Civic Data Challenges Us to Act!

Students in Macon County are part of a mentoring program with Auburn University students  through the Community and Civic Engagement Initiative in the College of Liberal Arts.  The project is funded in part by the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the work these students do together revolves around workplace and college readiness.  

The National Conference on Citizenship has issued a “Civic Data Challenge,” a contest to see what local groups and individuals can do with raw statistical data related to civic health.  Mobile Studio artist Dan Neil and AU landscape architecture professor Jocelyn Zanzot agreed to accept the challenge with us, and they are stellar facilitators of the art and design process. The process embodies democratic citizenship: We have to decide what these statistics mean and the message we want to make public through art and design.

On Tuesday, May 29, 2012, we screen-printed posters on the handmade new-from-old paper on the Macon County Courthouse square lawn, thanks to the encouragement of County Commission Chairman Louis Maxwell.  We were pleased to be joined by Christopher McCauley, executive director of the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, the organization that recently co-published the Alabama Civic Health Index with NCOC, University of Alabama, and Auburn University.

The square is a beautiful place to work, under the shadow of a truly remarkable courthouse and surrounded by a mix of private businesses and public offices. Many of the state’s most beautiful trees create the shade needed for a natural workspace, and the historic Confederate memorial statue, erected in 1906, is a reminder that democracy and citizenship are contested terms with meanings that change over time.

Students experienced print making at its best, pulling paint with a squeegee pressed hard against the silk screen.  Jocelyn surprised students with photographic images to accompany their creative slogans and statistics.  “Macon Our Voices Heard” has the statistic on voter registration with a picture of recent Notasulga High School graduate Adam on it.  The poster with the statistic on organizational membership has a picture of members of the student band Monsoon, since the music-making group represents the best type of organizations in a democracy: a group of folk with common interests, different skills, and the drive to get things done.  The poster displaying the statistic fordoing favors for neighbors features a picture of student hands making paper, since the posters are a gift to citizens everywhere.  Dr. Jacqueline Brooks, superintendent of Macon County Public Schools–a strong supporter of innovative, experiential projects–dropped by to encourage students to keep up the good work.

As with any art-making or democratic process, each step reveals the next step, always contingent on the shared decision-making of people who know that multiple voices and ideas lead to good and lasting decisions.  So we’re still in the deciding stage of where these posters will end up, and next week we will report on  the destinations.  These posters are truly works of art, made by hands of young people who have accepted the civic data challenge by creating a conversation around the civic health of the county and state that has shaped the type of citizens and adults they will become.

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