Appalachian Teaching Project Introduction: Kerry Lyons

Hello everyone! My name is Kerry Lyons, and I was born and raised in “The Electric City” of Scranton, Pennsylvania, with my parents and 4 siblings. I’m in my fourth year at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing a bachelor’s degree as a Political Science and Communication & Rhetoric double-major and History minor, with a focus on U.S. History. Last year, I was the recipient of the 2020 Jennifer & Eric Spiegel Book Award, and I finished 1st Place in the University of Pittsburgh’s Annual Oratory Competition for Public Policy. Outside of the classroom, I am currently an intern for the City of Pittsburgh in the Department of Public Works, as well as a research associate in Harrisburg. I’m also an avid runner, sports fan, and writer, and I spend most of my summers back home as a blueberry farmer.

I was recently selected this semester to be a part of the Appalachia Teaching Project, a research program supported by the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC, to help bring new economic development to communities within Fayette County, particularly the town of Connellsville, Pennsylvania. Over the course of this semester, we will be engaging in community-based research with the assistance of the Fayette County Cultural Trust and other organizations within the county, and we will produce an asset-based assessment of the county that can be used in future research. It is our hope that the work we do over the next three months can help promote economic development to communities throughout the county and build a strong partnership between the University of Pittsburgh and the residents of Fayette County.

I feel deeply connected to this because I have lived in Appalachia for my entire life, and I’ve witnessed the struggles of the region firsthand. Scranton and Lackawanna County faced many of the same challenges as towns like Connellsville. As the flames of industries like coal dimmed during the latter half of the 20th century, towns like Scranton followed suit, suffering through decades of steady economic decline. The railroad lines that frequented Scranton were discontinued, the coal mines and textiles factories closed, and to this day, the town and all those who live there are still feeling the reverberations. While some communities have rebounded, very few—if any—managed to garner and attract the population, businesses, and economic opportunities lost all those years ago. For all the progress my hometown has made, the most common refrain for those who grow up there is still “I’ve got to get out.” If the towns that are supposed to be doing better still face the supposed “brain drain,” what, then, of the towns like Connellsville?

With all this in mind, in order to achieve the goals of the Appalachian Teaching Project, we must also remember that this is not merely about promoting economic growth in Fayette County. For the thousands that live there, this is home. It is about reinvigorating a community and its identity. It’s where families began and grew over many generations, and where many were able to build a life that they are proud of. It may be hard to believe, but that is still possible. I’m proud to be a part of this team because I see a lot of my own hometown in towns like Connellsville, and I hope to contribute to ending the “brain drain” in any way I can.

While I am confident in my own abilities, with experience in research, surveying, and data analysis, I also recognize that this is a tremendous opportunity to learn more. Namely, I’m excited to engage in real, community-engaged research and scholarship. I had previously taken Dr. Kristin Kanthak’s Analysis of American Politics class and had been interested in the concept of community-engaged research as a more effective way of addressing issues that individual communities encounter than a top-down approach that fails to engage problems directly. After all, who better to aid in the research of a place than the people living there, day in and day out? After a long year and a half and months of quarantine, I’m eager to finally get into the field, doing the work I’d always dreamed of doing.

It may seem naïve, but I have always wanted to build a better world than the one I came into. I have found that I am most fulfilled when helping others, and, when combined with a passion for politics and public service, my hope is that I can be a part of that process of creating a better world, no matter how large or small my individual role within that mission may be. If I am helping others, I will be a happy man. I hope to combine everything I have learned in my academic career with everything I have yet to learn from the ATP to aid me in a career dedicated to public service. I look forward to our collaboration with the Fayette County Cultural Trust, the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority, and the many organizations, businesses, and individuals who just want to see their towns prospering again. I’m honored to playing my role in building the foundations for a brighter future for Fayette County.

Also, if you have any questions about blueberry farming, feel free to ask and I’ll talk your ear off about it for an hour or so.

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