Working from behind the Scenes: The Appalachian Student Health Coalition Archive Project

a photograph from the 1960s of a young doctor (on the right) consulting with a nursing student (left background) and nun (left foreground) in a hospital

The Appalachian Student Health Coalition Archive Project reflects in its process the very philosophies which guided the Coalition in its practice of community organizing 50 years ago, and serves as an emblematic response to a core question of community-driven archives: how ought the relationship dynamic between collecting institutions and local communities operate? What is most crucial to the effective kindling of community power and independence? What is our responsibility as archivists?

Our Community-Driven Archives project “supports historically underrepresented history keepers in telling, sharing, and preserving their stories”. Since 2017, staff and graduate research assistants from the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Special Collections Library have worked closely in partnership with four organizations connected to historically marginalized communities in the American South: The Appalachian Student Health Coalition (ASHC), the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA), the Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project (EKAAMP), and the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum (SAAACAM). Each partnership has its own specific set of desired outcomes, but the goal is to address existing silences within the historical record. We believe that the fabric of what gets remembered (and why) is best woven by a diverse and engaged set of community storytellers; it should not be the exclusive domain of those in power. The work of the Community-Driven Archives team (CDAT) is built upon this understanding and guided by the principles of community leadership, ownership, and stewardship.  

Our Partnership with the ASHC

With this framework in mind, I’ll speak more specifically to my experience as a graduate research assistant with the Appalachian Student Health Coalition—a student organization founded at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in the 1960’s. Participating students provided healthcare to rural Appalachian communities across Tennessee and on the southern edges of Virginia and Kentucky. Their work was often at the intersection of healthcare and environmental and racial justice, and the ASHC pioneered a new approach to community organizing and student activism.

A page from ASHC participant Deborah Cogswell’s 1971 scrapbook documenting her experience in several Appalachian communities. Pictured here are snapshots from the Briceville, TN health fair, Cogswell’s host family (Willie and May Spears), and other outings with friends and local community members.

Our partnership with the ASHC began in 2013, predating the 2017 Community-Driven Archives Mellon grant. At that time, the focus of the work was primarily centered around conducting oral histories with ASHC partners and alumni, as well as developing a more active ASHC alumni network and project advisory group. Together, the ASHC and Community-Driven Archives staff decided to build a website as the means by which to share the ASHC story (through maps, timelines, and archival material documenting its philosophy and work).  

A screenshot of the ASHC’s website homepage highlighting three of its most prominent themes.
A periodical announcement of the ASHC health fair to be held in Tracy City, TN.

I joined the initiative just last year in the late Spring of 2020. Since then, I’ve been most involved in management of the ASHC’s oral history index. Together, CDAT staff and former Coalition participants developed a system to collaboratively review these stories so that, together, we could decide upon their most relevant tags, categories, and themes—pulling out important names, places, and other related information. Some examples include stories which cover particular events in the Coalition’s history, such as the logistics of their health fairs and development of community health councils. Others stories discuss the intersection of healthcare and race or the politics of healthcare. This review process also involves collectively choosing vignettes from longer clips to feature on the website. These are shortened stories from within a larger narrative that highlight something special about the ASHC or its participants—for example, the Coalition’s foundational philosophies or the cultural encounters experienced by many students while living in Appalachia. It’s our shared goal that these audiovisual interviews and the rich content found within will be discoverable and of service to researchers.  

A screenshot of the most recently captured vignettes posted to the ASHC website.

Reflections on Partnership

As the grant comes to a close, project priorities have somewhat shifted. Priorities are now largely concerned with game-planning for the future of the project—raising funds in support of the project’s long-term goals, road-mapping important next steps toward independence from a Carolina libraries staff leadership role, and training select ASHC alumni (known as “Websters”) in website and content management via WordPress. Essentially, our focus at this stage is on the movement from dependency to independence and supporting ASHC leadership and skills development in the interest of project sustainability.   

Over the course of my involvement, I’ve thought much about the relationship between Carolina libraries project staff/archivists and the ASHC. What is our institutional role so that community storytellers and their needs are centered? How do we effectively support them without commandeering the products and process? Is there even an appropriate space for said relationship with and support from institutions in community-driven work? 

On that last point, I say yes, most definitely. But navigating it well takes patience, humility, adaptability, a learner’s and listener’s mindset, and perseverance through its challenges. Most importantly, it takes trust. And trust takes time.  

As I’ve been reflecting on this more in the last few weeks, I’ve found inspiration in the fact that what we’re doing as partners with the ASHC the ASHC similarly undertook as activists in rural Appalachian communities. They humbled themselves. They listened first. They were eager to learn from and respond to community needs. The ASHC embodied a philosophy of service rather than radical self-righteousness. As their project partner 50 years later, we can learn from their example of what it means to take a step back. To work from behind the scenes, elevate others, and help facilitate a community’s storytelling.  

Dr. Pete Moss consulting with a nursing student and a nun at the Clairfield Health Fair. At the time, he was chief resident in Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University.

We encourage you to check out the ASHC’s recently updated website at studenthealthcoalition.org. Take a step back into the 1960’s and 70’s as you indulge in the spirit of student activism and learn through personal accounts what it means to effectively and sustainably be part of community organizing.