As the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition looks back over the six years of its existence, we are taking time to highlight some of the accomplishments and the people who have been instrumental to UACC’s work of advocacy, research, and community engagement. Mike Maloney has already given us a detailed history of the UACC in a recent blog article. Looking at these years we are also able to get something of a portrait of urban Appalachians in greater Cincinnati. Certainly, the people who make up UACC count themselves as members of the urban Appalachian community. I had the opportunity to speak with Core Member Pauletta Hansel about her work with UACC, some of her work with the past Urban Appalachian Council, and an essay she recently published in Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review.

Pauletta has been a Core Member of UACC since it was first organized. I came to know Pauletta Hansel when she was Poet Laureate of Cincinnati and I happened to hear her read at Cincinnati Word of Mouth. There I was with my token stab at a poem, listening to the Poet Laureate read, and feeling like maybe I ought to just wait see if I even want to do this. Pauletta has been with UACC since the beginning, having held leadership positions in the Urban Appalachian Council., I asked Pauletta to tell me about her work with UAC and the transition to UACC. She explains, “I first came on board with the UAC in the early 1980s and served as board President. As a board member, I was active in environmental issues in the Lower Price Hill area.” Some may remember the environmental problems that impacted Lower Price Hill in the 1980s, and UAC was a powerful voice on behalf of the communities affected by these environmental issues. Pauletta continued: “In 1992, I became the Assistant Director in charge of Community Development including the Cultural Program.”

After leaving UAC in 2001, she remained a contract employee as a teaching artist, working with community groups and adult education programs. Adult education remains a central feature of the work of UACC. Even after UAC folded Pauletta’s commitment to urban Appalachians remained firm, through advocacy and neighborhood work. This commitment is really a part of everything Pauletta Hansel does. As a writer and independent teaching artist, as she explains further, “Appalachian issues and culture informs all of my work.”

Pauletta Hansel would seem a natural fit for UACC given her background and education, although Pauletta complicates such an assumption in her essay, “My Father, J.D. Vance, and Me,” She explains: “I never felt like I was particularly good at being Appalachian. I grew up in the hills, sure, and at some point I was taught that “Appalachia” was the name of the mountain range I walked out into every morning.” In her essay, Pauletta draws out many of the issues and problems that attend Appalachian identity both urban and rural. That one is from the hills, or, that one is a person living in a city like Cincinnati with family roots in Appalachia—neither of these things necessarily pin down a singular thing that can be easily called “Appalachian identity.” Yet, Pauletta’s background and education well-suited her for the many roles she plays in UACC. Born in Eastern Kentucky and educated at Antioch Appalachia in Beckley, West Virginia, Pauletta told me, “I am well-aware of how I benefitted from my college days of being exposed to this pairing of Appalachian identity and heritage with activism. I never felt powerless.” She continued, “I was versed early on in the ways Appalachian people had been exploited. I always felt I had a voice, and I began to intertwine that voice with activism.” It was this combination of education, family background, and personal commitment that Pauletta Hansel brought with her when she came to Cincinnati for graduate school.

Hansel’s essay, “My Father, J.D. Vance, and Me”

Studying Montessori education at Xavier University brought Pauletta into contact with some of the founders of UAC. Though she was too busy during graduate school to become involved, her initial contact with Mike Maloney was through her first student-teaching job in a program his son attended. Later, as a Montessori teacher, one of her students was the daughter of Maureen Sullivan, then UAC’s Executive Director. Pauletta’s work with the theater group “Street Talk,” for which she wrote a play called, (We Come Up From Kentucky,” brought her into an initial involvement with UAC. These early meetings would lead her to take on numerous roles, including leadership roles, in UAC and UACC. The momentum of growing up in the Appalachian region, the clear lessons of her activist father in Appalachia, and the growing contact with greater Cincinnati inevitably set a course for Pauletta Hansel that weaves her life as a poet, activist, and educator into the very fabric of UACC and the Appalachian communities. As she explain in her essay, “continuing to claim my Appalachian identity even after my move out of the region to a city where I could have easily “passed” [as not Appalachian] is inextricably linked to my voice as a writer, and to my own sense of agency and civic responsibility.”

I asked Pauletta about her current work with UACC. She told me she continues to help develop the Urban Appalachian Leadership Project, through which she mentored a number of young people who went through this program. She is also helping develop the communications end of UACC. As she told me, this involves “mentoring our new blog writer, for example.” I’d say she is doing an admirable job of this, but I’ll defer to the judgment of others for a final word. She is also “mentoring our new communications person in order to expand the reach of UACC. Pauletta told me that “part of the reason we chose the name ‘coalition’ was to work toward establishing connections with other organizations involved in things like the arts and providing community services.” She went on to explain that “one of the things that was lacking was a networking function that allowed all of these organizations to benefit from each other, and our work with Communications helps to fill that gap.” In effect, Pauletta Hansel is helping move UACC towards an ever-expanding reach through the new forms of making connections. The forms of community and support that have defined the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition from the beginning remain at the core of these efforts. All of the same commitments and community engagement remain constants as Pauletta helps those who are bringing these things into new media. Thankfully, Pauletta Hansel remains constant within the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition.  

If all of this were not enough, Pauletta Hansel’s collection of poems, Coal Town Photograph, with its theme of Appalachian migration, remains at the center of attention, especially with the Falcon Theatre production based on the book. Pauletta continues her editorial work with Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel and the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. She also continues her work as a teaching artist. With Pauletta Hansel as an example, I don’t think I will ever complain about “not having enough time” ever again.  

Cover of Hansel’s Coal Town Photograph

Pauletta Hansel’s essay, “My Father, J.D. Vance, and Me,” is in Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review. Vo. 47, no. 1-2. Fall 2019/ Winter 2020. P. 96-109.

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.