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Get on the Bus

Get on the Bus

It might seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the most valuable trips you can take are in your own backyard. As part of our work with the Danville Regional Foundation on the Middle Border Forward initiative, MDC is helping a group of 50 fellows under the age of 50 chart a new future for the Middle Border Region, a three-county area straddling the border between North Carolina and Virginia. We’ve led the group through several learning sessions helping them understand the building blocks of community development, worked with them to devise small-scale community projects such as promoting entrepreneurship in the region and increasing representation of minorities on county and city commissions, and took a trip to Greenville, South Carolina, to see how a former textile town, like Danville, has revitalized its downtown and developed a progressive vision for its region’s future.

But on a surprisingly warm Saturday in February, we took a group of these Middle Border Fellows on a trip through their own backyard to get a sense of what was happening in their own community and the challenges and opportunities that they may have missed just going about their busy everyday lives.

  • Who knew that a few miles from one of the state of North Carolina’s most beautiful courthouses, sits a community college teaching students sophisticated animation and sound editing concepts?  (That sound of a zombie head being crushed on The Walking Dead may just have been created by a Piedmont Community College graduate).
  • Who knew that little Milton, North Carolina, home to one of the most influential cabinetmakers of the 19th Century, a free black man named Thomas Day, is today also home to an art gallery featuring local artists and a nightclub where you can tie-dye a shirt while drinking a beer?
  • Who knew that Gretna, Virginia’s Elba Park, after years of neglect, is once again serving as a gathering place for the region’s youth?
  • Who knew that the Boys and Girls Club of Chatham, Virginia offered so many young people a place to go after school and how the center faces the challenges in operating such a facility in a rural community?
  • Who knew that Danville’s River District, which once looked so run-down that potential companies openly scoffed about locating their businesses there, is now seen as an asset drawing attention from national firms and for people looking to live in a revitalized, affordable, and vibrant downtown?

But the worth of the trip wasn’t just the new information that the MBF Fellows gathered looking out of their bus windows and at the multiple stops along the way, it was the conversations these visits prompted and the questions it raised throughout the tour. 

  • How can the Fellows make sure that the voices of everyone in the community, including lower-income individuals, are heard in crafting the new vision for the community?
  • How can different areas of the Middle Border Region that are traditionally left out of the process—particularly the rural areas—have their concerns and ambitions reflected?
  • How can the region take advantage of the assets the fellows saw during the tour and what areas did the region need to put more of its energy into?

As the fellows shared their thoughts, I was struck again about what a committed group of individuals they are and how the region’s future looks promising precisely because of the passion of its residents. They’ve got a tough task ahead of them—coming up with an inclusive vision for the future of the place they call home. And the region does face some significant challenges—the recent coal ash spill that impacted the Dan River is just one of many.  But what continues to give me confidence in the group is their passion and their eagerness to learn more about their community and their neighbors.    

A field trip on a beautiful Saturday in February was an important step along the way.  

In the photos:

Top, Middle Border Forward Fellows walk past the site of the workshop of famed cabinet-maker Thomas Day. 

Bottom, Middle Border Fellows Rachael Sanford (left) and Alexis Earhardt discuss their experiences in Caswell County.