Civic Capacity Building

Since its beginning, the Appalachian Center has struggled in various and evolving ways with the questions about the roles of a public land grant institution in a democratic society.  As can be seen by the projects outlined above, it has always been committed to functioning as a mediating structure between major players of civil society—citizens, nonprofits, media, government—as a way of fostering what Ben Barber calls "strong democracy". 

The period through the 1980s, can be described as a time of "bringing in"—by opening public institutions to those who had been previously marginalized. Parallel to African-American Studies, Women Studies, and others, much of the effort at this time was not so much for structural institutional change as to open existing scholarly institutions to equal and non-stigmatizing participation.  This was a very creative period for Appalachian Studies as a new field of scholarship, with the discovery of a startling richness of new perspectives and data that had previously been obscured by bias.  UK scholars were at the center of this scholarly ferment, and much of the effort at the Center was to disseminate this scholarship as rapidly and widely as possible—through teaching, publications and public forums. 

The 1970s and 1980s were a time of political mobilization in central Appalachia, as the social movements of the 1960s matured into new citizen organizations and innovative forms of citizen action.  Especially across the coalfields, complex and durable new citizens groups, nonprofits and alliances developed with increasing political skills and influence -- in struggles against strip mining, unfair taxation, poor government services and schools, bad water, political corruption, etc. The scholarship, consultation, and public service projects of Appalachian Center staff and faculty have developed an exceptionally wide and deep network of knowledge and relationship with an emerging web of citizen leaders and citizens groups.  It is the long sedimentation and ripening of relationships of trust and mutual support with a great variety of community leaders concerned about the most distressed communities that is one of the greatest assets the Appalachian Center brings to any project.

In the early 1990s, the focus shifted to outreach through civic leadership development.  With a major five-year grant from the Kellogg Foundation, the Center initiated the Kentucky Appalachian Civic Leadership Project in 1989.  This Project involved several components.  The Commonwealth Fellowship Program identified and brought together emerging, nontraditional community and regional leaders from diverse backgrounds for leadership training, issue discussion and long-term networking.  Center staff and faculty, in conjunction with the College of Agriculture, facilitated literally hundreds of research supported Community Issues Gatherings to learn the process of neutral public talk while engaging in serious discussion of critical local and regional issues.  Ultimately some 4000 people participated in these talks throughout eastern Kentucky.  Finally, in conjunction with the Community College system, the Center developed a Student Leadership Development program at UK and on the campuses of five community colleges and Appalachian Kentucky.  Significantly many former Commonwealth Fellows played major roles in the Kentucky Appalachian Task Force initiative described above.  In 1996, the Center published Creating Community: Civic Leadership for the Future Eastern Kentucky and the Region, a summary of lessons learned.

Through the 1990s, the Center partnered with the Appalachian Regional Education Network, part of the national Rural Challenge Initiative, funded by the Annenberg Foundation, with the goal of building academic skills and cultural pride and identity in youth in the most underserved rural public schools.  This project developed teams between communities and schools to create place-based curricula—to immerse youth in local knowledge, ecology, history and civic engagement as a way to build self-esteem, cultural pride, a sense of place, and the capacity for highly motivated, integrative, results oriented thinking about real problems.  Center staff administered this project which included a group of eight Appalachian Kentucky and two Appalachian Virginia public schools.

The Project for the Civic and Environmental Commons grew organically out of earlier programs.  An important component of this is collaborative research was that it brought expert and local people together in analyzing and solving problems. The Project for the Civic and Environmental Commons sought a vision for a new "social contract" between academic institutions and the public, and encompassed such projects as the Common Knowledge Network (CKN), the Appalachian Music Preservation Project (AMP), and the Civil Society Project (CSP).  It aimed to challenge academics to greater civic responsibility—encouraging teaching and scholarship that inculcates greater humility and a commitment to listen to the needs and perspectives of people in the communities they serve. 

In 2001, with prestigious funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Center embarked on a project entitled Civic Professionalism & Global Regionalism: Justice, Sustainability, and the “Scaling Up” of Community Participation in collaboration with the Appalachian Studies faculty and the Committee on Social Theory.  This project brought together international researchers and local activists to study questions of globalization, democracy, and environmental sustainability.  By the time funded was completed in June, 2005 this project had brought together 21 scholars and activists and engaged them in the application of research for social change in a variety of community issues. 

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