Emerging themes from 36 “What’s Next, Alabama?” deliberative conversations in 2018. Look for a full report in 2020! 

Since 2016, our signature program Alabama Issues Forums (AIF) has revolved around local civic, economic, and workforce development in Alabama communities. The What’s Next, Alabama? series grew out of a need that we saw for more intensive sustained dialogue around these issues. As a result, these conversations have a more open-ended structure than previous AIF forums and begin as three conversations, not just one. Two years into What’s Next, Alabama?, we’re learning more and more that while Alabama communities often have their own version of the same statewide issues, each community is incredibly unique. For that reason, Mathews Center staff have sought out increasingly individualized ways to bring these conversations not only where they are needed, but how they are needed.     

This year, we’ve reached 17 Alabama counties with What’s Next conversations. Thanks to a generous grant from the Alabama Bicentennial Commission we have been able to offer deliberative skills to educators who are teaching their students about Alabama’s past, present, and future. We are working with local groups of active citizens, including County Extension Coordinators from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, and we are incorporating leaderfulness into these conversations by reaching out to those often referenced in What’s Next conversations, but not necessarily present, such as young people. What’s Next conversations will continue through 2020.    

What’s Next with Educators  

This year, the Mathews Center has facilitated 9 place-based deliberation workshops in 9 counties, with 97 teachers representing 22 counties and 47 schools. We were able to award 438 hours of CEUs. In each forum, we used the What’s Next, Alabama? issue guide to illustrate the concept of place-based deliberation using places and issues we already know. 

One teacher commented that “[Deliberation] can help students understand different viewpoints. Many have not been exposed to other cultures or points of view, but this could be beneficial in expanding their horizons.” 

Another reflected “I want to use [what I’ve learned] in a manner that promotes community-centered learning with students learning that they can be active in their community.” 

As our education director, Gabrielle Lamplugh, says, “Deliberation is a format of group discussion that focuses on finding common ground between many different approaches. The process challenges students to think in a more nuanced way about historical and current events and issues affecting their community and state. Not only can deliberation help cultivate hard skills in students, by encouraging them to think critically about data, evidence, and arguments, the process also helps students develop soft skills including collaboration, empathy, and interpersonal communication. Beyond the immediate educational benefits of deliberation, the skill prepares young people to be future civic and community leaders who can work through challenging issues in constructive ways with people who think very differently from themselves.”

For information on 2019 place-based deliberation workshops for educators, contact Gabrielle Lamplugh at glamplugh@mathewscenter.org. 

What’s Next in Communities

In 2017, we had 34 What’s Next conversations in many communities within 8 Alabama counties. This year we’ve had an additional 36 conversations in 17 counties (Bibb, Clay, Coffee, Shelby, Clarke, Jefferson, Montgomery, Calhoun, Barbour, Lee, Washington, Sumter, Tuscaloosa, Madison, Limestone, Marengo, and Lauderdale).

Alabama is a mostly rural state, and its projected population growth reflects what one of our partners calls the “tension between the periphery and the center.” Urban centers like Birmingham and Huntsville continue to grow, while of the top 6 counties expected to lose population by 2040, all are rural.

Assets & Challenges  

Often, the most frequently listed asset in a What’s Next conversation has to do with relationships and social networks. Second to that are the local natural resources. “The small-town feel,” “everybody knows everybody,” and “sense of community and togetherness” come up over and over. Forum attendees regularly describe the fact that they can rely on each other to “do for one another” as a source of pride, security, and identity. In Calhoun County, for example, our 2018 What’s Next conversations took place right after a tornado tore through Jacksonville; in the following days over 1,000 volunteers came out to assist their neighbors.

As deliberations deepen, the conversations begin to illustrate assets and challenges as more interconnected than they first appear. Sometimes the stories of neighbors helping one another, or teachers going the extra mile for students due to food insecurity, poverty, substance abuse, or a lack of childcare do not only illustrate a commitment to loving one’s neighbor. These stories also demonstrate a lack of broader security that could be made possible by higher wages, a diversified economy, stronger social infrastructure, and more. In every What’s Next forum this year, we have heard concerns about mental health and generational poverty – and other wicked problems that don’t evolve unless communities have the capacity to address the root causes as well as meet the immediate needs.

Through deliberative conversations, the economy – and possibilities for participating in it locally – is more broadly defined than simply the stock market or globalization. Forum attendees in Chambers County have seen how vulnerable mono-industry leaves an area. While certainly, people have taken jobs at the new auto parts factories, it was not lost on us when they said, “We need more than just blue collar jobs.” “We need our middle class back,” remembering what happened to the community when the textile industry left a decade ago – with it went local gas stations, grocery stores, and restaurants as well as livelihoods.

Despite the myriad issues the group identified – poverty, housing, a need for economic development, mental health concerns, and more – the first group action after the forums in Chambers County involved people from two separate communities purposefully working on a creek bed restoration project together. The second project involved a now-annual resource fair created by the Chamber of Commerce with the input from forum attendees.

Repeatedly, the steps that forum attendees take following What’s Next conversations are centered around building on the close community relationships that already exist, strengthening local ties, and reaching across existing divides. Not everybody comes to a forum. But as we heard during a series of six conversations in southeast Alabama, “We can look around the room and know who’s not here. We need to go to them instead of expecting them to come to us.” 

In a northeast Alabama community, we heard from a former business owner whose experience had given her insight into the complexities of local economic development. As she put it, her support of the concept of a third place had become outweighed by the reality of poverty in the area. She told us her coffee shop had not survived because – in her words – “How can I expect people living in trailers with pillowcases for curtains to support my cupcake business?” to illustrate her point that businesses only boost the local economy if people are able to support them.

Perspectives like these help ground a broad issue in local reality and allow forum attendees to prioritize their focus accordingly. People know their own issues far more intimately than outsiders do, and through deliberation, we hope to facilitate conversations that harness those perspectives towards collective solutions.

Silos & Collaborations    

Many attendees at What’s Next conversations have voiced concerns about a silo mentality in their communities – when, whether by default or on purpose, groups work separately rather than together even when an issue has implications for all. The 2015 Alabama Civic Health Index bears that out: Alabama ranks last in the nation for citizens working together to solve problems, despite the fact that Alabamians reported higher levels of trust than the national average, and are civically engaged in other ways.

One example of shifting from silos to collaboration comes from a set of WNAL forums in Clay County. In these conversations, one of the first things people brought up was how two cities down the road from one another keep a historic rivalry alive that dates back to when there were two high school football teams. As they observed, it’s all in good fun until it’s not. People at the forums felt that if the sense of competition was put into perspective, a county-wide focus on economic development would be possible and more beneficial to the area than continuing to work separately in their respective communities. At the initiative of these forum attendees, the next two forums took place in more “neutral” locations, to reach across the divides they perceived and to make sure people from both locations felt welcome.

Smart Growth

Going along with improving community-wide relationships, we heard people mention smart growth. Many forum attendees brought up cities like Asheville in North Carolina or neighboring cities whose economy was thriving in comparison to their own. However, people also reminded each other not “to become another Lee County,” but instead to build upon what made their area unique by comparison. Some areas, like Chambers County, voiced appreciation for their rural identity and preferred to focus on developing natural resources for tourism, rather than to become more urban. Clay County mentioned similar concerns: grow the economy without losing precisely made their communities special. Ideas for economic growth have centered around “becoming a destination” for hospitality and tourism.

Mentoring Young People

“Brain drain” or rural flight is an issue that many communities combat by investing in their downtown or fostering local leadership initiatives. Youth mentorship is listed as one of the “purple” or bipartisan solutions in Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis, a book on the increasing opportunity gap between rich and poor families in America. And in What’s Next conversations, youth mentorship is the top idea that communities have to begin addressing immediate needs for future gains when it comes to a community thriving, not just surviving. Mentorship has come up in multiple What’s Next conversations as a way for community members to practice innovation in community development, to prepare students for their careers or post-secondary education, to fill existing gaps in education or security nets, to meet mental health challenges, and hopefully to give their young people a reason to stay or return to the area.

What’s Next in Youth Conversations

Since 2017, the DMC has moderated five youth forums in rural south Alabama and two What’s Next youth summits. Bringing young people into the conversation is one illustration of how we at the DMC seek to tailor a What’s Next approach to local areas, instead of taking a formulaic approach. People know all too well the implications of aging populations and loss of industry for a community, and many have been addressing those concerns for a long time. Athens, AL has a youth commission, Montevallo has a Junior City Council, and many counties in Alabama have youth leadership programs through their Chambers of Commerce. Additionally, every local County Extension office has a 4-H program and staff who work with students, and their perspectives and connections are invaluable for including young people in community development.

However, not every community has a channel for young people to engage with local leaders or community issues before they’re old enough to vote, and so in addition to working with communities and educators, we work to amplify youth voices in their own words through What’s Next. For example, through the Main Street Alabama process, a community in east Alabama has established significant community outreach. Rather than inviting the Mathews Center to moderate What’s Next forums (essentially replicating the process their citizens had just been through), Extension agents and the local Chamber of Commerce have asked us to help bring local high schoolers into the conversation.

During forums with high schoolers in south Alabama, common themes included vibrant faith communities, a family-oriented attitude, and local athletic teams as significant assets; as in other places, students emphasized close-knit neighbor and family relationships as well as local mentors for those who have them. However, many students lack mentors. Other challenges they identified include poverty, lack of job training, infrastructure, housing, and entertainment. They felt that more job shadowing and internship opportunities would better prepare them for the workforce and college. Notably, while many students expressed a love for their hometowns, they felt that these challenges would keep them from returning home if they left. This bears out concerns we’ve heard in forums with only adults.

So why attend a forum?

“Civic life is difficult. It can also be frustrating, painful, and risky. Given these realities, why do people jump into it?

One answer is that they are compelled to do so, by anger or love. Or more likely, by both. While people may jump into civic life out of anger, their anger usually emerges from a sense that someone or something they love is being harmed or disrespected.”

-From Jumping Into Civic Life, edited by Scott J. Peters, Theodore R. Alter, and Timothy J. Shaffer

Sometimes it takes a sense of urgency for civic life to take on a public aspect like deliberative conversations or town hall meetings. In between crises, though, there is an undercurrent of community members who work well together. They are motivated by patience, dedication, and persistence as well as a deep love for community and a desire for continuity. At multiple forums in 2018, we heard people say: “I’m tired of only coming to meetings. Let’s take some action!” Reflecting on What’s Next in 2018, when we think of active citizens, we think of the Alabamians we meet regularly who balance the ebb and flow of daily life with big-picture conversations about where are we now, where do we want to go, and how do we want to get there.      

We look forward to continuing these conversations in 2019. Deliberation focuses on uncovering common ground, what people hold valuable, and what possibilities exist for collective innovation. Each year we learn more from Alabamians working together to improve their communities. Opportunities to work together are everywhere; just as wicked problems do not disappear overnight, neither do the possibilities for collaboration.

If you’d like to attend a forum in your area or want to bring a What’s Next deliberation to your community, email Rebecca Cleveland at rcleveland@mathewscenter.org.