Macon County high school juniors and seniors, many of whom are fulfilling requirements for Bridge Builders Alabama, meet every other Tuesday night at Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church on Highway 81 between Notasulga and Tuskegee. Auburn University undergraduates work alongside them, as they develop skills related to life, work, and college. The program is funded in part by the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Tonight we went for a walk across Hwy 81 on the land of what is currently Beck’s Turf Farm. Sunsets provide the backdrop for most of our spring meetings, a reminder that we are away from the city and out where the sounds and smells are much different from Tuskegee and Auburn. CSX Railroad recently designated 277 acres as a “Select Site,” the first of such sites in the state of Alabama, and the company will help market the site to industries that need access to the interstate highway and the rail line.
This is big news for Macon County, since jobs are few and the poverty level is nearly twice the national average. The median household income is $29,255, compared to the state average of $42,934. But wealth is not always measured in dollars and cents, and since young people in Macon County need to be a part of the conversation, Mobile Studio artists Jocelyn Zanzot (also a landscape architecture professor at AU ) and Dan Neil (also curator of the Rosa Parks Museum and Library at Troy University Montgomery) helped students talk through what it means for a community to develop land for industry.
We discussed quality of life indicators, the kinds of attributes a community requires to retain its young people as members of a place. Students identified all of those things (tangible and intangible) that make any place a destination for families and generations. Students talked through what new development might mean or might NOT mean for their community. If a new industry draws workers from outside of Macon County, for example, does that help the county reach its potential? One student (yes, a student, a senior in high school) pointed out that when she learned about the tax incentives provided to Hyundai when recruited to Montgomery, she thought the state was far too generous and critiqued what historian James Cobb has described as the Selling of the South. The type of industry recruited to Macon County is also a concern to students, since they have heard of plenty of communities being ruined by industrial waste, degraded roads, and longterm environmental consequences.
The discussion tonight was important, not only for its content, but also for the model it presented. These are tough issues, and they can’t be decided through either a traditional top-down approach or through uncivil dialogue that produces more heat than light. Jobs provide money, but money doesn’t necessarily provide life, or at least the kind of living that humans truly desire–in community with others, leaving legacies and traditions behind that go far beyond the stuff we produce and consume each day. Young people need to be a part of the decision-making process, and tonight proved yet again that there is wisdom in youth. And as Dan reminded us, if we don’t plan for our future, someone else will plan it for us.