Judson social work students present research to Main Street Marion board, community members | Judson College
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Judson social work students present research to Main Street Marion board, community members

by Mary Amelia Taylor, Director of Marketing & Communications

Marion, Ala.–Students in Judson College’s SWK 392: Social Work in Rural Settings class presented the results from their class’s asset mapping project to the Main Street Marion board and other Marion community members Tuesday, April 23. The student presenters were Jordan Hooks (Cullman, Ala.), Joyce Lavata’i (Nanakuli, Hawaii), Katelyn Lawrence (Marbury, Ala.), Audri Thicklin (Hayneville, Ala.), and Hannah Woods (Sylvan Springs, Ala.), who are all members of Judson’s 2020 cohort of Bachelor of Social Work students.

The class conducted the project in Marion over the course of the spring 2019 semester, after a brainstorming session between the course’s instructor, Amy Butler, and then-Main Street Marion leaders Chris Joiner and Kate Mauldin. Butler, who also serves as Judson’s Director of Faith-Based Service and Learning, was looking for a project that would allow her students to “fine-tune” their community social work practice skills, and one that would allow them to get to know the Marion community better. The result of their conversations was a semester of information-gathering and asset mapping in Marion–specifically as community strengths relate to, and are perceived by, college students. Joiner and Mauldin thought that the college student perspective was a vital one in the Main Street organization’s downtown revitalization efforts, so they brainstormed with Butler’s students about the most helpful research the class could present to the Main Street board.

Asset mapping is a tool of Asset-Based Community Development, a development model created by community researchers John L. McKnight and John P. Kretzmann. According to Butler, it’s a way to visualize the strengths and resources of a community and help uncover solutions to address community needs. “It’s the idea of approaching community development starting with assets instead of deficits, or weak areas,” Butler says. “If you study a community from a strengths perspective first, that’s easier to build upon than approaching a community through a lens where everything seems wrong. Starting with assets and strengths helps us move forward and make changes for growth.”

The class’s asset map is laid over an aerial image of Marion, on which they visually pinpointed “assets”, or strengths, of the community. “We, as community members, can easily focus on things that our community needs or doesn’t have. The asset map is a helpful tool to use in visualizing the strengths that are in our community, and those strengths are what we need to emphasize,” says Butler. “From there, we can talk about areas in which we need to grow.”

The class’s presentation was entitled: “Building Connections: Bridging the Gap between College Students and the Community” and addressed a perceived divide between college-aged students and the Marion community. The project’s mission was to discern how the community does–and could–relate to the town’s largest age group: 18-24 year-olds, who make up more than 30% of the town’s population, according to a 2019 report from the Alabama Department of Public Health.

The Judson class interviewed college student focus groups at both Judson and Marion Military Institute, Judson alumnae who live in Marion, and a sampling of community leaders and community members to understand their perceptions of the the town’s specific strengths. “We wanted to pick out different assets of the Marion community that would specifically interest college-aged students,” said Thicklin. The class also conducted informal “windshield surveys” by driving around town and marking specific tangible assets the community possesses on their asset map, like businesses, churches, and restaurants.

From their research, the class identified 5 themes, under which they categorized community assets, such as historic sites relating to Civil Rights, education, Baptist, and Civil War history; downtown community gathering spaces like restaurants, The Social, and As Time Goes By; outdoor recreation sites like Perry Lakes Park and Barton’s Beach; relationships with community members, churches, and non-profit partners like C.E.T. Ministries and Sowing Seeds of Hope; and an active community network of social media pages, college and organization websites, the Marion Times-Standard newspaper, and word-of-mouth communications.

Their recommendations for the Main Street Marion board dealt with harnessing the strengths of those varying assets, specifically as each related to the college-aged student population. The class explored possible avenues for introducing college students to the town, its people, and its many assets as early as possible during their time as Marion residents. Other recommendations touched on strengthening assets that already exist, such as community gathering spaces, opportunities for building relationships between Marion community members and college students, avenues of communication about town and college events.

Refreshments and a lively discussion followed the presentation, as audience members asked questions and exchanged ideas. “This is exactly what we were hoping would happen as a result of our presentation,” said Woods. “Our project identified some great assets and some areas for growth, and right now there are people of great influence in one room contributing new ideas to this conversation. The potential for our working together is really exciting.”

For more information about the presentation or the students’ research, contact Amy Butler at 334.683.5163.

PHOTO: Judson Social Work students shared an asset mapping project and recommendations to help “bridge the gap between college students and the community” with the Main Street Marion board and community members Tuesday, April 23. Photo by Sarah Fowler.