Appalachian Teaching Project Introduction: Julia Ferri

My name is Julia Ferri and I am in my third year at the University of Pittsburgh as a political science and urban studies double-major working towards the Arabic Language and Linguistics certificate. I originally hail from a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., but also proudly stake the claim to my Italian citizenship—my father came to the U.S. from Pontassieve (a town in Tuscany just outside of Florence) in the 1980s. I am the Music Director of C Flat Run, an a cappella group at Pitt, as well as Vice President of Pitt’s chapter of the urban studies honor society, Upsilon Sigma. Additionally, I am grateful to have been awarded the Summer 2021 and 2021-2022 Academic Year Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships through Pitt’s European Studies Center to study Arabic language and its relationship with European area studies. The cornerstone of each of these facets of my identity is culture. Its essential nature to the identity and capacity of a community has been a significant driving force for my interest in working on the Appalachian Teaching Project.

I am honored to have been selected this semester to take part in the Appalachian Teaching Project (ATP), a research program funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission dedicated to supporting bottom-up economic and community development across Appalachia. The ATP team at Pitt is working in conjunction with the Fayette County Cultural Trust, an organization based in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, toward implementing an asset-based methodology in order to foster development and revitalization in Fayette County by building upon its existing resources. As a result of these efforts, the ATP team hopes to mitigate some of the “brain drain” that the Appalachian region has seen since the onset of deindustrialization.

For much of the United States’ history in policymaking, the processes of effective economic development have been largely misunderstood or misrepresented, with heavy-handed, top-down approaches influencing U.S. economic development policy both domestically and abroad. Therefore, this project is of especial importance to me as a student of political science and urban studies because it gives this team a salient role in developing and strengthening the partnerships necessary to support public participation and empower a sense of ownership for the residents of this region in their community’s redevelopment. In effect, the goal of the ATP is to engender capacity building and employ culturally sensitive procedures to ensure endogenous, sustainable development to last beyond the span of a single semester. My intention in working on this project is not only to assist in fortifying the partnership between the University of Pittsburgh and Fayette County, but also to serve as a model for the significance and efficacy of an asset-based, people-centric approach to economic and urban development.

The ATP stood out to me as a project which is pertinent not only to my personal and academic development, but even more so as an opportunity to realize the theory I have studied in the classroom as tangible, lasting positive impacts that will improve the quality of life for a local community. In the previous semester, I was fortunate enough to work on a community-oriented project for one of my urban studies courses alongside the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning and under the direction of Dr. Michael Glass to engage in action research for the development and enhancement of Pittsburgh’s digital infrastructure. Through this project, I was able to activate the principles of participatory research and the creation of partnerships in pursuit of reflective praxis. In other words, I maintained continuous communication with community stakeholders while also reflecting on my  intentions, roles, and implicit biases in undertaking the project. 

The final outcome of this semester project was only part of its reward. In a society where performance and output tend to supersede practice and process, focusing on the internal plan and its foundation in turn supported a more intentional, pragmatic view of the work I accomplished. Rather than attempting to quantitatively measure every effort made towards urban growth and development, I cultivated a more holistic perspective of the project’s value. This type of revaluation leads to a more productive and positive outlook on the ability of individuals to assemble for a larger, common cause. As applied to the ATP, I believe this type of efficacy will not only improve the quality of our output, but ensure that the process itself also positively impacts the community we are working with.

Through working with the ATP, I intend to reinforce the broader concepts of participatory research and community-engaged scholarship, as well as hone more specific skills such as data collection and visualization, as well as meaningful data analysis. I also hope to expand and contextualize my knowledge of culture as a force for positive change so that I am able to continue this type of work beyond the limits of this semester. I am fortunate that the long-term scope of this project creates additional opportunities for my efforts to be continually improved and expanded upon by future participants as part of a steadily visible, greater objective.

It is also perhaps worth noting that my personal affinity for the culture and community of Appalachia—partially due to my hometown’s proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains—played no small part in propelling my interest in this project. I believe Appalachia has great potential to become a renewed focal point in the American imagination not only for its plentiful physical and natural assets, but equally for its intangible assets.

Culture sits at the confluence of every discipline that I study. Its centrality in forging diplomatic relations, driving urbanization and development, and contextualizing language study positions it as the common denominator of effecting positive change and growth. The foundation for my future career plans comprises continually reflecting on culture’s importance from every angle of approach. A primary goal of mine is working with public and private-sector organizations with a vested interest in cultural diplomacy—the exchange of art and culture is one of the most universal ways to build bridges and create unity. With my continued study of foreign languages, I intend to mobilize them as opportunities to further connect and relate with individuals and organizations across global communities. Additionally, I hope to be able to promote arts and culture in contemporary placemaking and redevelopment through interdisciplinary and community-oriented work with the Department of City Planning. Working on the ATP team provides me with a chance to focus these aspirations on a community in which a substantial framework for culture-oriented growth already exists. In uplifting culture’s importance among the other necessary vehicles for development, the ATP research team can capitalize on what is perhaps Fayette County’s most invaluable and foundational asset.

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