From Whitesburg, Kentucky, to Washington Court House, Ohio

An Academic Explores Economic Empowerment through Cultural Revitalization

Sonia BasSheva Mañjon

As our country prepares for a Trump presidency, the issue of economic revitalization in rural American has much more urgency than eight months ago when I started collecting data for this work. Here is a sampling of headlines from coverage by the New York Times of the economic decline in the rust belt, or more specifically, coal country and Appalachian towns: “Trump’s Promises Will Be Hard to Keep, but Coal Country Has Faith” (Nov. 28, 2016); “A Bleak Outlook for Trump’s Promises to Coal Miners” (Nov. 19, 2016); “Alienated and Angry, Coal Miners See Donald Trump as Their Only Choice” (Aug. 19, 2016); and “Beyond Coal: Imagining Appalachia’s Future (Aug. 17, 2016). The spotlight is now shining on a forgotten part of our country: rural America.

Living in Columbus, Ohio, has put me closer in touch with the realities in the Appalachian regions of Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Many of my students are from these regions, and I have begun to visit and interact with “mountain folk” in Kentucky and with farmers in Ohio. What I have come to understand is a way of life steeped in a part of the country I have never known. The natural resources of the land have sustained much of our country. The coal industry, which has supported generations of families since the late 1700s, has been declining since the second half of the twentieth century, in part because of major environmental impacts associated with mountaintop removal and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.1 My understanding of placemaking and economic renewal has taken on much deeper meaning as I listen to my students talk about their homes, families, the mountains of Appalachia, and the economic and cultural destruction that causes them to leave for urban living.

As an artist, educator, and scholar, I have become sensitized to a different reality in pre-Trump existence. While trying to grapple with what a new normal will be under a Trump administration, I am concerned about a marginalized population of mostly white, poor Appalachian communities that I have come to know and understand through the work of longtime collaborator and friend Dudley Cocke, director of Roadside Theater.2 His work in rural Appalachian Kentucky integrates community engagement and artistic collaborations to develop a Community Cultural Development Methodology that includes five broad principles: (1) active participation, (2) partnerships and collaborations involving an inclusive range of community organizations, (3) local leadership, (4) knowing when to lead and when to follow, and (5) engagement over the course of at least two years. My work, primarily focused in urban areas of California, utilizes community art making to engage underresourced and marginalized communities of color and immigrant communities in what I call an authentic interactive approach to community building. This process includes (1) individual and collaborative creativity, (2) trust building, (3) art production, and (4) empowerment, all centered around community needs and visions, and leadership development. I have engaged this model of community interaction with graduate students working in “Think Tanks” with artists and arts organizations over the past three years with the intention of producing an entrepreneurial shift in mind-set to better sustain art practices and art production.3

In my own physical shift from densely populated urban environments to midwestern Ohio, I have been drawn to explore if community art practices can aid revitalization efforts in economic disadvantaged areas by rebuilding local cultural identity, stimulating artistic practices, and uncovering historical traditions, while utilizing practices to engage youth as leaders. In this work, I have joined colleagues from around the country through Imagining America and most recently the Kettering Foundation to explore economic empowerment through cultural revitalization in rural America.

Working with a team from The Lawrence and Isabel Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise (The Center) at The Ohio State University (OSU), from May to November 2016, I began an investigation of economic empowerment through an arts and culture lens to better understand the needs in rural America. Well-versed in urban community engagement activities from my work at the California College of the Arts’ Center for Art and Public Life with 100 Families Oakland: Art and Social Change,4 and my work in community art making with Dominican, Chilean, Iranian, and Tongan families in urban communities, I wanted to explore how art could be used as an economic engine in revitalization efforts in rural locations.

Awarded a $6,700 Discovery Theme Travel Grant from OSU College of Arts and Sciences, I was able to travel with a team to Whitesburg, Kentucky, July 14–18, to participate in a five-day institute, Performing Our Future, on cultural and economic revitalization efforts in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Joining me on the team were Cassie Patterson, assistant director, Center for Folklore Studies; Godwin Tayese Apaliyah, community development educator, OSU Extension; Raven Lynch, graduate student in social work; and Katlyn Perani, undergraduate student in education.

Hosted by Imagining America, a consortium of over one hundred college and university members and community partners, and Appalshop, a nonprofit cultural art and educational organization located in the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields, the institute was described as follows:

Performing Our Future will demonstrate how the assets of local culture enacted through theater can enable communities to imagine, construct, and own their civic and economic future. Our claim is that culture and artistic expression are fundamental to the development of a democratic culture because of the way they shape individual and collective identities; bound or expand imagination; and influence micro- and macro-economic incentives and behavior.5

The Barnett Center team joined eleven other teams from around the country to explore two essential questions:

  1. How can arts and culture promote individual voice and collective agency, unbounding a community’s imagination and ambition in order to create the conditions for economic development?
  2. How can a community organize itself to build an economy that is broad-based and sustainable?

The group of more than sixty-seven individuals representing twelve colleges and universities and ten Whitesburg community partner sites collaborated on development of community cultural and economic plans. The OSU team was interested in understanding the specifics of how culture-led economic development can work as a foundation for economic revitalization in rural America. Appalshop offered the perfect case study with its artistic and business partners working collaboratively to revitalize their main street in the town of Whitesburg, in Letcher County. Using a collaborative model, Letcher County created a culture hub to build a model of economic development based in grassroots arts and culture. The hub includes community centers, artists/organizations, businesses, volunteer fire departments, elected officials, government and educational organizations, and for-profit and not-for-profit corporations, facilitated by community organizers at Appalshop:

The Culture Hub is founded on the principle that every community has latent assets they can turn into new community wealth — but only if they can unbound their imaginations and tell new stories about themselves. Working together through the Culture Hub, partners have restarted cultural events that are once again drawing visitors from around the country; the creation of new markets for artists, musicians, and other cultural producers; the strengthening of anchor institutions that reach the most disenfranchised citizens of the county; and the founding of new businesses in sectors from food production to technology.6

Roadside Theater/Appalshop engaged the university partnership of Lafayette College’s Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project (EEGLP), under the direction of Gladstone “Fluney” Hutchinson, associate professor of economics and founding director of EEGLP. As its website describes, “Instead of taking a top-down bureaucratic approach, EEGLP uses a collaborative model in which teams of students and faculty work hand-in-hand with residents to tackle economic issues, placing the power where it belongs — with the community that is seeking change. The EEGLP team is there to learn and consult, not instruct.”7 This collaborative is part of a two-year national pilot program of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, using action-research to support and initiate equitable community development: “An initial team of four Lafayette students began working with Appalshop in the summer of 2014 to identify and map the organization’s assets and to identify and test entrepreneurial strategies for wealth creation. The project is in its second phase of looking for ways to market those assets and will continue through the summer of 2017.”8

Our interest in replicating this model was based on two factors: (1) From February 2014 to October 2015, Dr. Apaliyah and I participated in Imagining America’s Extension Reconsidered, a process to explore how extension professionals and volunteer leaders might improve the ways they engage people in addressing the new social, technological, and economic conditions of the twenty-first century. OSU was selected to represent Ohio through engagement of ten counties. Fayette County was one of the ten Ohio counties represented. Dr. Apaliyah lives and works in Washington Court House, Fayette County. (2) In March 2016, eight states were invited to participate in the development of a Rural Issues Guide, initiated by the Kettering Foundation under the direction of Sharon Gibson, retired multicultural extension specialist, University of Georgia; Eric Giordano, director, Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, University of Wisconsin; and Jennifer Jensen, Community and Regional Development Institute, Cornell University. Again Ohio was selected, and Fayette County, under the leadership of Dr. Apaliyah, was invited to lead the Ohio team. I was contacted to codevelop a community engagement process to explore cultural and economic development strategies. Dr. Apaliyah wanted the arts and culture to be front and center in this endeavor. The primary question for this issues guide was, How can rural communities thrive in the twenty-first century?

In drafting a framework, Kettering was interested in experimental approaches to developing the issues guide. The idea was to create a national issues guide with a series of localized companion guides that describe the opportunities of community-level arts and extension/community development partners and focus on local issues and data. The following principles emerged during discussions:

  1. Effective community deliberation and arts engagement is a process, not a product (or one-off event) — this is, at its base, democratic community building. It works best when it is integrated into local relationships, context, and goals.
  2. Every group should have an arts person or organization involved throughout the planning and implementation of the process, because (a) we have seen that they provide unique approaches to community engagement and different kinds of community knowledge, and open the door to new groups; and (b) our extension partners should not feel that they have to pull off all of this by themselves, especially if the arts component is outside their comfort zone. Relationship building is key here!
  3. When we talk about “arts engagement,” we mean participatory experiences for community members. We discussed how community participation can mean a lot of things, from actually participating in the creation of the art to having a chance to design or react to the art in a way that inspires questioning and conversation.

In the 2006 Comprehensive Land Use Strategy Plan for Fayette County, economic, historical, and cultural preservation were among the eight areas included in a plan for the future. The county commissioners engaged local residents in the development of this plan, which included goals and strategies for each area. Because little had been done to implement strategies since the plan was drafted, Dr. Apaliyah sought out various partners that could connect a series of interventions into a comprehensive plan of action, using a new approach for community engagement that would incorporate arts and culture in the economic development strategies.

Dr. Apaliyah and I formed a partnership to see if we could infuse art and culture as a primary intervention to stimulate economic revitalization efforts in Washington Court House through development of a local Rural Issues Guide. Our process would utilize an authentic interactive approach to community engagement with art making, leadership identification and development, and collaborative community building.

Our initial community meeting in Washington Court House was held on May 24, 2016. The goal was to revitalize Washington Court House’s downtown by bringing the arts to the forefront of the community to stimulate economic development. The meeting was attended by a small, yet powerful group of residents, artists, and business professionals: Dell White and Lee Lichtenberg from White Fence Gallery; Amanda Miller and Mandy Foy from Creative Court House Art Group; Andrew Daniels, owner of the local Print Shop; JoLinda Van Dirk, director of Fayette County Travel and Tourism; Bev Mullen, Fayette County Historical Society and reporter for the Record Herald newspaper; and Ken Martin, department chair and associate director, Programs OSU Extension. As this was both Martin’s and my introduction to the community, Dr. Apaliyah facilitated the discussion. Our working questions were, (1) How do we develop and revitalize the arts to create a culture that stimulates economic development? and (2) How do we use arts and creative cultural businesses to stimulate the economic development? From this initial discussion, three recommended options were identified for the local Rural Issues Guide framework:

Option I: Promote economic development through the downtown farmers’ market, high-school student mentorship program with local professionals (a school-district partnership), and Junior Achievement club.

Option II: Broaden our sense of community through the farmers’ market, the Scarecrow Festival, Dinner in the Field, and festivals and events hosted by Fayette County Travel and Tourism.

Option III: Preserve our rural heritage by reestablishing the annual Scarecrow Festival on September 16–18, 2016 (the last one was in 2008). Challenges would be opposition from some downtown businesses to participating in the Scarecrow Festival. It is not seen as a vehicle for economic development.

The next step was to host a larger community deliberative forum to revise the framework,9 and to get more buy-in from local residents, artists, and business representatives. The forum was held on September 15 to coincide with the Scarecrow Festival. The team wanted to engage as many local residents in this process as possible and utilize the festival to continue the discussion. The following questions were developed as a way to collect additional information during the forum and contained issues specific to the local community’s issues and needs:

  1. How do we help low-income families and children?
  2. How do we rebuild a sense of community for everyone?
  3. How do we engage local businesses in festivals and events, specifically in the downtown area?
  4. How do we bring local businesses more into the forefront, especially with the Walmart draining the downtown local business economy?
  5. How do we change the economic climate in Fayette County? How do we establish a “shop local” initiative?
  6. How do we engage Southern State Community College as a resource for this community?
  7. How do we engage young folks (twenty- to thirty-year-olds) to live and work in Washington Court House?
  8. How do we revitalize downtown by bringing the arts to the forefront of the community?
  9. How do we rebuild the sense of community for everyone?

At this point I invited OSU students from rural towns in Ohio and Iowa to participate with the goal of constructing a student think tank that would work with the residents of Washington Court House on a long-term process. Two graduate students, Kaitlin Treitmaier and Molly Rideout, volunteered to work on the deliberative forum and joined the planning team. The September 15 meeting started with dinner provided by a local caterer, followed by a collaborative art-making project using collage to vision what they wanted to see downtown, and ended with a discussion based on the aforementioned questions to identify possible next steps in the local Rural Issues Guide. The forum was hosted at Southern State Community College Fayette Campus due to its central location and familiarity as a gathering location. Approximately thirty people from Fayette County attended the forum, including a county commissioner, city council members, village mayors, media representatives, small-business owners, artists and art organizations, and residents. The outcomes were greater interest in the initial question (How do we develop and revitalize the arts to create a culture that stimulates economic development?) and the identification of possible next steps for each of the discussion questions. Multiple local partners in Fayette County as well as OSU faculty and student collaborators showed interest in the process and in being involved. The local and county economic development offices in Fayette County showed a willingness to develop a model of economic empowerment through cultural revitalization, and local elected officials were eager to put funding toward the effort.

As a result of our initial participation in Appalshop and Imagining America’s Performing Our Future institute, the OSU team was able to secure a $25,000 OSU Connect and Collaborate Planning Grant and a $3,500 Undergraduate Student Research Grant. We are currently working with a steering committee consisting of OSU Extension, Outreach and Engagement, Service-Learning, and the Center for Folklore Studies to further develop this approach of community engagement incorporating arts and culture in economic development strategies in three locations in Fayette County: Washington Court House (the county seat with a population of 14,000), the Village of Jeffersonville (population 1,300), and the Village of Bloomingburg (population 1,100). In addition to the original local planning committee, the Washington Court House city manager, mayors from both villages, and the president of the county commissioners have shown interest in financially supporting and personally engaging in the process. The comprehensive project plan has been approved, and implementation is scheduled to begin January 2017.


  1. Mountaintop removal is a type of coal mining that began in Appalachia in the 1970s as an extension of conventional strip-mining techniques in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process of extracting natural gas using pressurized liquid to break apart the earth’s surface to release gas.
  2. Roadside Theater was founded in the coalfields of central Appalachia in 1975 as part of Appalshop, which had begun six years earlier as a War on Poverty/Office of Economic Opportunity youth job-training program in film. From its inception, young Appalachians saw Appalshop as a means to subvert the national stereotypes of their mountain homes and celebrate their culture by telling the region’s story in the voices of the people living there.
  3. Sonia BasSheva Mañjon and Wen Guo, “Think Tank: A Collaborative Approach to Student Learning, Organizational Assessment, and Community-Based Arts,” Artivate: A Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts 4, no. 2 (2015), 77–95. A “Think Tank” is a group of interdisciplinary graduate students who work collaboratively with artists and organizations to solve artist-defined issues.
  4. 100 Families Oakland is a three-year community art project involving a hundred families and over five hundred individuals in art making that represents social, economic, and political issues in four Oakland neighborhoods: East Oakland, West Oakland, Fruitvale, and Chinatown. The projects started April 2005 and culminated with a major exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California June 2006. A book, documentary DVD, teaching guidebook, and an evaluative assessment document the process and outcomes.
  5. Roadside Theater, “Art in a Democracy,”
  9. The Kettering Foundation defines a deliberative forum as the process of carefully weighing options against the things we hold valuable in order to make decisions. When citizens deliberate together about important issues, they can reach decisions and take action together on problems that confront them. People deliberate together over problems in many settings — at home, in coffee shops, at public meetings, and in forums. Deliberation is not a specialized process — people do it naturally.