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Urban Appalachian Staying Power

Editor’s Note:  Almost 50 years ago, Mike Maloney helped found the Urban Appalachian Council, kicking off one of the longest-lasting community movements in Cincinnati history.  Closing the doors of the professional non-profit service organization, however, did not stop the power of this community to care for its own, as it’s now reconfigured as a volunteer community coalition, as you will see below.  Mike is also the author of the essential, bi-yearly demographic study “Social Areas of Cincinnati”.  Mike can be reached at meamon@aol.com.

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Urban Appalachians have a history that includes marginalization, being made fun of, even mistreated by police and school personnel.  The people who came here from the mountains also brought with them many personal, family and community assets which have enriched the Cincinnati area in many ways.  Most of our people have survived, even thrived in their new homeland.

But we still have broken individuals, families and communities.  We want to find ways, in the wake of the loss of the Urban Appalachian Council to promote the mental and emotional well-being of our population through a community-driven movement. From past experience, we know that honest conversation about the issues and concerns we share will be key. As one woman participating in a recent project which involved writing about community issues told us, “It’s been ten years since I let out my emotions. It was hard for me to process all of the stuff going on in my community. I felt like I needed therapy or something! But sitting here now and writing really helps me feel better and get out those emotions. This is such a blessing.”

Our community, in its larger sense, is all people of Appalachian heritage in the Cincinnati region, over one third of the area’s total population.  In a narrower sense we are a group of Appalachians and their allies who have been involved in a 50-year effort to promote the health and well-being of urban Appalachians and their neighbors.  This includes promoting and celebrating Appalachian culture, documenting both the needs and assets of our community, using hands-on involvement in the arts as a means of enlivening and connecting people within and across neighborhoods, and organizing to address issues in health, education and social welfare.  Recently, the Urban Appalachian Council, the agency that had been the centerpiece of our social movement for recognition and inclusion closed its doors.

In response a group of 40 people met on January 17 in spite of an advancing snowstorm.  We identified what we were losing and decided to engage in an on-going engagement process to build a community-driven movement of self-care within the Appalachian community.  Though our group is area-wide in membership, we will be physically based in the Price Hill area and continue to include that area as a prime focus of activity.  Price Hill has experienced rapid demographic changes, has been hit hard by the recent recession and is in a state of crisis.

Price Hill has also been the focal point of significant infrastructure investment in the past decade or so and there is much going on.  Community assets include Santa Maria Community Services, Price Hill Will, the Lower Price Hill Community School, and the newly renovated and expanded Oyler School.  There are plans for a new police headquarters and an industrial park.  The Price Hill crisis includes the effects of the recession and collapse of the housing market, residential abandonment, crime, environmental degradation, school leaving, substance abuse, poverty and unemployment.  Health issues include diabetes, respiratory issues and heart conditions.  Those issues have especially affected the Appalachian and newcomer African Americans and Hispanic populations.

The fact that the Urban Appalachian Council recently closed its doors creates an opportunity to more sustainably serve the needs of the Appalachian community.  From this challenge has come a sense of urgency to build a community that can care for itself rather than rely solely on professionals or institutions.  The 50-year movement of recognition, inclusion, positive self-identification and asset-based community development has left a legacy of community assets and capacities that will make this self-care possible:

  • Established community leadership. Over 100 members and friends of the Urban Appalachian Council who have contributed time and money.  The Research Committee and cultural working groups have pledged to continue their part of this work.
  • Highly involved community. Tens of thousands participate at neighborhood and area wide events.
  • Ongoing research and advocacy efforts with cooperation of partners and major institutions.
  • Active cultural heritage including a library, film showings, literary and theatre presentations, awareness training, and celebrations including Ringing in the Appalachian New Year and music concerts and festivals. The Museum Center co-hosts an annual two-day event with the Appalachian Community Development Association.  Lower Price Hill has an annual Appalachian Community Festival.
  • The Appalachian Community Development Association engages over 100 volunteers to put on the annual Appalachian Festival which is attended by over 25,000 people.
  • A new physical home. The Lower Price Hill Community School – which operates a GED school, social services and a branch of Cincinnati State offering college courses – has agreed to house the UAC library and to provide ongoing community space and fiscal agent services for the UAC Research Committee and cultural activities.  They will also operate the former UAC ABLE Program in EPH.
  • History of successful community-building methodologies. These include participatory community-based research and intervention in our primary target area of Lower Price Hill- East Price Hill and participatory arts programs that have resulted in new literature, visual arts and theatrical productions giving voice to the urban Appalachian community.  Areas of research and intervention include women’s health, diabetes and substance abuse.  A new substance abuse coalition is being formed to address the current crisis in these neighborhoods.
  • Institutional partners. We have long-term relationships with several agencies with Appalachian CEOs.  These include Santa Maria Community Services, the Lower Price Hill Community School, West Eighth and State Teen Council, and Price Hill Will.
  • Integrated community networks. Partners and friends in philanthropy, the media, churches and government agencies.  Institutional links include Oyler School and the University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, Sinclair Community College, Thomas More College, the Cincinnati Public Library and Northern Kentucky University.
  • An AmeriCorps program serving Appalachian communities now administered through Santa Maria Community Services.

Health care has been known to be a priority in Appalachian community work over the years.  There are specific community concerns such as nutrition, diabetes, smoking, respiratory and coronary ailments.  People are talking about these concerns and are willing to work on them.  These conditions have a relationship to mental and emotional well-being.  One participant in a past Urban Appalachian Health Promotion program reported, “I’ve learned more about health issues than I ever learned when I went to nursing school. And I’ve learned ways to take care of myself, not just other everybody else. And I don’t mean just physical health, emotionally too.”  Broad and intimate community connections will go a long way toward addressing a sense of well-being.

Our goal is to build mental and emotional well-being through promoting a positive self image and community participation.  Through the engagement infrastructure to be funded by this grant, the community can directly address mental and emotional well-being by organizing themselves and finding partners to create community-based health initiatives.

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