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The University Fellows Experience (UFE) has a long relationship with the community of Marion, Alabama. Beginning with the first cohort of Fellows, the UFE students have annually lived and worked alongside their partners in Perry County to execute action plans designed to support ongoing community development efforts in the area. Now shepherding its seventeenth cohort through their freshman year, the UFE is set to continue and deepen this relationship in the spring of 2024 -- culminating in the latest Black Belt Experience to be held this May.
The Black Belt Experience lifts a group of top scholars with a passion for and commitment to ethical community engagement out of the classroom and lands them in the heart of the Alabama Black Belt Region for hands-on experience in asset-based community development.
The cost of funding a Fellow for the entirety of the Black Belt Experience equates to about $2,000.00. With your help, we can fund Fellows in the spring 2024 cohort and beyond -- forever leaving our mark on the Alabama community!
In their freshman year, Fellows engage in an in-depth study of the issues impacting the Black Belt and apply their academic and leadership skills to the development of detailed action plans modeled off of professional grant applications. Projects developed for the Black Belt Experience are co-created with insight and support by Perry County residents -- often community leaders in economic development, education, healthcare, and cultural expression -- and are designed to approach the stated needs of Marion and the surrounding areas. With additional mentoring by subject-area experts at UA, Fellows' action plans become vibrant living documents, underpinned with academic research and the expertise of those living in Perry County. When finals time rolls around in the spring, Fellows submit their carefully-crafted action plans to close out their academic year...but when spring semester ends, the Experience begins.
UFE believes that what happens in the classroom cannot stay in the classroom -- and, after their year of study into the American social support system, Alabama's history and contemporary outlook, theories of ethical community development, and project design and management, Fellows apply these lessons in the month of May as they are welcomed to the city of Marion to begin executing their action plans. On the surface, the Black Belt Experience represents service engagement with our partner community. However, the real magic lies deeper as students learn from the residents of Perry County the profound truths about daily life in West Alabama, the joys and struggles of contemporary community development work, the enduring cultural impact of Black Belt artists and activists, and the path to identifying personal strengths and passions in the interest of connecting them to a grander purpose.
Fellows live and work in Marion alongside their local project partners, contributing to ongoing action in the city in areas of education and youth outreach, healthcare, community and economic development, and arts and culture. Projects vary year by year, but Fellows consistently leap into their work with both feet -- whether they are heading up leadership academies for local students, creating exhibits for museums and showcases in Perry County, supporting health screenings and education by homegrown public health non-profits, or rolling up their sleeves to prepare vacant downtown buildings for new tenants. But the Experience doesn't stop there!
In addition to their hands-on work in Perry County, Fellows travel the Alabama Black Belt to learn more about the history and culture of the region, contemporary community development efforts across West Alabama, and the wonders of its natural resources and artistic output. Whether Fellows are soaking in the wisdom of civil rights footsoldiers in Selma, discovering the daily lives of historical Alabamians of all backgrounds in the ruins of Moundville and Old Cahawba, digesting the message and mission of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, admiring and learning from the reciprocal relationships between Auburn Rural Studio or Project Horseshoe Farm and their communities in and around Greensboro, delighting in the works of the Gee's Bend Quilters and Charlie "Tin Man" Lucas, or cradling endangered Cahaba mollusks at the Alabama Acquatic Biodiversity Center, each student leaves their Black Belt Experience not only a more capable leader in all their future communities, but also a thoughtful and well-informed ambassador for the state they have chosen as their educational home.
All of this brings a cohort of Fellows to a new environment and new situation away from campus, where they are encouraged and enabled to reflect critically on their own sense of personal purpose, their ability to work as partners with one another and with professionals beyond UA faculty, their deeper understanding of Alabama's natural and cultural landscape, and the power of informed engagement as local change agents in an increasingly global world. It is no wonder that Fellows from all cohorts have pointed to the Black Belt Experience as a uniquely transformative period in their development as leaders, scholars, and citizens!
The Black Belt Experience could not exist without the consistent hospitality and investment of members of the Perry County community. It is critical to stress that Marion is not a laboratory for our students: it is the vibrant home of thousands of passionate Alabamians. While our students annually lend their hands, minds, and hearts to ongoing work in the county, that work is led by local residents with invaluable personal experience and expertise in their community. Fellows do service in Marion -- but what they receive in return is an education that changes their lives, often in the businesses, institutions, and homes of our local partners. We encourage those of you willing to contribute to this campaign to learn more about Marion and Perry County and to consider a visit to the area. Its outsized role in the Civil Rights Movement and the development of Alabama's educational landscape only begins to scratch the surface of the impact its residents have made on Alabama, U.S., and world history, and modern movements in Perry County represent an astonishing example of local investment and resilience.
We cannot thank our partners enough for the ways they have poured into Fellows and the UFE, and naming even a long list will exclude countless others who managed to shape our students while building their home. Still, we extend our heartfelt gratitude to all of our partners, including Sowing Seeds of Hope, the Lincoln Normal Association, Marion Military Institute, the Judson College family, Francis Marion School, Marion Academy, Breakthrough Charter, the Perry County Extension Office, Project Horseshoe Farm, and Main Street Marion, among so many more organizations and individuals who make the Black Belt Experience possible.
Examples of Past Projects
LAMP (Leaders After Marion's Prosperity)/Lead Marion: This leadership and civic engagement camp for middle schoolers in local public and private schools has taken many forms over the years, but each expression has provided an outlet for students to express their ideas about their community, cultivate leadership skills, and foster civic engagement.
Catalyst: Catalyst aimed to expose students to the variety of emotional, cognitive, and physical benefits an arts education provides through three areas of study: dance, theatre, and creative writing. In addition to supporting a school musical production, Fellows led exercises and activities that encouraged expression, teamwork, and healthy self-esteem in order to expose Francis Marion students to the arts and their own ability to make the world a better place.
Lash & Lead: Modeled after the Boy Scouts of America pioneering merit badge curriculum, this project taught hard skills (including learning various knots and lashings, dealing with emergency situations outdoors, and various survival techniques) while also practicing leadership, teamwork, critical thinking, and problem solving through real-world scenarios. The project culminated in an obstacle course and chariot race along with the construction of a 30-foot pioneering tower.
Connect Marion: Fellows assisted Main Street Marion and non-profit E-Footprints in building a grant application to bring more reliable and accessible broadband infrastructure to Perry County. As part of their work, Fellows also canvassed local citizens for their experiences with internet infrastructure to submit to the FCC as part of the federal organization's contemporaneous call for comments on U.S. broadband infrastructure and use.
Jailed for Justice: This project helped to preserve the history of Lincoln Normal School by creating a mobile exhibit to memorialize the Children's Crusade and the impact it had on Lincoln Normal School in Marion as well as the wider Civil Rights Movement.
The Marion Mural Project: This project aimed to inspire town pride, beautify the downtown, and commemorate Marion's heritage by representing culturally and historically significant visual elements that represent the town and its people; the mural, the Tree of Marion, remains in full view from the town square as further murals and public art installations have since spread throughout the downtown.