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Another group discusses Black Belt problems

TUSCALOOSA — The irony was stronger than the cups of cappuccino being served at a Starbucks just across the walkway.

In a technologically advanced room — complete with wireless microphones, high-speed internet access and built-in surround sound — a national organization spent five hours discussing the problems of rural America and Alabama’s Black Belt.

While the Southern Growth Policies Board hosted a “deliberative forum on rural development” Friday, Nov. 12, Black Belt residents could have found a near-perfect image of progress just below the Ferguson Center ball room on the University of Alabama campus.

The massive concrete steps at the Ferguson Center serve as a melting pot for all sorts of people in Tuscaloosa. As a whole, the congregants are university students who want a cup of coffee and a newspaper. The students — fashioned in every skin color imaginable — eat together, talk together, and spend hours together researching educational materials in well-equipped computer labs.

There was education — at a highly funded level.

There was industry — hundreds of jobs inside the building.

There was multi-racial harmony — students and common citizens sharing lunch tables.

In nearly every regard — ironically — the scene at the Ferguson Center represented exactly what Black Belt leaders have envisioned for this region. Meanwhile, another organization spent another day talking about long-understood problems of rural Alabama.

“Right now, the Black Belt is a quagmire of stagnation…” said James Gibson, a University of Alabama student from Choctaw County.

Another student who served on the discussion panel said young people in rural Alabama don’t care about their futures.

“They’re cast away; thrown away,” said Courtney McGowan, a Jefferson County native.

Sharp-spoken Robert Turner, a Tuskegee native, told an audience of less than 100 that young people have no ambition to become productive members of society.

“He doesn’t want to work at McDonald’s, and he won’t go find a job for himself,” Turner said. “So what does he do? He creates a job for himself, and that’s where the life of crime starts.”

Sarah Repucci, born in Seattle and raised in Huntsville, said she had spent some time in Greene County and discovered that “we still have schools systems that treat some people as second-class citizens.”

“There’s a feeling of disengagement, and it starts early on,” Repucci said.

The heartened discussion by four University of Alabama students was prefaced by a report from noted economic developer Larry Lee, who co-authored a publication called “Crossroads and Connections: Strategies for Rural Alabama,” with Joe A. Sumners at Auburn University.

Lee told audience members about a group of childhood friends in south Alabama who all received good state educations and even better jobs. Only one of those people — Lee — remained in Alabama to work.

“The most valuable export of Alabama is the best and brightest of our young people,” Lee said. “We’re getting very little in return on our education investment in this state. People get educated here and then they leave.”

Demopolis Mayor Cecil P. Williamson planned to attend the first half of Friday’s forum, but she couldn’t leave until the end.

“I was energized listening to those young people,” Williamson said. “I also was very impressed by the interest in our youth, and the depth of their thinking.”

Along with four collegiate panelists, the Southern Growth Policies Board invited high school students from around Tuscaloosa to attend the forum.

Dr. Richard Holland, president of the University of West Alabama, also enjoyed hearing young people discuss pertinent issues about the state’s rural areas.

“They did it with great passion,” he said.

What comes next?

The Southern Growth Policies Board is a collaboration of public officials in 13 southern states. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, who did not attend Friday’s forum, serves as chairman this year and helped bring the forum to Alabama.

However, very little besides discussion occurred during the forum and any lasting impact from the panel is as promising as every panel before it.

“It’s time for action,” said Williamson. “Just like everybody else, I’m tired of people coming into the Black Belt and telling us what to do.”

Holland reiterated the concern.

“I would ask if we’re finding realistic resolutions from these meetings,” he said.

Even Lee, who served as part of the program, said continued studies and discussions won’t solve anything in the Black Belt region.

“But [the talk] will last as long as citizens there allow it,” Lee said. “You have to demand action.”