Ashia Winston

Change Agents: Social Work Interns Serve Rural Alabama

In Alabama, just a few dozen miles can make communities feel like they’re worlds apart.

Ashia Winston experienced this firsthand after moving from her hometown of Tuscaloosa to Sumter County.

“I noticed tremendous differences living 60 miles up the road. Transitioning to rural life allowed me to appreciate the ample resources available in the urban lifestyle.”

But those resources aren’t just amenities like restaurants and shopping. It’s critical services.

“Rural communities often face unique challenges when it comes to accessing mental health services,” Winston said. “These include a shortage of mental health professionals, limited transportation options and stigma surrounding mental health. These challenges can make it difficult for individuals in rural communities to receive the care and support they need to manage their mental health effectively.”

Winston, a graduate student in the School of Social Work, has spent the past academic year serving her local community and others in rural Alabama as part of the school’s new Black Belt Internship Initiative. 

Ashia Winston with two young students.
The Black Belt Internship Initiative allowed Winston to work with several community partners.

Being an Agent of Change

Winston has witnessed the challenges faced by residents of this region, which includes Sumter, Choctaw, Marengo, Hale, Perry, Dallas, Wilcox, Greene, Lowndes, Butler, Crenshaw, Montgomery, Pike, Bullock, Macon, Barbour and Russell counties. The median income of these counties is $35,000.

“Alabama’s Black Belt holds a rich history of migration and integration of social justice and has become a region defined by its dire socioeconomic situation,” she said.

While the health disparities facing the Black Belt are not new, Winston said she sees hope in what its residents, and other advocates, are trying to accomplish. 

“I worked with a team of dedicated professionals throughout my internship who showed great passion for the development of Alabama’s Black Belt. The agencies that I had memorable experiences with include Cahaba Medical Care and The Edmundite Missions,” Winston said.  

“As an intern with the Edmundite Missions, I applied the knowledge and skills acquired in my classes to help clients with their needs. Cahaba Medical Care allowed me to work with a diverse group of individuals through integrated health care, which is the collaboration of physicians, nurses, nutritionists and social workers.”

Meeting the Residents Where They Are

The 2023-2024 academic year served as the pilot year for the internship program. In August four graduate students from Alabama’s Black Belt region will return home to address health care disparities. Currently, second-year master’s students chosen for the internship are required to be from that region with plans to their education into action in those communities.

The students will work with civic leaders, state politicians and families to help find solutions for the area’s underserved population in the arenas of policy, needs and awareness, funding, and grants. Additionally, they will work with those community partners to find the gaps between needs and solutions.

It might sound like a lot of work for one, or even a handful of students, who are dedicated to being change agents for their hometowns. But they aren’t doing this work alone.

“There are task supervisors at every partner. We have two field supervisors who are second-year master’s students. We have field liaisons who are also adjunct professors, and the students also do a seminar with a professor,” explained Courtney Thomas, field education director and clinical assistant professor of practice.

Making Change Possible in the Black Belt

The internship is part of the Black Belt Equity in Engagement Collaborative, a larger project established through the dean’s office to support surrounding rural counties in improving social determinants of well-being.

Through the internship initiative, students will gain experiential learning opportunities that Dr. Schnavia Hatcher, dean of the School of Social Work, hopes will help both the students and communities involved reap lifelong benefits.

“As a native of Selma and having grown up in Dallas County, it is a privilege and an honor to be in a position to help students and faculty become transformational leaders in the rural regions of my state,” she said.

“With assistance from donors and friends of the School, I look forward to expanding this initiative by including more students and securing funds to recruit a distinguished faculty member to lead this initiative focused on vulnerable populations in the Black Belt and addressing systems that impact equity.”

Ashia Winston and Terri Sewell.
Winston worked with state politicians who represent parts of the Black Belt, including U.S. Congresswoman Terri Sewell.

The internship is funded through a stipend that currently allows for up to four students to complete 500 hours a year — 20 hours a week in the community with 16 of those working with a nonprofit agency and four hours a week learning about and being civically engaged in a specific community.

“This is a holistic model for community immersion,” Thomas said. “Our students are getting to be change agents and, most importantly, building relationships that we hope lead to even bigger things.”

Thomas added that as the needs for the Black Belt are ever-growing and changing, they’re looking for students who will be committed to making valuable and measurable change in those communities, which is the main goal of the Black Belt Internship Initiative.

“We need students who have a macro and micro vision about how to be problem solvers and we need students who will take initiative,” she said. “We want students who want to find where we can stand in the gap and who believe in dignity for all people.”

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Jennifer Brady, UA Strategic Communications,