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Mark Wilson

Coordinator of community and civic engagement
College of Liberal Arts

Mark Wilson is coordinator of community and civic engagement in the College of Liberal Arts, or CLA. He earned a doctorate in history from Auburn University and has assisted CLA in outreach efforts since 2006. He teaches Introduction to Community and Civic Engagement, coordinates practicum courses for students minoring in community and civic engagement and directs externally funded projects with communities, faculty and students. He is an Appalachian Teaching Fellow with the Appalachian Regional Commission, secretary of the Alabama Historical Association, a member of the board of directors for Bridge Builders Alabama and Just Connections and an advisory board member of Jean Dean Reading is Fundamental. Current projects include a mentoring project in Macon County funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission; Living Democracy, an ambitious experiment in long-term collaborations with students and communities funded by the Kettering Foundation; and an internship program with the David Mathews Center for Civic Life in Alabama.

1. You have a Ph.D. in history, but you work with students, faculty and members of communities who have similar interests and want to work together. What brought you to the civic engagement field?

A liberal arts education can take you anywhere! History is important to me because it helps us discover and rediscover what it means to be human. Community development work has the same function. I just happen to love them both.

2. For three years, you have taught a course that takes students to an Appalachian community during spring break. Why the mountains?

That region of our country is fascinating and helps students understand all of the "big" issues related to civic engagement. It's a region that has been stereotyped, colonized for natural resources and pitied by outsiders for a long time. Our host and partner in the former coal camp community of Eagan, Tenn., the Clearfork Community Institute, reminds us that residents have something to teach us about life and the class becomes an experience of finding common ground between our two very different worlds. Plus, we have a chance to make fishing poles, dig worms and interview the elders who grew up in the nearby hollows!

3. Students must react to the mountain experience in different ways. What's the most surprising thing you've encountered among students?

The first year we offered the course, Rachel Naftel, now a graduate, really got to know a local gentleman who helped lead students in community projects. One day he took her up to his wife's grave on the mountain and mentioned that the four-wheelers were constantly moving closer and closer. So after finals, Rachel organized a return trip with three other students, bought supplies at the hardware store and worked with locals to build a fence around the grave. No one should ever underestimate what an Auburn student can do. I think when George Petrie penned the lines about the human touch in the Auburn Creed, he had students like Rachel in mind. I'm still amazed.

4. How do community members respond to these projects and programs?

As you can imagine, they are grateful for assistance, but it's important for the relationship to be more than just a transaction of time or money or both. We have seven communities around the state who have taken a journey with us through the Living Democracy project, one where they will have a student living in their community this summer, working with their organization on projects designed by the students and themselves through an intentional, yearlong process. The project is not just about identifying and meeting unmet needs. We want a relationship that reveals what we have in common, what's most valuable to everyone involved and where action can take place that builds the capacity of communities to determine their own futures.

5. Your students say you talk a lot about democracy, and one program is even named Living Democracy. Why the emphasis?

Civic engagement is about citizens and the practices that help us rule ourselves as a society, since the alternative forms of government are not nearly as attractive. When it comes to solving problems, our traditional practice in society, especially in a university setting, is dependent on experts to arrive at a solution and then delivering that solution to citizens to implement. And that works with some needs in society. But with problems that don't seem to go away-poverty, educational attainment, crime, disinterest in civic life-we have to focus on what citizens can do and help develop habits and practices that result in innovative approaches led by people in communities. When students finally move from pitying people who are "less fortunate" or money-poor to an orientation where they respect and appreciate them as humans and actors in society, a whole new world emerges. After Rachel put the finishing touches on the fence, for example, she bought a guitar and spent the summer as an intern in the mountain community with no cell phone service. That's a pretty good symbol of education in and for democracy.

March 12, 2012