"There is wealth in the struggle": Unearthing and embracing community knowledges through organizing work in Appalachia

2019-08-13T14:13:07Z (GMT) by Erin Brock Carlson
In the midst of a period of economic transition, community organizers across Appalachia are working towards a just future that privileges community growth over corporate gain. A recent turn towards social justice concerns in Professional and Technical Communication suggests that efforts of community organizers might be of interest to scholars focused on addressing wicked problems in disenfranchised communities. This dissertation draws from results of a participatory photovoice study in which 11 community organizers took photos, wrote narratives, and responded in focus groups, and site visits to several communities. These methods call for deep engagement with community knowledges, producing rich visual and textual portraits of life in Appalachia that challenge stereotypical renderings of the region and its residents. After providing a heuristic for uncovering and re-valuing community knowledges, this dissertation looks at how place, technology, and community factor into the experiences of community organizers. Results from gathered qualitative data suggest that community members are experts on their own experiences, as participants revealed understandings of complex problems that call into question standard development practices lauded by technical experts. Second, participants demonstrated a capacity for embracing the very elements of their communities that had been used to marginalize them, pointing to the power of unexpected and creative tactics. Lastly, their reflections revealed the need for more attention to be placed upon community organizing in rural contexts and what kinds of community knowledges exist beyond expected parameters. By documenting their experiences organizing around public problems, participants confronted monolithic representations of their region, articulated their own nuanced accounts of life in rural areas, and crafted strategies for community-focused development that privileges people. Ultimately this project argues that by inviting community knowledges into the academic sphere, we might craft more effective coalitions to tackle complex public problems.