Telling stories has always been central to Appalachian culture. People from the Appalachian regions have a long history of sustaining and maintaining a sense of cultural identity through stories, and this tradition remains strong even among urban Appalachians. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition Story Gathering Project seeks to reclaim this tradition for the Twenty-first Century. As a way of reconnecting urban Appalachians to each other, UACC is launching the Story Gathering Project in which individuals can interview and record the stories of Appalachian friends and family. You can find out more about the project on the UACC website at https://uacvoice.org/storygathering/, and at a virtual event on Monday, September 27 from 7-8:30 pm, “Harvesting Our Stories: Urban Appalachian Story Project Launch.” Register at https://tinyurl.com/harvestyourstories to attend the Zoom event.
The Urban Appalachian Story Gathering Project began simply enough. Core member Pauletta Hansel explained that it started “with a simple brainstorming session among Nancy Laird, Maureen Sullivan and me as we were looking for ways to engage the urban Appalachian community in these challenging times. We settled on the Story Gathering Project as a way of getting people talking to each other while building a collection of urban Appalachian stories as a resource. Most people carry a pretty good video camera in their pocket or purse, as part of their smartphones. The pandemic has gotten more people using Zoom which can also record conversations.”
The nuts and bolts of the Urban Appalachian Story Gathering Project are quite simple. We ask that people talk to someone they know and are comfortable talking to and record their story using their smartphone or on Zoom, if they cannot be face-to-face. There are sample questions, access to the required written consent form and links to upload your interviews on the UACC website at https://uacvoice.org/storygathering/. As the project progresses, we will utilize our website and additional virtual and in-person events to share these stories with the wider community. The stories gathered will become a resource to UACC and to all urban Appalachians.
While the project does hope people will simply sit down with a relative, friend, neighbor, etc. in relatively informal ways, the goals of the project are quite serious. The presence of urban Appalachians in greater Cincinnati entails displacement, economic struggle, and the transformation of the culture in the urban areas. None of this happened in the form of a grand narrative. It all happened with the participation of individuals, each story part of a larger one. Core member Maureen Sullivan said that the Story Gathering Project “is not a matter of nostalgia. There is wisdom and lessons in their stories of survival and resilience.” In looking towards the insight our people have to offer, we find the tangible ways that Appalachians have been a force within urban culture more generally.
There is a dimension to the Urban Appalachian Story Gathering Project that may not be obvious. We now have third and fourth-generation urban Appalachians, people who know their Appalachian roots through family members who came from the Appalachian region but whose lives are defined by urban life and culture. Pauletta Hansel told me, “We would like to hear stories from people who perhaps do not recognize their ties to Harlan County but can tell stories of Over-the-Rhine, for example.” There is a generation of people who are the children of Appalachian migrants to places such as Over-the-Rhine, Lower Price Hill, East End and along the Mill Creek Corridor, and their experiences are crucial to urban Appalachian life and culture.
With this, we need to emphasize that the Urban Appalachian Story Gathering Project is not looking for a specific “kind” of story. We aim to collect the stories of urban Appalachians in as broad a palette as possible, no matter what these stories may be. In fact, collecting the stories of urban Appalachians helps us get a better understanding of what the very concept of urban Appalachian means. We are looking for stories that “reach out across difference in the Appalachian community,” as Pauletta explains. “This project is a way of making connections and finding out who we are by taking advantage of the technological resources we didn’t have even ten years ago.” The hope is that once people start engaging each other, the project will grow and spread, becoming an important resource for understanding urban Appalachian life and culture in the Twenty-first Century.
Stories have long served as a kind of cultural glue that binds individuals to the community and to the historical context within which individuals find their sense of place. Even with the technology at our disposal, the simple process of asking someone to tell their story remains the foundation of common understanding. To re-connect and renew our shared experiences and our differences seems more urgent than ever before. Pauletta told me, “One person said to me recently, ‘I don’t have any stories, I only have memories.’ I said, ‘Those memories are exactly what we need!’”
Register at https://tinyurl.com/harvestyourstories to attend “Harvesting Our Stories: Urban Appalachian Story Project Launch” on Monday, September 27 from 7-8:30 pm, via Zoom. For more information on the Urban Appalachian Story Gathering Project, and for detailed instructions on how to participate, follow this link: https://uacvoice.org/storygathering/.
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.