Sunday, October 24, 1999

Urban Appalachian Council marks 25 years

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In 1974, a handful of local activists with lofty goals created the Urban Appalachian Council.

        They wanted to increase cultural awareness among Appalachians and the broader community, reform public education, advocate politically through research and community organizing and im prove health and welfare services.

        Then there were negative stereotypes that needed to be dispelled. “Smelly. Poor. The dirty-faced kid with tears on his cheeks in the back alley,” said Maureen Sullivan, the council's executive director since 1982 and first board president.

        About 34 percent of Greater Cincinnati's 2 million residents are of Appalachian descent. An estimated 213,000 in Hamilton County are the first or second generation to have settled here.

        There have been victories for the council since it was formed by the merger of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission's Appalachian Committee and the Appalachian Identity Center: The United Way & Community Chest approved the council's funding membership in 1978. And urban Appalachians won protection in the city's human rights ordinance in 1992.

        But challenges remain for the Appalachian council, which marks its 25th anniversary with a community event today at Mount Airy Forest. A quarter of the Tristate's urban Appalachians live in poverty. And about half of Cincinnati Public School dropouts ages 16-19 are urban Appalachians.

        “It's hard to be a kid in a system where your parents didn't make it and where there's nothing that positively represents you,” Ms. Sullivan said Friday in the council's Lower Price Hill office.

        As a result, as it begins its second quarter-century, the Urban Appalachian Council continues to work to increase cultural sensitivity toward Appalachians among public school teachers and administrators while financially supporting a network of independent schools in Cincinnati neighborhoods with concentrations of Appalachians.

        In each of the council's seven target neighborhoods — Over-the-Rhine, Lower Price Hill, East Price Hill, Northside, Camp Washington, East End and South Fairmount — community schools help more students earn GEDs than graduate from Cincinnati's public high schools.

        “The African-American community has said to the schools, "We have a culture and history that makes our students feel more connected if they see it in the classroom,'” said Pauletta Hansel, the council's assistant director and a poet. “In a similar way, if Appalachian children and their families see something that makes them proud of who they are, they will feel more connected.”

        Many Appalachian children, with dialects their peers ridicule and teachers try to correct, feel alienated in school and are “pushed out,” instead of dropping out, said Rhoda Halperin, a University of Cincinnati anthropologist who has studied the East End for 10 years.

        Individual teachers have incorporated Appalachian culture into their classrooms, council executives say. But many haven't. There are plans to update and redistribute to teachers the council's 10-year-old “Appalachian Idea Handbook.”

        “There is not a commitment system-wide,” Ms. Sullivan said.

        Aside from education concerns, the council helped in 1990 to form the Lower Price Hill Task Force, which published a report, “Health, Education and Pollution in Lower Price Hill.” That work led the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences to choose the council's leadership coalition in Lower Price Hill for a four-year study.

        The council continues to organize and promote cultural programs with part of its $1.5 million budget. About 10 percent of its money comes from the United Way.

        “For a newcomer to Cincinnati, if they have enjoyed a play or performance by Appalachian artists, then their first thought about us won't be a negative one,” Ms. Hansel said.

        Council-supported arts programs have examined the similarities of African-American church music and Ap palachian gospel music. That program was held in the East End. Another one brought Lower Price Hill youths together to write and perform a play about themselves and their origins.

        Most of the Tristate's urban Appalachians came from eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, eastern Ohio and West Virginia after World War II when jobs in coal mines dried up. They found jobs in construction and in local factories, such as the former General Motors plant in Norwood.

        The people kept coming to the cities from the hills. But many were poorly educated or skilled.

        The Urban Appalachian Council estimates that the 25 percent of urban Appalachians who struggle financially are from the latest waves of migration.

        Most of the remaining 75 percent are living stable lives with blue-collar jobs. There are large urban Appalachian communities in Hamilton and Middletown in Butler County. Clermont and Brown counties are included in the 13-state, 399-county U.S. Appalachian region.

        But unlike many ethnic groups that came to the United States from other countries, urban Appalachians had no central institution — such as the Roman Catholic Church — to assist them.

        That's a void the Urban Appalachian Council has tried to fill.

        The community-rooted council is uniquely qualified to work with the region's Appalachian population, its executives say.

        “For the most part, people from the mountains are not used to asking for help,” Ms. Hansel said. “The stereotype of the independent, self-sufficient mountaineer is true. Help comes through the community and families with a personal connection and the idea that it can be turned around. Giving and receiving are not done out of a deficit model, like many of our systems.”

        That's why the council looks with pride to former program participants who are now program volunteers and living and working independently throughout the region.

        And Cincinnati's urban Appalachian organization is the last of many that were founded in the 1960s and '70s, Ms. Sullivan said.

        “We were able to create a place in the community that focuses on Appalachians and to raise issues related to Appalachians,” she said. “We are a place where Appalachians can come to express their concerns. We support the network of adult education centers because that's what the community says it needs. We've never lost that connection.”

        • What: The Urban Appalachian Council's Appalachian Homecoming and 25th Anniversary Celebration.

        • When: Today, 2-8 p.m.

        • Where: Maple Ridge Lodge, Mount Airy Forest, off Westwood Northern Boulevard.

        • Miscellaneous: Potluck supper, with crafts, booths and performances by local musicians Taylor Farley and Blue Rock (5:45 p.m.) and the Rabbit Hash String Band (7 p.m.), which will accompany a square dance.

        • Information: 251-0202.


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- Urban Appalachian Council marks 25 years