My community is the small, rural city of Tuskegee, AL, located in Macon County in the east-central region of Alabama. As my photo captions demonstrate, there is much to know about Tuskegee and its unique history, but to begin I present a selection of demographic statistics to provide a high-level view of the community. According to the most recent estimates published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, Tuskegee’s population is approximately 9,556 persons most of whom (93.5%) are African-American. Its economy has been struggling for several decades, but is showing signs of new life with a higher-than-average median household income growth rate of 36.6% since 2000. Despite this encouraging growth, the median household income in 2013 was $26,848. The rates of poverty and unemployment are high at 29.9% and 22.2% respectively. With regard to education, 82.8% of Tuskegee’s residents have earned a high-school equivalent education, while only 25.6% have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median value of homes in Tuskegee is $80,000, but the housing situation is deteriorating with nearly 21.4% of housing units vacant. These statistics provide a helpful place to begin getting to know this community, but they cannot tell the whole story and therefore must be held lightly with some degree of critical suspicion to provide a space for the personal, familial, and communal stories which compose Tuskegee’s rich narrative to be told.
I do not live in Tuskegee, but it could be considered my “place of work.” In August 2014, I began working for a non-profit organization called Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM). Our ministry focuses primarily on home repair. ARM was founded in 1998 in Sumter County, AL (my hometown), but has been serving in Macon County (and the neighboring Lee County) since 2002. Many of ARM’s ministries are based in Tuskegee, and for the past several years, ARM has been in close partnership with the Tuskegee First Methodist Church. Out of all the communities where ARM serves, Tuskegee is the one where we are most heavily invested.
According to Mtika and Bronkema (2011), a community is “an arena (locality factor) in which community social processes (non-locality factor) take place” (p. 1). As I reflect on how I define Tuskegee as a community, my definition includes all three types of locality factors defined by Mtika and Bronkema (2011): (1) territorial because the actual geographic place known as Tuskegee, AL is the primary focus; (2) institutional because ARM and its ties to local religious groups are also in view; and (3) associational because Tuskegee’s place in the “black community” in America is highlighted. With regard to social processes, my definition of Tuskegee as a community points to the development of common ties, collective reflection over issues, and the formation of identity (Mtika and Bronkema, 2011, p. 10).
My photos of Tuskegee tell a story about the black community’s strength and patient endurance in the face of racial inequality. At the same time, it reveals the deep wounds of racial division, which remain to be reconciled. Ultimately, though, the story I tell about Tuskegee is the story of an outsider. In many ways, it is the “typical” story one might hear about Tuskegee in a history book. My telling of the story lacks what Ledwith calls the “heart” of community storytelling, which are the “voices of the people” (p. 34). This lack of personal character puts me at risk of objectifying the community, of ignoring its particularity and uniqueness, its “soul.” A story without heart and soul is devoid of love, without which, community work becomes “technical, routinized, shallow, and exploitative” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p.25). It is love, Westoby and Dowling (2009) note, that keeps people from getting “stuck in their own story” and allows them to develop a capacity for deep listening that is fundamental to relationships founded in mutuality and dialogue (p. 26). While deeply challenging, this critique encourages me to move humbly out of my place of comfort, safety, and privilege in order to hear and learn from the personal stories of Tuskegee’s people.
Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.
Mtika, Njalayawo M and Bronkema, David. 2011. “Definition of Community Development” (unpublished).
U.S. Census Bureau. (2013). Tuskegee city, Alabama. Retrieved from http://factfinder2.census.gov.
Westoby, P. & Dowling, G. (2012). Dialogical Community Development. Australia: Tafina Press.