We have published several blogs recently that have highlighted people who are active in the greater Cincinnati area who are now registered on the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s Cultural Resources Directory. This is a directory of folks who promote, advance, or otherwise engage the culture of Appalachia through arts, literature, writing, and advocacy. The CRD is a great resource for people to find and learn about those who are involved in the culture of urban Appalachia. The challenge at this point is to expand the number of people registered in the CRD and to expand its reach.
On October 12, 2020, UACC hosted a focus group via Zoom to discuss ideas for how to make the best used of the Cultural Resource Directory. The greatest challenge at this time for everyone is the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways this has hindered the work of so many people. Musicians, artist, and other folks are simply not able to engage audiences or even each other as the pandemic makes any event that involves getting people together impossible. One of the goals of this focus group was to get a sense of how everyone has been impacted by the pandemic and find out what kinds of things people have been doing to continue their work.
Perhaps most striking from the outset was the number of people who sat in on the focus group. Through the miracle of Zoom, two dozen people were present for this. Core member Pauletta Hansel facilitated and was assisted by other core members, Maureen Sullivan and Mike Maloney, and John Beale, in giving an overview of UACC’s cultural work. John offered some specifics on the frustrations that many artists and performers are feeling during the pandemic. As he said, “people are frustrated, but they all know that we cannot proceed until we know things are safe.” With that, John expressed is hope that everyone present can share ideas on how to promote cultural resources during this time.
I can only provide a brief of survey those who spoke, and of the many projects people have going right now. If there was a single lesson to be learned from this focus group, it was that the pandemic has not stopped Appalachian cultural work. All participants are engaged in their cultural work in some new form.
For Elissa Yancey, her work with the podcast project A Pictures Worth is going full ahead. As Elissa told us, “I have been busier during the pandemic that I ever imagined.” The work of collecting stories and getting those out in the form of a podcast is booming. Elissa pointed out that organizations like UACC and its predecessor, the Appalachian Council, have historically shifted the focus “to the story sharer, as opposed to the traditional majority narrative” that has historically defined stories and the news. Elissa Yancey offered several ideas for utilizing new media and technology to “keep our wheels turning during COVID with an eye toward what comes after.”
Nora Stranger, the Appalachian Outreach Coordinator at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, described the ways the pandemic has impeded much of the work she does even as she has found new ways of accomplishing things. In working to demonstrate the uniqueness of Appalachian culture, Nora described switching form face to face meetings to online connections. Conferences via Zoom maintain her connection with her students. Nora Stranger also told us of a program called Covideo that makes it possible to send people short video messages. Given the challenges the pandemic has brought and the short attention spans of people online, Nora told us that Covideo provides a great way of reaching people in ways that get their attention.
Other people like MoPoetry Phillips have been shifting their focus even as they maintain their existing projects in new ways. MoPoetry has been working with a group of artists who are getting the word out to people to vote in the upcoming election. She told us “we have three or four artists get together on Hamilton Avenue and just make their way up and down encouraging people to vote.” MoPoetry continues her teaching workshops with incarcerated women online. She told us “it can be challenging keeping their attention, but we keep getting together online and doing the writing workshops.” From shifting to new media to shifting attention to current issues, MoPoetry seemed to exemplify what most everyone shared during the focus group meeting.
The main point of the meeting was to get the word out about the Cultural Resource Directory and to continue connecting people to each other and to the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. Everything from simple word of mouth to expanding online outreach through the UACC newsletter, blog, and social media are at work toward making connections. With COVID-19 in a new upswing in Hamilton County and the surrounding areas we can expect more meetings and focus groups via Zoom.
This meeting ended with a conclusion that there is much more to be covered and much more to accomplish with the tools we do have. Folks have already been at work since the meeting. Some online events are already underway as a result of the Focus group. Nora Stanger is creating a virtual program for students at Sinclair Community College and for the community at large on January 13, 2021. Performers will include Judy & Warren Waldron, Pauletta Hansel, Omope Carter Daboiku and Russ Childers. The UACC Core Group is exploring how to have a virtual community celebration in lieu of its customary in-person Ringin’ in an Appalachian New Year in January. These are in addition to programs that were already in the planning stages, such as a UACCliterary reading in partnership with Downbound Books on December 3, just after the release of the film version of Hillbilly Elegy, featuring urban and other Ohio Appalachian writers who hope to widen the public view of what it means to be part of Appalachia, a culture which is clearly still alive and kicking! Never to be daunted by adversity, the urban Appalachian communities continue to find to new ways to engage our culture and to bring the culture to all of the greater Cincinnati.
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.