Core member Maureen Sullivan has proven to be a constant presence for Urban Appalachians. Going back to the pre-history of Urban Appalachian Council up to the current work of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, Maureen has remained a steadfast voice for urban Appalachians. While Maureen has worn many hats within UAC and UACC, she told me her “longest role was as Executive Director from the end of 1982 to the beginning of 2011.” She continued: “My first job with the Council was in a grant funded training program for youth workers. After the program ended, I had almost a year of unemployment which was fortunate because I was able to spend time with my daughter who had just turned two while keeping my hand in with UAC doing training and speakers’ bureau work as a volunteer.” Balancing her commitment to urban Appalachia as a leader and as a volunteer behind the scenes is a feature of how Maureen Sullivan has remained present even while she is not always in the most visible place in the overall picture.
Maureen Sullivan first became involved with urban Appalachian life and issues during her involvement in Over-the-Rhine. Maureen told me she was drawn into the issues facing urban Appalachians at this time because Over-the-Rhine was the “primary port of entry for Appalachian people.” It was during this time that she met Ernie Mynatt who was deeply involved in advocacy on a number of fronts and his work laid the foundation for the Urban Appalachian Council. As Maureen explained, “Ernie Mynatt was a leading advocate, youth and family worker, and organizer. UAC grew out of his work. It was formed by the joining of the Appalachian Identity Center and the Appalachian Committee of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission in 1974.” Ernie Mynatt had been at work in the urban Appalachian community on so many fronts it would take another article to do him justice. Suffice to say that as Maureen fell in with Ernie and his work, the context for UAC was already in place. It was this crucible of activism and community engagement that created a path that would hold onto Maureen to the present day.
Maureen told me she “was chosen as the first Board President [of UAC] and served from 1974 to 1977.” In 1978 Maureen transitioned into the role of Training Coordinator. Those early days were characterized by equal parts dedication and uncertainty. Maureen told me, “we used to joke that the organization was partly funded by Unemployment Insurance since much of the funding came from grants which were for a specific period of time.” That there was a real need for the work of UAC, and that the work Maureen and others accomplished was effective led to more stable funding and connections to other agencies. Maureen explained, “we eventually gained funding from annual grants from the Community Chest, City of Cincinnati Human Services.” These sources led to other sources from groups connected to the region such as the Appalachian Fund, Commission on Religion in Appalachia, Association for Community Based Education and Save the Children. All of this created the bedrock from which UAC provided services and advocacy for the urban Appalachian community.
I asked Maureen to tell me about some of the specific issues UAC tackled. One that stood out was the high dropout rate among urban Appalachian youth. Maureen explained that the high dropout rate meant that “many of our parents did not have high school degrees and so had problems getting stable employment.” In order to address this problem, UAC engaged adult education centers already at work in area neighborhoods. Maureen went on to explain that through these efforts “UAC worked out a small grant for adult education, we decided to share it with all the programs with the stipulation that they had to come to a monthly meeting so we could coordinate our work. Out of the Community School Network we established (eventually with 9 centers serving inner city neighborhoods) we set up an AmeriCorps program (providing jobs and staffing support for partner centers.” Like the snowball effect that gave rise to UAC, increased high school completion rates took off with the work of UAC.
After the years of working with UAC and other organizations, Maureen decided to retire. Health issues compelled her to step away and take time to recover. However, Maureen Sullivan is not the type to remain still for long. As she explained, “I didn’t want to just sit around. There was work to be done, I was able to get involved, so I decided to get involved again.” She spent some time with Americorps and Vista and worked with the Freestore Foodbank, among other things. It was during this time that UAC folded. Yet, as Maureen has told me on a few occasions, “the work was not finished, and many of us knew that we need to keep going in some capacity.”
Maureen explained that the core group came together and decided the work of UAC would continue, and it was this commitment that led to the creation of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. When I asked Maureen what keeps her going with the work of community engagement with UACC, she put it simply: “My belief in and love for the people. The respect I have for the strength I have seen and know, their open hearts, generous sharing, and active, inclusive experience of kinship…” From the earliest days of simply getting out into the neighborhoods where urban Appalachians lived and worked, to the present organization of UACC, Maureen has been a constant presence. Maureen Sullivan remains part of the backbone of community engagement and activism—the kind of presence that makes the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition succeed.
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.