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

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 CommunityDriven Archives project supports historically underrepresented history keepers in telling, sharing, and preserving their storiesSince 2017staff and graduate research assistants from UNC’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 storytellersit 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 1960s. 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 documents 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. The page features nine square polaroids, each with handwritten descriptive text underneath.
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) 

The Appalachian Student Health Coalition’s new website homepage features the project’s three most prominent themes: Reinventing Primary Healthcare in Appalachia and the Rural South, Organizing for Community Power and Environmental Justice, and Expanding the Boundaries of Higher Education and Professional Practice. Each of the themes is displayed as a box with corresponding photographs on the top half and white text amidst a deep orange backdrop on the bottom. They are centered side-by-side across the screen.
A screenshot of the ASHC’s website homepage highlighting three of its most prominent themes.
An article from the local newspaper details what to expect from the approaching ‘Health Fair’ in Grundy County. Local residents are asked to host ASHC staff in return for free diagnostic medical services, set to begin at James K. Shook School in Tracy City from June 24th-30th. It’s also explained that these examinations will be performed by Vanderbilt medical and nursing students under physician supervision. The article headline “Summer ‘Health Fair’ in Grundy” is positioned at the top of the digital scan, followed by text (no pictures). An unrelated second article entitled “Tyson Said Reopening Here” is in view at the bottom.
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 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 

Four recently captured vignettes are featured on the ASHC website’s homepage under “Recently Added Stories”. Each blurb is vertically oriented and features an image, the story title, and a 30-50 word preview of the story’s descriptive content. Included in this screenshot are Dal Macon’s commentary on “The focal role of listening in community organizing”, “Dal Macon’s introduction to Bill Dow and the Student Health Coalition”, “Margaret Ecker on her inspiration to pursue nursing”, and Barbara Clinton’s commentary on “‘Freedom from drain’ and the Maternal-Infant Health Outreach Worker Project (MIHOW)”.
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, roadmapping important next steps toward independence from a UNC 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 UNC 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 leveled 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, chief resident in Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University, consults with a nursing student and nun at the Clairfield Health Fair.
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.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Community-Driven Archives grant and its other collaborations, please visit the Southern Historical Collection’s webpage here. We also encourage you to check out the ASHC’s recently updated website at studenthealthcoalition.org. Take a step back into the 1960s and 70s 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.  

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