TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Last year, five 11- to 14-year-old African-American girls, equipped with cameras, took photos of a community cemetery, the municipal building, the only restaurant and the only store in their hometown of Hobson City, Alabama’s oldest African-American community and the second oldest in the nation.
The photos were of places that they were concerned about and wanted to see revitalized.
The girls’ assignment was part of a research study called “PhotoVoices in Historic Hobson City: Cultivating Community, Creating Change.” The study was conducted by Dr. Michelle Robinson, an assistant professor of English at The University of Alabama.
The photos have since been brought to the attention of the town’s mayor, Alberta McCrory, who is using them toward her goals of community engagement and historic preservation in the approximately 800-resident town in Calhoun County.
The project, which was originally piloted with a small award of seed funds from the UA Office of Community Affairs, has been awarded an Our Town Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. On June 1, Jane Chu, chairwoman of the agency, announced that Robinson’s PhotoVoices project will receive $25,000 to continue and expand her work in Hobson City. The grant was one of 10 the NEA awarded in Alabama during the first part of the 2017 grant period.
“The National Endowment for the Arts is pleased to support these Alabama arts organizations, including The University of Alabama, in their work to bring the arts to people all across the state,” Chu said in a written statement. “From providing children with opportunities to succeed, to connecting people with their heritage and revitalizing our communities, the arts can help us move forward as people, and as a society.”
Robinson said she is excited about her project being recognized by the NEA and receiving funding to continue her work.
“This is my first application for a federal grant, and I received it,” she said. “I’m over the moon excited about it. I have been working in Hobson City for two and a half years now. I’ve been doing it on a shoestring budget, so it’s really kind of nice to have someone outside of the University acknowledge that it’s important work and offer some support to get the work done.”
The NEA grant is allowing her to open up the project to more people beyond the five girls she started with.
“We have to open it up to any young person in the community who would like to participate,” she said. “PhotoVoice isn’t designed to work with a lot of people, however, so I’m hoping to expand it to just about 12 people.
“If I have an overwhelming response, I might do two groups. We’ll recruit people in Hobson City in August during the Hobson City Founders Day Festival.”
Robinson said the research methodology of PhotoVoice started in developing countries as a way to bridge language barriers between researchers and the people in those communities. It’s now used in all types of communities across research disciplines.
Besides funding the project for another two years, the grant will also allow for exhibit space in Hobson City Hall, where photos taken by community members will be on permanent display.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.