The more visible presence of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is recognized in things like Ringin’ in the Appalachian New Year and other cultural events. These public events and celebrations are clear and obvious signs of the work of UACC. One of the lessons I continue to learn as I work with UACC is that these events, and the countless forms of advocacy and research that UACC engages in involve a lot of moving parts and a great many people who work behind the scenes on behalf of urban Appalachians. One such behind-the-scenes person is Roberta Campbell who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience, and no small measure of her own Kentucky upbringing, to serve the mission of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition.
I first met Roberta Campbell during a Zoom meeting with the UACC Research Committee. I quickly learned that Roberta Campbell is one of those who have been advocating and working on behalf of urban Appalachians for a long time. Going back to the Urban Appalachian Council and remaining tied to the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, Roberta has been a constant force, even if her work has at times been in the background. So much of her contribution to UAC and UACC has been with the Research Committee which is part of the backbone of UACC. The Research Committee goes back to 1972 when Mike Maloney was hired to be Research and Appalachian Specialist for the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, and the committee continues to be a central feature of the work of UACC.
Coming to Appalachian issues, advocacy, and research comes naturally to Roberta Campbell. She is from eastern Kentucky in Letcher County. She said she “moved around quite a bit before moving to northern Kentucky to study Appalachia and Appalachian issues and culture.” After doing her graduate work in sociology at the University of Kentucky, Roberta Campbell made her way to Northern Kentucky University where she met Phil Obermiller who introduced her to the folks at the Urban Appalachian Council. Roberta explains, “Phil got me involved and eventually I wound up on the board of UAC and working with the Research Committee.” Roberta Campbell would chair the Research Committee for UAC and has also worked as the committee liaison to UAC’s board.
Roberta’s research is on Appalachian identity. In fact, her dissertation was titled “Appalachian Experience and Appalachian Identity.” This type of research cuts directly to many of the issues that underpin the urban Appalachian experience. As we move away from those initial migrants from Appalachian toward third and even fourth-generation urban Appalachians, the question of Appalachian identity becomes increasingly complex. Roberta told me her research “involved interviewing people directly to get a sense of how the question of identity is formed and shaped for Appalachian people.” These are the types of issues that members of the UACC Research Committee are exploring even now since the question of Appalachian identity is never a fixed or stable condition. Both rural and urban Appalachians are continually redefining ourselves even as others seek to define us.
Most of Roberta Campbell’s direct work was with the Urban Appalachian Council. “I came on around 1991,” Roberta explains, “and I continued with UAC in different capacities. It was around 1995 that began with the Research Committee.” During this time, she taught environmental studies in Lower Price Hill through UAC and Chatfield College. This was a time when UAC and others were committed to environmental efforts in Lower Price Hill.
After an absence for a few years, Roberta Campbell returned to UAC ins 1999. As members of UAC transitioned into creating the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, Roberta’s direct work became less obvious, but she remains involved to this day. As Roberta told, “I’ve tried to slow down and think about retirement, but I just can’t seem to get away from things.” It is safe to say that no one is anxious to lose her.
In addition to her work with UAC and UACC, Roberta Campbell works as an educator. Locally, she has taught as an adjunct at the University of Cincinnati and Miami University regional campuses. And she has taught at Western New Mexico University and Thomas Edison State University. She told me that her time teaching at Coastal Carolina University was where she really felt at home. Amid her work with UACC, teaching at various universities, Roberta Campbell also maintains her own research agenda: “I’m still working on my own research for a book I’m writing. And I’m trying to get back to other things that have nothing to do with academia and sociology,” she told me. Some of these other projects are more creative and artistic. As if this were not enough, Roberta Campbell is also active with Kentuckian for the Commonwealth. It does not appear that retirement is on the horizon just yet.
One idea Roberta Campbell is working on is to foster something of an academic partnership between local colleges and universities in the region to create an Appalachian Studies program. This is in the germinal stage, and it will require a great deal of work. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition has a solid record of realizing projects like this, thanks in large part to the efforts of Roberta Campbell and many others like her. As an Appalachian from eastern Kentucky who now lives and works in Cincinnati, Roberta Campbell embodies the urban Appalachian experience. Thankfully for all of us, she does not appear to be slowing down any time soon.
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.