Advocacy on behalf of those whose voices have not been heard is central to the mission of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. Advocacy requires giving voice to people overlooked by the main media outlets that broadcast through our televisions and screens. One urban Appalachian who is absolutely dedicated to giving voice to as many people as possible is Elissa Yancey. Through her “nonprofit information-gathering tool,” A Pictures Worth, Elissa Yancey is making it possible for people to gather their stories and for us to gain a real understanding of people who are often not heard through the more well-known channels.
Elissa Yancey is a second-generation urban Appalachian. Her folks hail from Neon, Kentucky. She told me her mom came to Cincinnati when she was 16. Like many young people Elissa lost touch with this Appalachian thread: “Growing up in Norwood in the 70s, I quickly shied away from my Appalachian roots for the city. It was later in life that I came to embrace my Appalachian background.” Eventually, Elissa Yancey would become involved with the Urban Appalachian Council performing cultural coordination work and promoting Appalachian artists. As she explained,” It was then that I came to appreciate my Appalachian background.”
Elissa Yancey taught journalism at the University of Cincinnati for ten years before heading into administration. These experiences led her to conclude that “there are better ways to use my skills and address some of the systemic issues that plague news and the media in general.” We talked at length about what may lie at the heart of some of these issues and problems. Elissa explained that “when people make claims of objectivity, what they are saying is their personal position is taken as given, and this just isn’t true.” Much of what motivates her determination to take on these issues comes from the narrow messages we get from traditional news sources. As she put it: “I felt the need to push back and reject American stereotypes that are sustained in problems like patriarchy, racism, and regional assumptions including those focused on Appalachians.” With such a complex but certainly necessary mission, Elissa Yancey broke into her current project, A Pictures Worth a nonprofit information-gathering tool that adds context to the world through images.
At the heart of this work is the complex issue of how stories are told. One of the primary goals of A Pictures Worth is to emphasize that “we are story gatherers rather than story tellers. We pick and choose the information we deem to be worthy of telling and we honor these stories by gathering them.” Elissa is emphatic that “we must pay attention to how we choose pieces of reality according to what we value.” It is this part of her method that re-frames the myth of objectivity onto questions of value. By putting what we value forward, we can understand the story from the perspective of the one who gathers the story.
All of this may seem heady and difficult, but Elissa Yancey brings her experience as an educator and as one who has been in the trenches of how stories are gathered and framed in order to make it accessible. One of her primary goals is to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Elissa explained that her project brings together ideas from social work, psychology, social sciences, etc. to form a method by which people can become part the project of A Pictures Worth. As Elissa Yancey explains, “we use photos, podcasts, and text to convey individual stories.” The purpose of this kind of story gathering is to get beyond categories and “types” of people to reveal to what is valued. “When we learn what people value, we can see the validity in their beliefs and their stories.”
Currently, A Pictures Worth is presenting Season 2 of the podcasts: “Ohio Values.” Elissa provided the context for this, “Every four years the big news media show up in Ohio to get a sense of what we think with the election coming up. Ohio Values is our way of story-gathering that foregrounds what people value as they approach the issues and candidates.” This year is obviously controversial, and the need to express what people value is more important than ever. “The whole point is to allow for a narrative change from what the big media outlets have framed to the values of real people.”
Elissa continues to expand the work of A Pictures Worth to shift narrative change from the so-called objective news to peoples’ stories and values. “Cincinnati Strong Woman” gathers the stories of women who have struggled with things like homelessness and addiction and reveals their triumphs, their strengths, and the ways they contribute to neighborhoods and communities. “We take a photo and ask these women to describe or define what makes them strong. There is the photo and an audio story which give you a reason to pause and think about these people and their stories.”
Elissa Yancey has so much going on I had trouble keeping up with it all. Certainly, her work is precisely what we mean at the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition when we talk about empowering individuals in our communities. Perhaps especially right now as we head into a highly contentious political moment and with so many other pressures bearing down on individuals and communities, gathering the stories of those who often go unheard is an urgent task. Both within the urban Appalachian community and our neighboring communities, programs like A Pictures Worth are of the highest importance. Elissa was almost matter of fact about the scope and breadth of her accomplishments. As she told me, “I just keep going. No one can stop me.” Who would try?
You can find A Pictures Worth at https://apicturesworth.org/. You can also find out more about Elissa Yancey and others working to tell the story of urban Appalachians at https://uacvoice.org/directory/.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. 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.