May 18, 2006
By Julia Marino
"What is the Appalachian voice?" asked Lynda Ann Ewin, professor emerita of sociology and anthropology who led the panel discussion Silent Appalachians: A Panel on Diversity. "When it comes to silencing Appalachians, what in our environment gives us voice, not only to have opinions, but voiced opinions?"
Diversity and Appalachian identity stirred discussion among panelists and listeners during the panel sponsored by Sharon Denham, DSN, and the Appalachian Learning Community in Walter Hall. Ewin led the panel discussion by first asking, "What does it mean to be Appalachian?"
The Appalachian Learning Community is open to any faculty members or students who wish to learn more about teaching and learning in Appalachia. The Appalachian Learning Community uses its Web site as a central information site so that research interests and activities can be shared. Group activities will begin planning for the 2006-2007 school year in September.
If you are interested, you may contact the group's facilitators David F. Bower, Ed.D., assistant professor in the College of Education at (740) 597-3024 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or Frans Doppen, Ph.D., assistant professor in the College of Education at (740) 593-0254 or email@example.com.
"Are we an indigenous people?" and "Is anybody in here a hillbilly?" she asked the audience, hoping to address the true identity of Appalachian people and the many stereotypes given to residents of the region.
"We are the only ethnic group accused of being incestuous. We also get the stereotype of being all-Celtic and all-white," Ewin said. "Nothing in our culture is incestuous," she continued, addressing other condescending stigma associated with being Appalachian.
The heart of the Appalachian voice, Ewin said, is storytelling. "We tell stories. And if you don't stop us, we'll keep telling more stories. And if you listen closely, you'll find the answer in the story."
"We have a marvelously diverse community," Ewin said. "We need to embrace who we are and understand the differences between us. And that's what the panel is about."
And so the discussion ensued with Appalachian storytelling as the four panelists told stories about their experience with the Appalachian culture and how it has related to their identity as humans.
Ohio University doctoral student Erica Butcher, who works with the Department of African American Studies, spoke first on the history of African Americans in Appalachia.
"A lot of people come to Ohio University, but don't get to know the rich histories of this area." She said that if you look up Appalachian in Webster's dictionary today, it will define Appalachian as an ethnic group. "This is one of the problems," Butcher said, whose ancestors were among the first African Americans to settle in the Athens area. "Many African Americans are given an urban identity," Butcher said, "but aren't allowed to have a rural identity." She explained how this "invisibility" devalues the African American in Appalachia and creates a culture that doesn't recognize their contributions to the region.
Mickey Hart, assistant director of Campus Life for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Programs, spoke next about how coming out of the closet and discovering queer culture helped him to better understand and value his Appalachian heritage and culture.
"I've been Appalachian my whole life," Hart said, "but I only understood what that meant in the '90s…And I've been gay my whole life, but it wasn't until the late '80s, early '90s that I understood it."
Hart said that he moved to the 'big city' of Athens for college from a small Appalachian town in Hocking County. At Ohio University, he discovered a "safety net," and it was here that he found a way to balance both identities - being LGBT and Appalachian. Mickey continues to be involved in many social justice issues and currently serves on the boards of Equality Ohio, UCM: Center for Spiritual Growth and Social Justice, and the City of Athens' Community Relations Commission.
From a different angle, Margaret Manoogian, a human development and family studies researcher, told of her experience studying and visiting with young mothers in Appalachia, many of whom live 200 percent below the poverty line. Manoogian observed that many of the women have a strong connection "to the land and their kin," and that for them, it is difficult to leave that network. However, although their families have helped them survive, she noticed that many of the women then became "vulnerable to not seeking opportunities." Overall, Manoogian said that these women's resiliency has inspired her. "It has been a life-changing experience for me to share in these women's lives," she said.
Ohio University graduate Shawn Gress, who is also the executive director of the Guernsey County Senior Citizens Center Inc., then addressed the issues involving the elderly in Appalachia. He said that although he once had a dream to leave his native New Concord to move to the big city, his ultimate inspiration came from the small town "where it all began." Returning to New Concord after working in the tourism industry, Gress reintroduced the Ohio Food Bank initiative for senior citizens to the town. Ultimately, Gress stressed the importance of giving back to the Appalachian community, especially due to lack of state funding. "Something that I've learned," he said, "is to have a big, loud voice."
With that note in mind, the audience was encouraged to ask questions regarding the demographic shift in Appalachia, politics, family and education. Junior Brittany Begg, an early childhood education major from Columbus, came to the discussion after student teaching in Chauncey. "It was good to hear about the diversity in Appalachia," she said. "For a lot of [the children], success isn't college, but family."
Julia Marino is a student writer with University Communications and Marketing.