Recently I began a new part-time job working as part of a team of crisis clinicians in a local ER. I am going to be working inside of Trumbull Memorial Hospital which is located in Warren, Ohio. Trumbull County is located in the northern region of Appalachia and has around 225,000 residents, including both urban and rural areas. In the past, many Trumbull county workers were employed in the steel and automobile industries and when those industries went downhill, so did most of the region, including notable cities like nearby Youngstown and Akron.
When I first was offered the job, I was reminded about an old Saturday Night Live skit from 2003 which satirizes an emergency room where various Appalachian people come in with strange, stupid and bizarre ailments that are typically related to their own ignorance. Even though that skit aired over nine years ago, the stereotypes of persons of Appalachian peoples remain. In my opinion, it is (along with making fun of people who have obesity) one of the last “socially acceptable” stereotypes in our American culture. In fact, one more reality show that features an Appalachian family (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) has just begun airing on the TLC Network and reportedly exploits the life of a rural Georgia child who is entered into kiddy pageants by her parents.
Let me just say, clearly and explicitly that my experiences in Trumbull County and more generally other Appalachian counties, bear NO RESEMBLANCE to the harmful, degrading composite depictions that I have previously mentioned. It saddens me to think that many people outside the region still get their information about Appalachia and its’ peoples from media like SNL and TLC. For those who still ascribe to the concept of Appalachian-ness as it is portrayed by the cable TV networks, let me tell you about one of my days and life in Appalachian Ohio.
A few weeks ago after my children had returned for the 2012-2013 school year (at their elementary school which received the highest possible rating for schools in Ohio) I decided that it was time to make jelly. My husband (who is a telecommunications engineer and supervisor) grew some Concord grapes in our backyard and upon harvesting them, asked if I could turn the grapes into jelly. After preparing the grapes, making the jelly and canning it, I went out and fed our rabbits.
My kids, who will be starting 4-H this year, decided that they want to show rabbits at the county fair next year so we purchased cages, bedding, feed, water and food crocks and bunnies. We now have a rabbitry on our front porch.
After dinner that night I went to see an old friend who had ordered some jewelry from a party I hosted. The short drive to her house wound by a Boy Scout camp where scouts and their parents come from all over the region to earn the Pipestone badge. Soon, a flock of wild turkeys darted in front of my 2008 Honda Civic, shortly followed by a yearling fawn and her mother.
My friend is now a communications assistant at the local job training agency but in a former career she was a journalist for the New York Times. She lived and worked in New York and London and then came back to Ohio where she was born and raised. Now, in addition to working at her agency, she raises organic beef cattle, chickens, two potbellied pigs and three very large dogs. I met her at a knitting group that I used to hold monthly.
After chatting for a few minutes about the local shale development and changes to our village, I thought that I had better get moving along as I had a paper to write. You see, I am a doctoral student in addition to being a crisis counselor and counselor in private practice.
What I am hoping that you all get from this little vignette is that although some people who live in Appalachia fit into some parts of the stereotype, most of us do not. In fact, I would be hard pressed to identify anyone I know who does fit into that little box that many outsiders seem to want to put us in.
So in my quest for social justice for my clients, my region, my family and friends, I implore you to expand your ideas about what it means to be a person of Appalachian heritages. Remember that each time you read about, see on TV or the internet someone who may appear to fit a stereotype, the portrayal of that person does not explain all about who they are but only explains how a media company wants them to be viewed.
Of course that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.
Pam Ebert is a counselor in private practice while completing her doctoral work. She has a special interest in both rural and Appalachian cultures and how they pertain to the world of counseling.