The Clearfork Valley (Eagan, TN and surrounding communities) was the destination for the third annual community and civic engagement course on Appalachian community development. Eight Auburn University students and Mark Wilson from the College of Liberal Arts worked with friends at the Clearfork Community Institute (CCI) from March 9 to March 16.
The Clearfork Community Institute is a place-based learning organization that provides living-learning opportunities for local people and “incomers.” Every community needs a CCI, a place where everyone can make a contribution to others through conversation and action. The chairs sit in a circle, since everyone is among equals the moment you enter. VIPs (Volunteers in Partnership) come from the area, and their roles are crucial to the mission’s success. The building was built by the Blue Diamond Coal Company as the coal camp school.
Our projects this week included work with young people and with elders in the community. VIP Amanda distributed disposable cameras a few weeks before our arrival, and she asked young people to capture things around them that are alive and beautiful. We brought with us electronic photo files. We asked students to choose their favorite picture, and then they worked with a college student to describe the meaning of the picture. All of the pictures were thought provoking; many were extraordinary. One young man, for example, took a picture of his grandmother’s house and wrote about the memories he has had with her. Flowers, waterfalls, sunsets, some dogs, three chickens, and other meaningful people and objects were captured. Thanks to the help of Amanda and VIP Candace, we were able to sneak in a couple of Easter egg hunts during the week as well.
With elders, we brought out the video cameras and talked to them about their lives in the valley. Were they participants in the outmigration from the valley? If so, what brought them back? What have their contributions to the community been over their lifetime? What challenges do young people face today that are unique and consequential? The answers to these and other questions are important, and they will be preserved by CCI and Auburn University for future generations to ponder and explore. Everyone has a story, and everyone’s story should be preserved and made available. We asked many interviewees to pretend they had a camera with only one exposure remaining on the film. What place in the community is most meaningful to you? What would your photograph capture? The responses were as different as the people we interviewed: the railroad tracks where a husband and wife first met; a nearby mountain permanently altered as a result of coal mining; a prehistoric rock formation known as “Bridge Rock”; the Clearfork Clinic.
The stories students tell as a result of these living-learning experiences are numerous, even though most of them admit that words cannot express the total meaning of the week. When you remove the stories of adventure (fishing with homemade cane poles; being stuck on a trail till late at night; bats flying in a cave; counting shooting stars; accidentally burning holes in a picnic table with disposable grills), we hope what is learned has something to do with the perspectives of people from walks of life much different than the world of the traditional Auburn student. CCI is the result of decades of work by citizens who care about their community, and in many ways our friends in this valley are living out the ideals of democracy in ways we need to understand and incorporate into all of our communities.
So check out our slide show, and if you are an AU student who believes an undergraduate education should include place-based learning experiences that explore what it means to live and learn among friends, contact Mark Wilson to enroll in the spring of 2013.