help students complete homework assignments. Seeking out grant opportunities, collaborating with local businesses, and approaching vendors for sponsorship were suggested as potential sources of funding.
In addition to the above ideas for action, participants also addressed challenges throughout the forums. Foremost among them: transportation, communication, and garnering broad-based community support and involvement. Forum participants expressed particular eagerness for the possibility of a community clearinghouse/website to address communication challenges. Additionally, participants thought through real costs, consequences, tensions, and tradeoffs for each action idea.
At the conclusion of each forum, participants expressed an overall optimism for the community of Montevallo and a desire to make decisions and take action together. It was particularly exciting to see young people voice their opinions, share their ideas, and identify common ground with community leaders, parents, and their fellow students.
The Mathews Center would like to thank Dr. Hollie Cost, Mayor of Montevallo, and the University of Montevallo Office of Service Learning for partnering with us on this exciting project. Many thanks to Mr. Ron Holsombeck, MMS GRC teacher, and the entire MMS Gifted Resource Class for wholeheartedly engaging in naming and framing an issue of public concern. Thank you to Parnell Memorial Library, American Village, and Montevallo First Baptist Church for letting us use their wonderful facilities. A tremendous “thank you” is due to Aaron Traywick, Jean O’Connor-Snyder intern at the University of Montevallo, for the part he played in setting up each of the forums.
We look forward to staying in contact with forum participants and seeing real action emerge!
– Cristin Foster (DMC Assistant Program Director)