Power & Place Collaborative’s ‘Stories of Alamance County’ event will celebrate community

The Power and Place Collaborative is a partnership between Elon University, Burlington's Mayco Bigelow Center, and the African American Cultural Arts and History Center. Students interviewed community members and edited their oral histories into short videos.

Weeks after Claire Aft ’22 interviewed Burlington resident and entrepreneur April Mitchell, the power of their conversation blazed in her memory.

In an early October interview, Mitchell led Aft and a team of Human Service Studies seniors through her life and upbringing in Burlington. Mitchell thrived in the love and light shown by her mother and grandmother, even as she struggled to find belonging as an interracial child. Those experiences strengthened her, leading her to college and a nursing license, and eventually to share love for the community through cooking at her restaurants: Pat’s Food Truck and Big Pat’s Soul Food Café.

Elon students and faculty met with community members at Burlington's Mayco Bigelow Center in September to launch this semester's oral history projects.
Elon students and faculty met with community members at Burlington’s Mayco Bigelow Center in September to launch this semester’s oral history projects.

“Her story showed how much strength there is in this community,” Aft said. “Listening to her made me feel connected to her. It was so impactful being with her in that moment.”

Mitchell’s and about 10 other stories from Alamance County’s Black community will be shared in short videos at the Power and Place Collaborative’s “Stories of Alamance County” event Saturday, Dec. 4. It will be from 10 a.m. to noon in McKinnon Hall, inside the Moseley Center. The program will also be streamed on Zoom.

The Power and Place Collaborative — a partnership between Elon, the African American Cultural Arts and History Center and Burlington’s Mayco Bigelow Community Center — aims to preserve and present stories from and about people and places in Alamance County’s Black communities. This is the project’s second year and the second time students and community leaders joined to collect and present local stories.

This fall, residents were interviewed by teams from Assistant Professor of Human Service Studies Vanessa Drew-Branch’s senior seminar and students in Race, Place and Memory — an honors seminar taught by Assistant Professor of Geography Sandy Marshall and Associate Professor and Director of Design Thinking Danielle Lake. Students edited their oral histories into videos that will live on the project’s website and be available to the center and community.

“One of the unexpected joys of the dozen-or-so interviews is to see that there are connected themes that emerged across all the interviewees: Generations of leadership, generations of activism and generations of love,” Lake said.

Elon students and faculty met with community members at Burlington's Mayco Bigelow Center in September to launch this semester's oral history projects.The Dec. 4 event will explore those themes with discussions and invite the community to help direct the collaborative’s future work. Organizers are working toward partnerships with area schools around intergenerational storytelling, and with Elon’s art history program, grant writing courses and the School of Communications’ Interactive Media graduate program.

This year’s work included a meet-and-greet event between students and community members at the center, as well as tours of historic locations in Burlington and Graham. Bobbi Ruffin, director of Burlington’s Mayco Bigelow Center, said the collaboration is beneficial to the broader community and to Elon students.

“I want to continue this partnership, deepen these relationships and open doors for students to feel connected to the community they live in for four years,” Ruffin said. “To give them a place to serve, to play basketball and to just come and be. I want them to feel at home at Mayco Bigelow.”

The project’s initial concept was formed with the late Jane Sellars, the founding director of the African American Cultural Arts and History Center, to document stories around significant places in East Burlington, Marshall said.

“Along the way, the emphasis shifted from documenting place to creating space for Black residents and others to share their memories of and experiences in Alamance County,” Marshall said. “Being involved in this project has been a great privilege and a pleasure. It’s been especially inspirational to see students deepen their connections with the community, finding opportunities to volunteer, intern and conduct research with our community partners.”

Elon students and faculty met with community members at Burlington's Mayco Bigelow Center in September to launch this semester's oral history projects.The project is working as intended, students said. Aft hoped to stay in touch with Mitchell and the community. Nyjah Rollins ’23, whose team interviewed North Park utilities and pool manager Terry Moore, also said she wanted to continue fostering their connection.

A Burlington native, Rollins discovered new aspects of local history not taught in schools, such as the history of Burlington’s Black business district. She took the Race, Place and Memory class because it fit her schedule, unaware of the Power and Place Collaborative.

“It’s been eye-opening to learn how much I didn’t know about the place I’m from. I’m grateful to have taken this class,” Rollins said. “I think every Elon student should take something like this to get more involved in community.