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Grant Fuels Project to Highlight Untold History Across Appalachia

From working with Appalachian communities to examining issues of displacement for refugees, two Virginia Tech faculty have made it their life and scholarly mission to recognize the people that society often overlooks.

Now a prestigious national foundation is giving them significant resources to tell the hidden historical stories of communities throughout Southwest Virginia, an opportunity to put their passion into action.

Emily Satterwhite and Katrina Powell received a $3 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a three-year project to work with communities across the state’s Appalachia region to commemorate neglected histories.

Their project, Monuments Across Appalachian Virginia, is part of a $250 million initiative that the New York-based nonprofit foundation launched in 2020 to support public projects across the United States. The focus of the foundation’s Monuments Project is to commemorate stories of populations that have been denied historical recognition.

The foundation, with an endowment of approximately $8.2 billion in 2020, awards grants in four areas: arts and culture, humanities in place, public knowledge, and higher learning.

Examples of other Monuments Projects across the country include the completion of Freedom Park in North Carolina, which honors the history of Black North Carolinians, and the expansion of artist Judith Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles, a large mural depicting the city’s history.

Now, Virginia Tech joins the work to recognize Appalachia.

“There’s so much attention right now to monuments, what’s out there and what stories they tell and what other stories deserve to be told,” said Satterwhite, an associate professor and director of Appalachian Studies in the Department of Religion and Culture. “People are already talking about what’s been hidden that needs to be made visible and to be passed on to the next generation, and what stories might otherwise be lost. We are telling more complex stories about Appalachia and its history to help people reimagine it not as a white, static, simple, rooted place but as dynamic, with migration being central to its story and many groups of people being central to its story.”

For the next three years, Powell and Satterwhite plan to meet with community groups, nonprofits, government officials, and many others first to pinpoint untold stories and then help to create projects that represent them.

The idea is not to do all of the work themselves but to work alongside the organizations and faculty partners.

“It’s a mindset of how to work with the community, not coming in and saying, ‘This is how you should build a monument to your history,’ but as a university, we have resources and we’d like to work with you on what you see is important to your community,” said Powell, a professor of rhetoric and writing in the Department of English, and founding director of the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies at Virginia Tech.

Powell and Satterwhite have worked with the Council on Virginia Tech History. The group  explores how the university might recognize and acknowledge its history in the context of the Beyond Boundaries vision for the future.

With this new project, Powell and Satterwhite’s work could take a variety of forms — from public art or historical markers to theatrical performances or festivals. They hope to build on relationships that informed existing public exhibits, such as The Land Speaks, a digital exhibition hosted by University Libraries at Virginia Tech about the history of the Monacan Indian Nation.

Ultimately, the Monuments Across Appalachian Virginia project aims to “reimagine what a monument is, not necessarily a big statue in the middle of town, but something that might be located in our everyday experiences of our communities,” said Powell.

Project awards will be made in two phases. First round projects will be proposed in June by faculty who work closely with community collaborators. Second round projects will be community-initiated, with initial proposals due in early 2024. Communities throughout Appalachian Virginia are eligible to participate, as are representatives for Eastern Siouan Indigenous peoples whose relationship with these lands predate colonization.

Likely project themes will include the diversity of Appalachian communities, movement across the landscape via migration and population displacement, and struggles for social justice including feminist, anti-racist, environmental justice, and pro-labor movements.

Currently, Powell and Satterwhite are circulating calls for faculty and community participation and building their team, which will include a project coordinator, postdoctoral fellow, communications manager, undergraduate and graduate students, and an advisory board.

“This award is a powerful testament to the fierce commitment to Appalachian communities that Drs. Powell and Satterwhite have made a defining focus of their professional careers and personal lives,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “Our region is replete with stories of incredible courage, resilience, and creativity that will be honored and made more visible thanks to the marvelous grant from the Mellon Foundation. Their generosity will significantly advance the innovative work in the humanities at Virginia Tech that is occurring in the classroom, in scholarly output, and in our larger communities.”

Some of their work will be weaved into the classroom, depending on the course.

Satterwhite said the foundation’s grant validates the importance of Appalachia.

“Oftentimes there’s a stigma attached to Appalachia,” she said. “So for a cultural institution as prestigious as Mellon to say these people matter and their histories matter, and for Mellon to recognize that other kinds of traditions and practices and beliefs have merit and deserve appreciation and attention, that’s really cool. Hopefully it helps some people rethink their judgments.”

Ultimately, the project uplifts Virginia Tech’s mission.

“It fulfills what we believe to be the land-grant university mission, education for all publics, not a certain kind of public, including those publics on whose land we are sitting,” Powell said. “I hope the project can exemplify the way Virginia Tech can be a great partner with communities.”

Jenny Kincaid Boone

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