Jean O’Connor-Snyder intern Katie Tindol reflects on women’s roles in Walker County in her thought piece from Jasper, Alabama.
Over lunch at Jasper’s Victoria’s Café, the faculty sponsor of New College’s Walker County civic engagement internship, John Miller, uttered some words to me and my fellow Jean O’Connor Snyder Interns that have stuck with me since. As we talked about the end of our internship experience, Miller said, “You’ll never see a stronger civic infrastructure than here in Walker County”.
These words have helped me to frame how truly special the time that I have spent in Walker County has been. My summer in Jasper has been an unparalleled lesson in the importance of not only social cohesion of a community, but also in community members’ dedication to civic life that defines many small towns. This cohesion, as well as dedication to civic service, is especially prevalent in Jasper.
However, this summer has not been solely a lesson in positive differences between rural and urban communities. It has also shown me the different experience afforded by spending my adolescence in the politically correct bubble of a college town. Growing up in Tuscaloosa, with the perspectives and opportunities provided by proximity to a flagship state university, differ greatly from those afforded by growing up in a more rural community.
Particularly, something I found difficult about navigating Jasper as a young woman was that I felt undercut by a degree of casual sexism I had not experienced before. Admittedly, my perspective on Walker County is that of an outsider. And further, it is limited to the eight short weeks I spent here. But because this experience affected me so much, I wondered if women who lived and worked in Jasper and Walker County felt their worth or work undercut by the same sexism I encountered.
In a small office near the outskirts of Jasper with resident and civic leader, Elyse Peters, I decided to explore this issue through her experience and perspective. Elyse grew up in the sprawling metropolis of Houston, Texas. While attending the University of Alabama, she found herself with a passion for public service and civic engagement, even serving in the same civic engagement internship that brought me to Walker County. After graduation, Peters started serving with the AmeriCorps VISTA program.
Through that program, Elyse began working on projects in Walker County. In the beginning, she worked on a project called the Health Action Partnership. This Partnership began through the work of the Walker Area Community Foundation and other local nonprofits, the Health Action Partnership focused on improving health outcomes in Walker County. Peters realized quickly that what the Partnership needed to succeed was concentrated effort and widespread mobilization of community efforts. Nevertheless, the Partnership initially struggled to gain traction. Elyse remembered that many initially involved with the partnership were “higher ups in the healthcare field” who spent a lot of time “talking about the issues but not really talking about a plan” to improve the County’s staggering health issues.
Because of her volunteer work, Elyse was offered a job with United Way of Alabama. In this position, she began living and working in Walker County. “It was definitely a culture shock” Elyse told me. She explained that her move to Walker County was a lengthy process of learning the community in order to work best with it.
This learning process consisted of extensive time spent creating space for herself and the work she hoped to do. “I spent a year trying to create space for things, but not trying to push any agendas or my personal beliefs on things and focusing on internalizing those things more.” Peters told me. When I asked her if she values living and working in a community that reflects her political beliefs, Peters laughed and said “Walker County does not.” Peters holds strong to the belief that if everyone who values changing Alabama left, the State would never change: “If Alabama is ever going to . . . reflect the values that I truly believe in, I can’t help change that if I live somewhere else.”
However, Elyse also emphasizes that her position in Walker County is one that was difficult to navigate as an outsider, and often difficult because she is a woman. Peters elaborated that trust was a major issue when she began working in Walker County, a community she says where “it’s not what you do it’s who you know”. She attempted to address this trust issue by spending extended time establishing herself as a familiar face. Elyse said that she did this by making sure to actively work “with communities and not for communities” in her role in Walker County. Despite Elyse’s success establishing trust, she has still struggled to find many people that share her mindset, passion, and personal beliefs.
Elyse even opened up to me about her difficulty working in many professional spaces within Walker County. Peters explained that being a woman is an identity piece she finds often hinders her ability to make a difference: “Internalized oppression of women in this community is insane, not just from men, but sometimes even from women themselves”. Elyse told me that she often receives comments on her appearance based on whether or not she is wearing make-up. Elyse, however, responds to these comments stating that “I am not here for you to get satisfaction out of looking at me”. This care-free and determined attitude is what helps Elyse realize that although she may differ from community members, her work is not any less important, nor is she an outcast because of her decision to not adapt to a lifestyle more typical of women her age in Walker County.
Despite her Southern roots, Elyse’s struggles seem to manifest differently than for the women who grew up in here. For reference, I also spoke with local attorney Joeletta Barrentine about her experience living and working in Walker County. Barrentine is a local attorney, and another well-respected civically engaged woman in the community. Joeletta’s passion and commitment to civic engagement has been a distinct priority throughout her life and career in Walker County.
During our interview, Barrentine reflected on memories of committed and extensive civic engagement with great pride and gratitude. Because of her commitment to serving her community, she had leadership opportunities in areas that were of great importance to her at a very early age. Barrentine’s career in public service truly took off when she became President of the East Walker County Chamber of Commerce at the young age of 21.
Joeletta spoke of the considerable amounts of time she spent volunteering in her community before being elected Chamber president. Barrentine even chuckled at her remembrance of volunteering so much at the Library: “once they realized I was going to be there every day, and was not going anywhere, they decided they might as well pay me!” As she reflected more on experiences from working in the community, Joeletta admitted that she had probably served on “just about every board that there is in Walker County”. Before beginning her career as a lawyer, she served on Sumiton City Council at the age of 24.
Although Barrentine is currently a practicing attorney, she also remains active in the Walker County Backyard Blessings nonprofit, which provides meals to food insecure citizens of Walker County. Despite the juggling it requires, Joeletta’s motivation to continue to serve in various civic roles, while also maintaining her work in law and taking care of her family, is simple. Elaborating on her passion for civic service, Barrentine said “I feel like you need to spend time giving back to the world, rather than taking from it.”
Joeletta’s passion for community engagement has not come without hardships. In fact, when Joeletta made the decision to attend law school, she “never planned to come back to Walker county to practice”, a choice informed by the lack of female attorneys in the community. In fact, Joeletta often finds herself the “only woman in the room.” Consequently, she has also often found herself the subject of inappropriate comments made by male counterparts. With slight hesitancy, Barrentine says she has “become immune to the comments or ‘good ole boy’ conversations” by male lawyers. However, what inspires me about Joeletta is that she stands up to it. With a hint of pride in her voice, Joeletta explains that when men make inappropriate comments, she comes right back with snarky remarks to throw them off, letting them know that she is not going to shy away from these conversations.
The last woman that I interviewed, Tina Aaron, directs the Youth Advocate Programs branch of Walker County (locally known as “YAP”), my internship placement for the Summer. Tina is beyond inspiring, and has been a wonderful role model and mentor to me during my time in Jasper. Together we spent multiple afternoons reflecting on her life in Walker County, from moving here in her early childhood with an immigrant single mother, to how that has inspired the work that she does now. The afternoon that I interviewed her, we spent the first part of our conversation talking about other nonprofits in the community. Aaron was quick to note that they all have female directors. When I asked her why she thinks this is, Tina attributed this to women’s positions as “natural nurturers.” Tina spoke about how she believed women often have the ability to handle the “business side as well as the nurturing” responsibilities of running a nonprofit, especially one focused on family issues, like her own.
Tina attributes her ability to run YAP effectively directly to her upbringing, which she elaborates was plagued by poverty and difficult circumstances. Tina also speaks often about how her Christian faith positively affects her work with the underserved citizens YAP frequently aids. However, Tina does not feel like being a woman poses an obstacle in her line of work. she attributes this directly to the sheer number of other women that she interacts with in the nonprofit world. For me, Tina truly represents the hard workers who keep the nonprofit world running. She effectively handles all of the responsibilities of her nonprofit, is a wonderful mother, and stays involved in the community. For Aaron, civic service is more than just a priority; it’s a defining part of her life.
Unlike other women I interviewed, Tina did not feel less respected in her line of work because of being a woman. We did, however, have a great conversation about the differing responsibilities and expectations of women from her perspective. Tina elaborated on her point of view, one that I had not really otherwise considered.
As a woman with a family, she takes care not only of her work responsibilities, but also of many household responsibilities. She told me that she could count “on one hand” the days her husband had taken off to take care of their children when they were home from school sick, saying that this responsibility usually fell on her shoulders. However, Tina said that she didn’t mind taking responsibility for much of the nurturing of her children, even though her husband is willing as well, because she feels as a mother she is better equipped to handle these nurturing responsibilities.
These three conversations opened me up to a world of perspectives about the responsibility of women in any community, but particularly how these responsibilities and expectations may manifest differently in rural communities. Compared to where I grew up, women in Walker County may experience a bit more pressure to conform to traditional gender roles.
However, the perspectives of women who live in this community helped me realize that these traditional roles are not necessarily a bad thing, that they may just be a more common lifestyle for women from Walker County. Through these conversations I also learned that these roles seem to be perceived by and affect women differently, depending on their circumstances and background. For example, factors such as their upbringing, where they call home, the fields that they work in, and others affect how women perceive the roles and responsibilities attributed to and expected of them.
In this male-dominated professional community, women see their work in many different lights, ranging from ideas such as natural predisposition, to responsibility, or simply their natural talent or ability to work well in their career. All of these conversations made me ultimately realize that although being a woman in professional life in rural America may come with detriments, these women had, through determination and resilience, achieved success by any standard – regardless of what anyone might see as their roles.
– Katie Tindol, University of Alabama New College
The photo of Katie was taken by Ms. Nicole Smith for the four-piece series on the 2019 Walker County Interns featured in the Daily Mountain Eagle.