Conference to showcase diversity of Appalachia from bluegrass to hip-hop

'We don't have to walk this road by ourselves'
Posted at 3:46 PM, Mar 22, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-24 08:32:04-04

CINCINNATI -- The 41st annual Appalachian Studies Association conference is coming to Cincinnati, and it’s full of events and activities that probably don’t come to mind when you think of Appalachia.

Sure, there will be bluegrass music and a documentary film about the American Quilt Barn Trail.

But the conference, called “Re-stitching the Seams: Appalachia Beyond Its Borders,” also will have an Appalachian hip-hop event at Elementz in Over-the-Rhine and an Appalachian drag show at Below Zero Lounge on Walnut Street.

Debbie Zorn

“We want to dispel the myths that Appalachia is a singular culture, because it isn’t,” said conference chair Debbie Zorn, a retired University of Cincinnati administrator whose grandparents are from Morgan County in Eastern Kentucky. “Appalachians are as diverse as all other Americans are.”

The conference aims to show off that diversity to the more than 1,000 regional, national and international scholars, educators, activists and artists that are expected to attend the event April 5-8. Community Day on April 7will be open to Greater Cincinnati residents, who can register for free to attend events and discussions on that day.

Plenty of locals have reason to want to attend. Nearly 40 percent of Greater Cincinnati residents have roots that can be traced to the Appalachian region, which follows the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi.

That means the Tri-State’s population of urban Appalachian migrants and descendants is even larger than the population of southeastern Kentucky, according to the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, which planned the conference.

Omope Carter Daboiku said she hopes they will visit the conference to learn more about themselves and their heritage.

Omope Carter Daboiku

“If somebody out of this has an epiphany and understands better who they are and why they were put on this earth to live this lifetime, that would be chocolate fudge on my ice cream,” said Daboiku, a storyteller of Appalachian descent who is local arrangements chair for the conference. “I want people to walk away realizing they have advocates that don’t sound like them and don’t look like them, but there are resources for them.”

Building on strengths

Cincinnati’s Lower Price Hill neighborhood will be among the communities showcased during the conference.

The neighborhood nonprofit Community Matters will present during the conference and also will lead tours through the neighborhood, which has a long history of being an urban Appalachian community.

“It’s really going to be a unique way to showcase the neighborhood and its history and really talk about modern-day issues that are facing urban Appalachians,” said Mary Delaney, executive director of Community Matters.

Delaney has heard the stereotypes about urban Appalachians -- that they are racist or close-minded or only stick to their own communities.

Mary Delaney

But anyone who believes that, she said, has it all wrong.

“Really, urban Appalachians are very community-focused, not very individualistic,” Delaney said. “So family and community is kind of the central unit of how we kind of operate.”

Delaney said Community Matters will focus its presentations and tours on the neighborhood’s strengths.

“When you’re a poor community, usually that’s the only thing people label you as,” she said. “You don’t really get to see the people that are in the community then because you’re focused on that label you already have.”

Community Matters will talk about how its community development efforts focus on building up the people who already live in Lower Price Hill based on the strengths they have.

The organization will be presenting on April 7, and Delaney said she hopes local residents will attend the conference to learn more.

That’s what Zorn and Daboiku said they are hoping for, too.

The Washing Well is a project of Community Matters in Lower Price Hill.

“I have learned a lot about myself in this process,” said Daboiku, who grew up in Ironton, Ohio, and lived in Cincinnati for 30 years before moving to Dayton. “We don’t have to walk this road by ourselves locked up in the confusion of our own mind.”

The 2018 Appalachian Studies Association conference, “Re-stitching the Seams: Appalachia Beyond Its Borders,” will be held April 5-8 at the Millennium and Hyatt Hotels in downtown Cincinnati. To get free attendance for the daytime activities on Community Day April 7, Greater Cincinnati residents must pre-register by March 26. Information, including how to register for Community Day, is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to To reach her, email Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.