Dangers of “damage-centered” research

Lynaya Elliott

When you think of Appalachian stereotypes in the media, it’s not surprising that those outside the region may point to images of boarded-up store fronts, aerial views of dented mobile homes, and rusty automobiles. Last year, The Guardian published a four-part series, America’s poorest white town: abandoned by coal, swallowed by drugs, one of which focuses on high rates of obesity, drug addiction, and post-coal economic devastation in Beattyville, Kentucky. Area spotlights like these often do so with the goal of shedding light on economically-depressed areas in order to leverage resources for these communities. However, what toll does it take on a community when the national spotlight portrays it as damaged? It’s not news to me that my hometown faces economic challenges or that my community is struggling with the grip of opiates on our loved ones, but that isn’t all that comes to mind when I think of home.

For Appalachian communities, we’re no stranger to these stereotypes of poverty in the media beginning with the hordes of journalists that flooded the hollers of Eastern Kentucky in 1964 when President Johnson used the region as a high profile symbol to gain support for his War on Poverty. Images of rickety shacks, coal-dust covered faces of miners, and barely-dressed children flashed on television screens across America.

President Johnson on his 1964 poverty tour. (Cecil Saughton/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

President Johnson on his 1964 poverty tour. (Cecil Saughton/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

What does it mean when our communities have no control over how our stories are told and what images are used to convey them?

In 2009, Eve Tuck, Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at State University of New York published an open letter for communities, researchers and educators to consider long-term results of “damage-centered” research. Speaking of her own Native community in Alaska, she explores the effects on a people when we begin to “think of ourselves as broken”. She takes on the ethics of research and cautions those who do work in disenfranchised communities to reconsider the effect their roles have on these groups. (Tuck, p.422). Referencing communities of color, indigenous people, and those living in poverty, she distinguishes that while research may addresses the social and historical factors that shaped this disparity, without the context of colonization and racism at the forefront, “all we’re left with is the damage”. Tuck suggests that through a framework of desire, communities can recognize our sovereignty and cultivate the vision and wisdom of our communities for a collective movement forward implying damage-centered research stalls progress (Tuck, p. 417)

Rewriting the narrative about Appalachia is not an easy job. We must rethink our roles in research especially when we grapple with the insider/outsider effect and attempt to find solutions for it. We must ask what steps can we can take to ensure a mutually-beneficial goal for both the research and the community it hopes to serve? How can we better work with experts from within the communities to shape the questions we ask? What effects will the data have on our subjects?

But part of rewriting the narrative is letting our communities speak for themselves. We must support the work of people like Roger May, a native of West Virginia, whose work Looking at Appalachia focuses on redefining the images of the region. He accepts submissions from people in the Appalachian region and collectively exhibits these works to portray, more accurately, the cultural richness and complexity that can be found in our home counties.

Tuck’s letter was especially empowering for me to reiterate the importance of increased involvement of Appalachian students and faculty in higher education including leading those research efforts in our own communities. Our complex lives are ones of both damage and desire and who better to tell the story than those of us who have climbed these hills?

Brien Vincent. 6/18/2014. Rural Action Watershed Restoration AmeriCorps member Rand Romas leads a pond study as part of the KEEN summer camp at Lake Hope State Park near McArthur in Vinton County, Ohio.

Brien Vincent. 6/18/2014. Rural Action Watershed Restoration AmeriCorps member Rand Romas leads a pond study as part of the KEEN summer camp at Lake Hope State Park near McArthur in Vinton County, Ohio.

Andrea Morales. 09/03/2014. Jacksonville, Athens County, Ohio Labor Day Parade

Andrea Morales. 09/03/2014. Jacksonville, Athens County, Ohio Labor Day Parade

Stephen Speranza. 3/15/2004. Wilmerding, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

Stephen Speranza. 3/15/2004. Wilmerding, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

Lynaya Elliott is Department Manager for the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She also serves as one of the program leaders for the Community of Appalachian Student Leaders and a co-facilitator for The Appalachian Project. 



Tuck, Eve. “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities.” Harvard Educational Review 79.3 (2009): 409-427.

McGreal, Chris. “America’s Poorest White Town: abandoned by coal, swallowed by drugs.” theguardian.com Guardian US, 12 November 2015. 20 December 2015.


Film Screening of Harlan County USA with Barbara Kopple

Harlan County USA
Wednesday, March 2, 2016 – 6:30pm to 10:00pm
Film/Video Theater, Wexner Center for the Arts
Join us for a screening and discussion of Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), a documentary account of the 1973 strike of Kentucky mine workers. The screening will be followed by a musical performance by David Morris, who provided some of the music for the documentary. Kopple will discuss aspects of documentary film-making as well as her current project,Shelter, which examines homeless veterans and features music by David Morris and his son, Jack Ballangee Morris.

This film documents the 1973 strike of Kentucky mine workers when Duke Power acquired the Eastover Mining Company and refused to honor their union contract in the United Mine Workers union. Kopple photographs the picketing, the company’s use of state troopers and the showdowns between the miners and the strikebreakers during this riveting documentary.


Kopple produced and directed Harlan County USA and American Dream, both winners of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.  In 1991, Harlan County USA was named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and designated an American Film Classic. Harlan County USA was restored and preserved by the Women’s Preservation Fund and the Academy Film Archive, and was featured as part of the Sundance Collection at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005. The Criterion Collection released a DVD of the documentary in 2006.

Kopple has been awarded the Human Rights Watch Film Festival Irene Diamond Award, Los Angeles Film Critics Award, National Society of Film Critics Award, the SilverDocs/Charles Guggenheim Award, New York Women in Film & Television Muse Award, the Maya Deren Independent Film and Video Award, the Woodstock Film Festival Maverick Award, Women in Film & Video of Washington, DC Women of Vision Award, the White House Project’s EPIC Award, the International Documentary Association Career Achievement Award and the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, Filmmakers Trophy & Audience Award.  The Paley Center for Media has named Barbara a 2007 “She Made It Honoree.” She recently served her tenth year on the board of trustees for the American Film Institute and continues as an advisory board member for the American University Center for Social Media and Independent Feature Project’s Filmmaker Labs.  In 2010, Barbara received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from American University.  She is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Director’s Guild of America, New York Women in Film and Television, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and actively participates in organizations that address social issues and support independent filmmaking.

If you require assistance to attend either of these events, please contact Afsane at rezaeisahraei.1@osu.edu.

Student Workshop

Thursday, March 3, 2016 – 10:00am to 12:00pm
The Collaboratory, The Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise
RSVP to Afsane at rezaeisahraei.1@osu.edu if you would like to attend the workshop.

Join us for a student workshop with Barbara Kopple, who will discuss her lengthy career as a documentary filmmaker, focusing especially on the production of Harlan County USA, which documents the 1974 strike of mine workers in Kentucky, and her newest project,Shelter, which focuses on homeless veterans. Kopple will talk with students about creating her own film company, Cabin Creek Films, being a woman in the film industry, the ethics of documenatary filmmaking, and filmmaking as advocacy.

This event is organized by The Appalachian Project, Ohio (a collaboration between the Center for Folklore Studies, the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Student Life’s Department of Social Change), and co-sponsored by the Department of Arts Administration, Education and Policy; Wexner Center for the Arts; Comparative Studies; Film Studies; the Department of English; and the Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise.

Photo courtesy of Criterion Collection at criterion.com

Community of Appalachian Student Leaders

We are excited to recently kick-off our pilot year for the Community of Appalachian Student Leaders program which aims to engage students from the Appalachian region with a community of students, faculty, and staff who are committed to developing academic, professional and leadership skills. This year, we launched the program in September and have a group of 24 students from Ross, Tuscarawas, Morgan, Perry, Gallia, Hocking, Muskingum, Belmont, Guernsey, Floyd County, KY, Jackson, Ashtabula, Pike, and Putnam County, WV.

If you would like to present to our students or wish to participate, please get in touch with the coordinators, Amanda Baker or Lynaya Elliott.



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Welcome! We’d like to invite you to share your research, paper, and/or relevant articles including your personal journey and stories that pertain to the region.

While Ohio State does not have an Appalachian Studies program at this time, our goal is to be able to connect faculty, staff and students with each other to learn about the work each of us are doing in the area. If you’d like to serve as a guest blogger, please contact me at elliott.255@osu.edu for access.

Thanks for your interest in our project!

Photo of Mead Paper factory from lookout point in Chillicothe, Ohio.

Photo of Mead Paper factory from lookout point in Chillicothe, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Lynaya Elliott