It’s easy to assume Amber Swain’s lack of a Southern accent means she’s “not from ‘round here,” as the old guard might say. That’s both false and true, depending on how deeply you look.
True, the Mobile Arts Council’s (MAC) new program coordinator moved to town in March. True, she graduated from Washington, D.C.’s Howard University with a degree in communications and political science. True, she went to high school on the West Coast.
Still, her roots are firmly in Azalea City soil.
“I was born in Mobile and my entire extended family lives here,” Swain said. “I was everywhere, from New Jersey to Hawaii. I spent a lot of time in California and some time in Texas.”
It was her father’s time in the military – both in the Coast Guard and the Marine Corps – that widened her childhood experience. She followed suit, eventually.
Swain was leery of a college education’s mountainous debt and thought a trade might serve well first. She became a dog groomer for a few years.
“I had the best time. I love people but there is nothing like the attention of a dog who just wants to love you,” Swain said, laughing.
Despite steady work, college didn’t look any more affordable so Swain turned in a familiar direction. She joined the Army in 2011 and spent four years working in data analysis. As her hitch drew to a close, Swain looked at universities and mulled majors.
“I had been going from place to place, meeting so many different people and retelling my story and getting the stories of other people. Communications was an easy choice,” she said.
Howard University’s communications program was both highly rated and close to her duty station of four years, Fort Meade, Maryland. Everything dovetailed.
“I love D.C. There’s this energy you can’t recreate anywhere because you have so many people from different places in the U.S. and then we’re all forced to kind of live together,” Swain said.
The unforeseen benefit of D.C. life? The muggy summers prepared her for a return to the Gulf Coast.
First came an internship at Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago. Her takeaway was learning about mass audiences, how they receive messages and how to form those messages. The experience was so impactful, she considered a Windy City relocation.
Her Texas-born beau – they met in the Army – got a job with the U.S. Capitol Police while she went to school. After graduation and marriage, they sought something different from their nomadic backgrounds.
“He moved around a lot as a kid, too, and we wanted to go find our place in the world, where we could settle. So it just made a lot of sense to come back to the place where I had started and where all my influences came from,” Swain said.
She noted how her grandmother’s 2018 death – a Mobile educator for 32 years – left a void. Swain felt the event and her childhood visits that she remembered fondly were instrumental in pulling her southward.
“When you move around like that it gets really easy to become disconnected from the world. I think what they wanted for me was that I didn’t feel untethered. They wanted me to feel like I always had a place, where I was from,” Swain said.
Once back in Mobile, she buckled down. Swain buffed up her portfolio and helped an Eight Mile hip-hop artist with a mini documentary and website. MAC hired her in July and she started in August.
She is working on organizing calendars and public art projects. She’s also trying to stir participation in the annual Poetry Out Loud competition, where schools vie for prizes up to $20,000 in value. In a cash-strapped system, the importance is easy to grasp.
“Last year we had six to eight schools in our region participate. My goal is to get 10 to 12 schools this year,” Swain said.
Swain considers herself lucky to have joined MAC’s “amazing team.” She said Executive Director Lucy Gafford’s previous role as program coordinator is a huge boost; she anticipates Swain’s concerns and questions.
She’s encouraged by her discovery of a burgeoning comedy scene in town. Swain said she spent lots of D.C. time in comedy clubs.
And Mobile itself? She feels its beauty is matched by its “crazy and unpredictable” weather. Her experience at the August Artwalk (her first) was also heartening.
“It was amazing. Everyone’s just so nice, I guess the Southern hospitality,” Swain said. “Everything here is so strange and one of a kind.”
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