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How a village is raising ALL its children

I’m sitting in the Gunn Commons on campus at the University of North Alabama waiting to meet with Tammy Rhodes, the Director of the First-Year Experience program on campus. As I wait, I’m thinking about how different the building is from when I was a student, before it was named “Gunn.”

The building was named for Wendell Wilkie Gunn, the first black student at Florence State Teachers College, now known as UNA. When he became a student in 1963, his enrollment was independent but the integration was court-ordered.

Since then, racial unity has come a long way, but there is still progress to be made. One of the catalysts for these changes is a lot closer to home than you might think.

Community empowerment is probably a phrase you’ve seen periodically in political campaigns, nonprofit promotions and maybe even a social media post or two, but the concrete understanding is lost on many — particularly those who don’t feel they need it.

The World Health Organization, the leading international agency focused on public health, defines community empowerment as “more than the involvement, participation or engagement of communities.

“It implies community ownership and action that explicitly aims at social and political change. It recognizes that if some people are going to be empowered, then others will be sharing their existing power and giving some of it up.”

In rural communities and even college towns, typically considered the more liberal locations, empowerment is often seen as a struggle between the past and progress. While community empowerment is not limited to people of color and minorities, Black History Month is certainly a monthlong moment for pause as we reflect on where we’ve come from and where we’re going in terms of accessibility.

“In our community, I would say that community empowerment is really defined as helping people in the community regardless of race, gender [or] class,” Rhodes said.

Part of Rhodes’ job is to keep freshmen at UNA engaged academically, but also socially.

“We had several people that are over nonprofits to openly speak about how we could get students more plugged into the Shoals community, especially those students who are not from the Shoals,” she said. “We want to look at how they could learn more about what’s going on and not be so sheltered here on the campus.”

Rhodes said she wants students to realize there is so much opportunity at UNA, but the larger community that supports the university is in need, too. Florence does have a homeless population, and those needs extend to campus where there are food and basic needs pantries for students who come from inequity and may not be able to eat or shower otherwise.

Much like Gunn’s precedent of stepping foot on campus, Rhodes said the key to community empowerment for southern communities like ours comes down to education.

“It’s about being educated and looking at what’s happening in our community,” she said. “It’s looking at the micro instead of looking at the macro. Not that the macro isn’t important, because it is, but that’s where the educational aspect is. We have to look at home first and see what we can do here and then maybe get to the larger picture.”

Bishop Alexander, a prominent name on UNA’s campus, is all about community on a personal level. Alexander is the only person I have ever met to require an extra Facebook account — he’s maxed out his friendship.

That spirit of reaching others is close to his heart and closer to his causes, particularly as a part-time pastor.

“Churches played a significant role in the civil rights movement because it gave minorities the opportunity to voice their opinions in a safe zone,” Alexander said. “At the time you really couldn’t voice your opinions outside of church, and a lot of it was due to fear and retaliation.”

“Dr. King and so many others said we have to take this conversation outside these walls because until we do, nothing’s going to happen, it’s going to become a soapbox. You come here, complain and there’s no action. They had to take it to the next level. It was a leap of faith but I’m so thankful those leaders before me did that because I don’t know where I’d be.”

Bishop Alexander

Having those conversations, though, led to a small community of empowerment that ultimately led to Martin Luther King Jr.’s revolutionary speeches and calls to action — the same should be enacted today.

“Dr. King and so many others said we have to take this conversation outside these walls because until we do, nothing’s going to happen, it’s going to become a soapbox,” Alexander said. “You come here, complain and there’s no action. They had to take it to the next level. It was a leap of faith but I’m so thankful those leaders before me did that because I don’t know where I’d be.”

Now the director of alumni relations at UNA, Alexander would not be in his position if it weren’t for the civil rights movement and men like Gunn.

“It was dangerous for a person of color like him to come on a predominantly white campus and to hear on the news about people getting killed, but he took a stand,” he said. “And because he took a stand, it impacted the future generations. You’re going to have opposition, but at the end of the day I feel like you have to know your worth, you have to know your voice and you can’t back down. It’s not even about you, it’s about those you’re speaking for. You’re being a voice to the voiceless.”

And for the Shoals specifically, aiding the voiceless, educating the eager and helping those in need is a passion for many.

Rhodes specifically mentioned Dr. Kim Jackson and Crossroads Community Outreach, Camille Bennett and Project Say Something, and Krista Manchester and Room in the Inn Shoals as excellent sources of community education, aid and thus empowerment.

“The way they’re empowering the community is they’re hands-on,” she said.

For students, there are a plethora of ways to get involved. Engaging local nonprofits is an excellent start, Rhodes said, and there are other organizations who pursue community service like UNA’s leadership and volunteerism division of student engagement, as well as the entire National Pan-Hellenic Council.

“They are individually and collectively working constantly in the communities,” she said. “That’s part of their philanthropies. Individual organizations do it year-round as undergraduates, and the graduate chapters work very, very hard.”

For those who aren’t students but are eager to get involved with the community, Rhodes said looking to the same locations that helped fuel the civil rights movement is a great place to start.

“Quite a lot of people in the black community, especially in this area, are quite dedicated to their churches,” she said. “Those pastors and leaders are out there and also working with those nonprofits. It’s not uncommon that you will see them working with the NAACP.

“Social justice works in many ways. It’s beyond religion. It’s what’s right.”

Alexander said the key to keeping the community empowered is simple: Us.

“A lot of times community leaders are looking to pass the torch to the next generation but if there’s nobody in the room….” he said with a shrug. “Find ways to sit down at the table and have those tough conversations.”

There has been a vast amount of progress, but there is still a lot of work to be done, both admit.

“When I look across our community, we’ve grown and we are doing great things,” Rhodes said. “But it’s because we’ve had some people to pave the way to allow us to do that. We have a lot of history and we have a long way to go, but we have a lot of heroes that are doing amazing things. I’m thankful for that.”