This year the 39th Annual Appalachian Studies Association Conference was held for the first time in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Between March 18th and March 20th, people all across the country gathered in attendance. The response was overwhelmingly positive from both attendees and community members alike.
The mission of the Appalachian Studies Association, housed at Marshall University, is to promote engaged dialogue, research, scholarship, education, creative expression, and action among a diverse and inclusive group of scholars, educators, practitioners, grassroots activists, students, individuals, groups and institutions. The annual conference has been held throughout the states that comprise the Appalachian Region including North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, and other Appalachian states.
The theme for the conference this year was “Voices from the Misty Mountains: Diversity and Unity, A New Appalachia.” There were many sessions and numerous tours during the conference. A showcase concert was held on Saturday Night. Frank X Walker, noted Affrilachian poet, gave the keynote address. Other noted Plenary Speakers included Lloyd Arneach, a native American storyteller; Adam Booth, a local musician and storyteller; John Lilly, musician and former editor of Goldenseal magazine; Builder Levy, an Appalachian photographer; and the Appalachian dancers Matthew Olwell, Becky Hill, and Emily Oleson.
I spoke with Rachael Meads, Director of Student Activities and Leadership, who organized the conference. Rachael noted the event had a significant impact on the community, bringing in almost one thousand participants and selling out all the local hotels for the three-day stretch. “Stores and restaurants reported record breaking numbers and profits,” she noted when we talked about the impact of such an event on a small town.
“Hundreds came from the community. There was a nice blend of community and talent, and the academic and ASA attendance. I am so proud of our community. The response from people who came to the conference, their conference evaluations, almost every single one comments on how amazing our town and our location… I just feel like this was a wonder event all the way around.”
The conference had much to offer in terms of the voices in Appalachia. Sessions ranged from environmental concerns, sustainable agriculture, community building, technology integration and Appalachia, social justice, Appalachian history, health, elder care and much more. Rachael spoke to the importance of such sessions. “If we do not take the time to thoughtfully address those issues, we are going to see huge problems on the horizon for the region and for our state. Job creation, sustainable development, ways to keep young people in the region so that we do not suffer from brain drain…these are things we need to have discussions about.”
Rachael showed the most excitement when talking about the people that show up for the conference. “They are just terrific. They are really engaged, really open, really friendly, and truly committed to the region. And it doesn’t mean they all agree. Because there are very conservative viewpoints, there are very extreme liberal viewpoints. There is a lot of in-between moderate ideologies, but they respect one another. And there is dialogue there and civility. I think what it comes back to is community. We are all a part of the same community. And as members of that community, we listen to one another and respect one another.”
Rachel mentioned that Shepherd University has an Appalachian Studies Minor, hosts an Appalachian Writer in Residence Program every fall, and they host an Appalachian Heritage Festival as well. The upcoming festival will be held from September 30 to October 1 of 2016. “It’s going to be a really big deal this year. Our writer in residence is Charles Frazier, who wrote Cold Mountain. Its going to be a huge year for the literary part and the writer residence program is the week before and leads up to the festival.”