It is precisely this question that we sought answers for one summer day in West Savannah. Working with a group of 3 students in a summer camp at the Moses Jackson Advancement Center (MJAC), we explored the elements that make a place more than a series of houses. MJAC exists to improve the lives of West Savannah residents, particularly the youth, by providing informational classes and programs where participants can empower themselves with marketable skills. This particular week in mid-June had camp participants questioning and defining what they think makes up a community. Under the supervision of staff and college student volunteers, the youth took to the streets of West Savannah, cameras in hand, photographing elements of the neighborhoods that they found to embody what community means to them.
My group consisted of staff director Ben and three charismatic and intelligent teenagers: Chris, Kendra and Roosevelt. Chris was from the neighborhood we walked through and served as our personal tour guide, providing information we would not have otherwise known by observation alone. The insight Chris provided was precisely what this project aimed for by allowing participants to create their own story of what a community is to them. When I asked what they were looking for in particular, they told me they wanted to find old buildings, the most historic-looking ones. While Ben and myself pointed out specific elements of building styles and vacant lots, we did not influence their choices in what they found most relevant.
Though we started out looking at the houses and parks, a community swimming pool and the railroad tracks bordering one end of the neighborhood, one of the most poignant moments came when we ran into an older gentleman pushing a lawnmower up the street. The gentleman knew Chris and his family and they briefly discussed church and their neighbors. The people make the community what it is and this was a perfect example of that interaction.
The next day of camp consisted of a review of the photographs taken in three different neighborhoods: two groups in West Savannah, and the third group in Cuyler-Brownsville. The pictures were reviewed as a whole and ranked based on what the students found most significant. This prompted discussions amongst themselves about the photos and why they assigned certain relevance to each one. Some of the approvals were based solely on the picture’s quality, while others were approved based on the fact that they involved residents telling students the story of their communities.
Though I was only able to volunteer for two days, I thoroughly enjoyed working with such an enthusiastic and energetic group of students. It was interesting to watch their impressions of what defines a community over a short time of experiencing the local environs. MJAC has a fantastic program going on and it’s great to see so many students involved with this. If time permits, I definitely look forward to working with them again this summer.