The internship is coordinated by the David Mathews Center for Civic Life and the Community and Civic Engagement Initiative in the College of Liberal Arts. Through the internship Hunter is coordinating the work of “Comet Grove,” the town’s new community garden, where he will manage day-to-day operations and recruit and develop volunteers.
The internship has as much to do with civic growth as it does with raising vegetables, however, and Hunter, who lives on-site in a refurbished barn apartment, will live and learn about civic life with Oak Grove’s most important asset—its residents.
June 13, 2010
“Alexis de Tocqueville stated, ‘The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.’ Had de Tocqueville’s travels taken him to contemporary Oak Grove, Alabama, he would have seen a healthy democracy surrounding the town’s Comet Grove Community Garden.
My first full week of living in Oak Grove at Comet Grove left me with sore muscles, a desire to fall asleep before 9:00 PM each night, and countless new freckles. I have also received much insight on the daily operations, and the actors behind the survival, of a rural Alabama town. Comet Grove is unusual, in that it is a community garden project undertaken by a municipality, rather than a non-profit organization, although its altruistic ideal remains the same. The basic premise of the project is that a four-acre garden provides enough produce to feed to low-to-moderate income families in and around Oak Grove.
Garden politics take the form of a democratic process in which all interested actors have a potential to become engaged in decision-making. Much of the time, what gets accomplished is done by collections of individuals who come together, see a need, and want to give back to the community (much like the origins of the garden). Weekly garden meetings offer a chance for updates to be given, ideas to the shared, and fellowship to be fostered by everyone who takes the initiative to attend. The laid-back, friendly structure of these meetings makes participating inclusive and fearless. Residents who do not participate in the meetings still hold an active role in the sustainability of the garden and the town through lending time and money to the garden. Foremost, this is seen through the landowner (and five-term mayor) who leased twenty acres at no cost for the garden, hoping that he could give something tangible back to the town even if he was physically incapable of doing so. Additionally, one acre is maintained by a business-owner whose slow time is the summer months. Rather than fire employees during this time, he asks them to maintain this acre and pays them as if they are working directly for his business. Another example is found in the handful of men who bring their tractors to the garden to do daily work, donating their time and fuel so that the garden may continue its growth.
Despite the individuals who give their time and money to the cause of Comet Grove, the reality of the situation is that these individuals make up a minority of the town’s population. As David Mathews would say, the town has leadership, but lacks being leaderful. Oak Grove is by no means a metropolis, and only a fraction of the town’s 600 residents has lent time or money to the garden. Perhaps this is reflective of the town’s majority elder population (who are physically unfit or financially unable to donate), or the political apathy in the town’s younger generations. Many of the people who have taken an active role in garden affairs have been involved in Oak Grove politics in the past. However, the current leadership of the town does have a desire to see a younger generation involved in both the garden and in town politics in general. Charles Merkel, mayor of Oak Grove, summed up this goal when he said, ‘We just want to get people to start talking,’ referencing a desire to see people who have in the past not shown an interest in town affairs step up and share their thoughts, ideas, handshakes, and hugs with their fellow ‘Oak Grovians.'”