By Madalene Smith
The small community of Todd, nestled in the western North Carolina mountains, was once a bustling rural town much larger than neighboring Boone. Today, Todd is much smaller by comparison, with far fewer businesses and no town government. The area is still a very desirable place to live because of the peaceful setting and outdoor recreational access. However, the Todd General Store, the longest-running business in North Carolina and “heart” of the community, recently closed. These changes have made it difficult not only for the community to purchase goods specific to the store, but also to mingle and create a sense of fellowship over the once-welcoming nature of drip coffee, a warm fire and a circle of chairs. Despite other businesses remaining open, concerts playing in the park and more, the social disconnect between locals and seasonal residents seemed to grow and some people expressed a need for unity. In such a rural community, the struggle could have been silent. Luckily, someone was listening.
The Todd Listening Project (TLP) informally began a year and a half ago when Blackburn Community Outreach, Inc., a small community development organization, invited Jaimie McGirt and several residents to develop a collaborative asset-mapping project in Todd. McGirt, a 2013 graduate of Appalachian State University’s Goodnight Family Department of Sustainable Development, had just the experience needed to lead the project.
“I was canvassing door-to-door with Appalachian Voices as an AmeriCorps associate when Brandon Wrencher, the executive director of Blackburn Community Outreach, recruited me to coordinate the Todd Listening Project,” she recalled. “I loved canvassing and training others in this practice, so I was excited to implement that method of outreach for the TLP and connect with residents we didn’t know.”
The TLP is modeled after the listening projects created in the 1960’s to address budding social issues. Listening projects are a simple concept driven by people taking time to listen to one another’s concerns and empowering each other to take action.
McGirt and Wrencher met with Assistant Professor Brian Burke in the university’s Sustainable Development Department during the winter of 2015 after learning of his previous experience with listening projects. They collaborated to create the Applications of Sustainable Development course to offer students the chance to join Todd residents in the community organizing effort. The project-focused course was designed to provide students with real-world experience in the field of sustainable development and the sometimes-unpredictable nature of nonprofit work.
Volunteers for the project, including Burke’s students, went from home to home and surveyed Todd residents about community issues as well as their personal skills and interests in hopes of encouraging collaboration and community problem solving between residents who otherwise wouldn’t interact. From more than 100 interviews conducted (30 of those by Burke’s students), the volunteers learned that popular concerns included the future of the general store and the health of the beloved New River.
As the course wrapped up this fall, Burke’s students prepared a report on how a potential new general store could function to best meet town needs and presented research on how the town could use festivals, like the New River Festival, to develop communities and support economic development.
“The practice of sustainable development isn’t formulaic; it’s more of an art in that it requires finesse in establishing relationships, listening carefully and thinking creatively about resources,” said Burke. “The students learned and practiced tangible skills while helping develop a mobilized, empowered community.”
While the course culminated in December, the Todd Listening Project will continue. Volunteers and residents alike will persist in their efforts to recognize and mobilize resources with a little creativity and a lot of care. The project confirms the importance of strengthening local rural communities and the power of coming together while demonstrating to other small towns that help is often as far away as the closest ear.
As for Burke and McGirt, they are in the process of talking with students about their experience in the course and planning ahead to offer a similar course in Fall 2017.
“The goal is to get students more involved off campus,” said McGirt. “The project isn’t just service, it’s digging in to the academic foundations they’re learning in class and applying what they learn though strong collaborative activities.”
About the Goodnight Family Department of Sustainable Development
One of seven departments housed in the College of Fine and Applied Arts, the Goodnight Family Department of Sustainable Development at Appalachian State University prepares students to thoughtfully analyze human development while pursuing transformative, community-driven development and social change. It offers a Bachelor of Science degree in sustainable development with concentrations in community, regional and global development; environmental studies; and agroecology and sustainable agriculture; as well as a Bachelor of Arts and minor in sustainable development.
About Appalachian State University
Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 18,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.