Youth Building the Rural South

By Ajulo E. Othow

Vol. 22, No. 1, 2000, p. 14, 18

Ajulo E. Othow is the Project Manager of the Southern Rural Development Initiative's (SRDI) Community Development Corporations projects and programs. SRDI is a unique collaborative of community-based institutions working in the poorest communities of the rural South based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I'd been working for the Southern Rural Development Initiative (SRDI) for only two months when we had our third Annual Assembly (trial by fire is integral to our institutional culture). Yearly we bring together our 33-member collaborative of community-based development institutions to learn and share, to be rejuvenated by our connection to a larger movement, to reaffirm our collaborative model, and to highlight our regional identity.

As a neophyte staff person, and relatively new person to the community development field, I felt almost completely detached from this group of people who shared a history of struggling for justice in the South. Still, I searched for someone like me, someone who seemed unfamiliar with the surroundings, culture and language, someone who didn't seem to know the whole story of the movement and its actors. I found no one.

Later, at our post-Assembly debriefing, when my turn came, I casually yet tentatively (so as not to offend anyone) remarked that I didn't see anyone under thirty. All of my


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colleagues agreed and immediately began to inventory the participants, particularly those members who sent a staff or board member under thirty. Again, zero. I then realized that every time I was introduced to a board member or partnering organization, it went something like this: "This is Ajulo, our new staff person ... She single-handedly brings down the average age of our office." I always found the remark funny and thought it a compliment to my youthful genius. But I quickly realized that it had nothing to do with me, and almost everything to do with our field, and the individual institutions that comprise it.

Here's my soapbox analysis. First, through the pervasiveness of popular culture and the lack of critical thought, young people are vilified. They are not considered as assets but are viewed as issues, threats, crowds in need of unfettered controls. They are difficult to understand and impossible to communicate with. Some of the folks I met were surprised by my position, frequently asked my age, and were curious about what made me different.

Second, too few young people are visible in the community development field; an entire segment of our constituency is not being actively engaged. We are building communities of the future without building leaders for the future.

And third, SRDI's work is focused on persistently poor places in the rural South. Both history and perception support the notion that young people must leave their rural communities to lead productive and prosperous lives. We are challenged with understanding the impact of this on rural communities and community-building work. And then there's technology--what does this revolution have to do with youth staying in rural communities?

SRDI, has picked up this issue and turned it into the start of a long-term strategy to build the capacity of our member institutions around engaging young people. This initiative has two sub-themes which we will address at this year's Annual Assembly, Claiming Home: Youth Building the Rural South of 2000 and Beyond. The first theme concerns internal sustainability. Our institutions must create space for young people in governance and management, ensuring that these institutions are sufficiently flexible to reshape themselves when faced with new ideas from young people in power. The second theme is around our community building work. We must ensure that our institutions are accountable to the young people in their communities by involving them in visioning and shaping stronger communities.

The planning for the Assembly involves young people--ages fifteen to thirty--as designers, participants, and evaluators. Young people will also lead presentations and workshops on issues of importance to youth including education, political participation, starting a family, and working in the rural South.

Over the course of three days of workshops, speakers, small and large group activities, and cultural presentations by folks of all ages, SRDI, our members and fifty youth from around the region will generate ideas, share models, ask tough questions, and build momentum for a long term strategy to engage tomorrow's leaders and community builders today.

The intergenerational nature of the assembly will even extend to the entertainment. Carpetbag Theater, Inc., a community-based nonprofit theater group, will perform, addressing issues of racism, classism, sexism, and ageism.

Our annual Assembly will look very different from last year's, and with some measure of success we'll find that our institutions and our communities will too.