The work of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is focused toward education, cultural engagement, and advocacy among urban Appalachians. This means getting into neighborhoods and communities and working with individuals and groups toward improving the conditions and opportunities for urban Appalachians throughout greater Cincinnati. Yet, direct engagement and action can depend on some complex ideas that underpin our understanding of the Appalachian community. Census data, for example, can only tell us so much. Things such as Appalachian identity, the increasingly complex migration patterns of Appalachians in and out of the Appalachian counties, and the changing forms of employment opportunities in the 21st Century require research and interpretation in order to serve the grassroots work of UACC. Contemporary issues can get difficult, and this is why the UACC Research Committee plays such a crucial role in the work we do.
I had an opportunity to talk with the new Chair of the Research Committee, Ashley Hopkins over coffee at Kofenya in Oxford. Ashley is Senior Assistant Director at the Student Success Center at Miami University. Hailing from Appalachian Ohio, Ashley’s research has focused on Appalachian identity—how we understand the very idea of an Appalachian identity and where these definitions come from. Questions about Appalachian identity are central to our understanding of urban Appalachians since we are talking about people who are, by definition, displaced from the place and culture that has historically defined our notions of Appalachian people. Ashley has been the Research Chair for UACC since October of 2019, taking over for Mike Maloney.
I asked Ashley to simply explain the role of the Research Committee. She told me that the committee is “made up of faculty from universities and colleges in the area, community advocates, people working in non-profits—anyone who is working within and for the Appalachian community who have a special interest in issues that pertain to urban Appalachians.” It is important, she explained, “to make sure the work of the Research Committee is informed not just by scholars who specialize in Appalachian studies, but also people who are deeply involved in hands-on work in the community.” The UACC Research Committee takes what are at times highly complex data and studies and makes it possible to “tease out this these findings as they are applicable to things like community advocacy,” Ashley explained further.
Another crucial function of the committee is to find and allocate funding for independent inquiry. Most recently, the UACC Research Committee sponsored a graduate student to do some archival work on urban Appalachian experiences and culture. As for all research, the funding to do the work is essential.
I will confess I found Ashley’s own area of exploration especially interesting. Appalachian identity may seem like an obvious idea until we begin to examine the concept with the kind of scholarly view Ashley Hopkins brings to the topic. As someone who grew up in Appalachia, and the child of a full pedigree of Appalachian parents (the Blue Ridge Mountains and Floyd County Kentucky), she pointed out that her identity as Appalachian was not self-evident as she was growing up. It was only after leaving for college that she discovered that outside of her home, “Appalachian” was and is a specific group of people identified from outside the groups of people who live in these areas. The issue of finding a sense of Appalachian identity from outside the communities we live in can be problematic. Negative stereotypes and misunderstandings are often generated from outside the community. But this is also one way we have come to identify urban Appalachians.
I asked Ashley about some of the most important topics of concern to the committee. She explained that “access to education has been an ongoing area of study.” She went on to explain that “research on access to education among urban Appalachians began in the 1970s. Recently, a new study was completed that updated this ongoing project.” The Research Committee is also sponsoring and following research on community health. She explained that studies on health and the environment have “historically focused on things like the fallout from mountain top removal and other egregious problems that impact the Appalachian region. The UACC Research Committee is working to re-focus studies on community health that pertain specifically to urban Appalachians.”
Other areas of study fall directly within the Ashley’s expertise. As we have found ourselves squarely within the 21st Century, the concept to Appalachian identity has emerged as particularly important among urban Appalachians. How do 2nd and 3rd generation urban Appalachians define themselves as Appalachian, for example? Do these populations even see themselves as Appalachian? What do we make of people who move into the Appalachian regions? Do they get to call themselves Appalachian? As urban and rural Appalachian culture continues to evolve and change, the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s Research Committee plays a crucial role in providing new insights into how we approach and perform the work of supporting the urban Appalachian communities.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.