Community mural project brings democracy to life for student Jelani Moore

Published: July 24, 2014
Updated: July 26, 2018
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To some, it may look like just another mural painted on a wall in a small town in Alabama, but ask Jelani Moore what he sees and he'll tell you, "It's the best example of democracy I have ever witnessed in my entire life."

The mural can be found on the wall of an Elba business, where residents and visitors who happen to be traveling on Highway 84 see a colorful image that tells story of the town of about 4,000, located on the banks of the Pea River.

Moore and three other Auburn students took their talents into four Alabama communities this summer as part of the 10-week Living Democracy program. In its third year, the program pairs students with Alabama communities and gives them the opportunity to take part in projects to build tourism, engage youth and simply learn the history of some of the state's hidden gems.

"Some of our students come from large metropolitan areas, and they may not even know the name of the mayor of their town," said Mark Wilson, director of civic learning initiatives in the College of Liberal Arts. "In these communities, they get to sit and eat lunch with the mayor on a regular basis; they get to go to city council meetings; they start understanding how communities work. All of that will transfer to their future jobs, to their future lives, and particularly, to the kinds of relationships they'll have in the communities in which they live."

Moore arrived in Elba at the end of May and did not waste any time getting out and getting to know the local citizens. He's working with Auburn's community partners Mart Gray of Covenant Community Church and Philip Box and Justin Maddox of Restoration 154, a local nonprofit organization. The name Restoration 154 has a dual meaning – it stands for the 154 projects the organization plans to do to improve the lives of Elba's citizens and the 154 miles of the Pea River. Box and Maddox started Pea River Outdoors, a local canoe and kayak shop, and currently are in the process of renovating the city's Old Elba Theatre.

"The number one goal of the Living Democracy project is for students to develop skills and interests in active citizenship," Wilson said. "Leaders in the civil rights movement said it best: ‘We are the ones we've been waiting for.' We want students to learn that and live that. It's about politics, but not partisan politics. It's about how we make decisions, organize and act for the public good."

Moore says he knew going into the project that he wanted to put his artistic skills to work in Elba and was interested in painting a community mural. Little did he know that local business owner and Auburn alumna Millie McCullough already had designed a rough sketch of the mural she envisioned for the wall of her business at 214 Factory Avenue North.

"I explained to her why I was in Elba for the summer, and we hit it off immediately," Moore said. "Apparently, she and her associates had been planning this for months, but because of lack of time, it got shoved to the back of the shelf."

McCullough shared her initial sketches and invited Moore to meet with her, Elba Mayor Mickey Murdock and Chamber of Commerce executive director Sandy Bynum. Before he knew it, he was incorporating his own ideas into the design and deep in the planning of a weeklong community mural-painting event set to take place just two weeks into his Living Democracy experience.

The project soon became the first Elba Renaissance Festival which would feature live music, a theatre performance by the Elba High School drama team, a masquerade party and potluck, and of course, the community mural painting.

"We've talked about that wall for at least two years," said Elba attorney and Auburn alumna Debbie Jared. "The scaffolding's been sitting there for probably six months. Then Jelani came and said, ‘In two weeks, we're doing this, and we're going to have a festival.' He's been a very positive influence for us."

The city purchased the paint and constructed a stage, while Moore and other volunteers drew the final design on the wall to prepare it for painting.

"It takes some serious math to project something that large on a wall using nothing but pencils and rulers," Moore said. "But after hours of arguing, scaling, drawing, then rescaling, we got it done all in a day's work."

People came from around Coffee County to take part in the festivities.

"These were no Warhols or Michelangelos," Moore said. "They were just Brant and Becky from two houses down. Yet, in this moment, they were creators. … Throughout the entire week, I was delighted to see how many people showed up every day for six days just to paint a wall."

"Jelani's project in Elba is just one example of how each student in the program is able to connect their individual gifts and creativity to needs and assets in the community," said Living Democracy co-director Nan Fairley. "Watching the mural progress so rapidly in Elba seems like a miracle. But we have had many opportunities to be amazed when we see what the Living Democracy students can do as they work side-by-side with equally creative community partners."

As part of Living Democracy, the students are required to write extensively about their experiences, some of which are shared on a blog and will be used in a magazine to be published at the end of the summer. Some of the students' writings also regularly appear in the local newspapers of the towns in which they're living.

"There's a lot of value in having an outsider come in and look at things fresh, but at the same time also being so involved that he understands what people are wanting and expecting," community partner Justin Maddox said. "He's building relationships with folks and seeing that there are a lot of different personalities and ideas involved, but I think it helps the community to have somebody who can be a new voice and help guide things. The wall had been there waiting, but sometimes you need someone to come in, set a timeline and say, ‘we're going to do this,' and get the ball really rolling in the right direction. A lot of people around here have a lot of good ideas about things that need to happen, but sometimes you need an instigator."

And Moore continues to be that instigator. He still has a few weeks left in Elba, and he hasn't slowed down yet, even after getting most of the mural project behind him. He's putting his video skills to work and has produced a piece for a local vacation bible school and is looking into producing a commercial for Pea River Outdoors. He also arrived in Elba with a plan to produce a documentary on his experience, but he's been too busy experiencing "everything Elba" to spend much time behind the camera.

"I think with Living Democracy the benefits are twofold, especially with the setting being a small town," said community partner Philip Box. "The students come in and learn that a small town offers a lot and that there's something to be gained by living in a place like Elba. The benefit for the community is that the student comes in and generates some renewed excitement and inspires people to get involved. … The town adopts the student, and the student adopts the town."

Living Democracy is a collaboration with Alabama communities and the David Mathews Center for Civic Life.

Read about the project in Jelani Moore's own words.

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