On October 14th we visited Fayette county for the first time as a cohort. I had never conducted field research in this way before, and wasn’t entirely sure where to start when we first stepped off that Pitt van. I knew a great deal about the region, its history and unique qualities from my class, but the interviews I conducted that day and the conversations I had really informed my understanding of Connellsville and Uniontown in a way that academic writing could never. Over the course of the weekend in Fayette County, we split our time between Connellsville and Uniontown. Last year’s cohort completed a lot of asset mapping in Connellsville, and it was our task this year to expand on that, and venture into Uniontown.
After meeting with Dan and Michael who run the Fayette County Cultural Trust, and getting a deeper understanding of the community of Connellsville, I went with a few of my colleagues to talk to a woman named Brenda who works in Marlene’s Corner Bar and Grill. Let me tell you, she makes the best grilled cheese I have ever tasted, and she was a huge help in understanding the town’s history. We talked about the decline of the coal industry with her, as well as the struggles they have faced due to COVID 19. She also spoke about the opioid crisis and how it impacts her life and those around her. The opioid crisis was not just something that Brenda spoke about. After speaking with Brenda we went next door to the VFW and met John, a Vietnam War Vet whose family has been in Connellsville for decades. He told us that his biggest accomplishment in life was raising two kids drug free in Fayette county, and you could hear the pain in his voice as he said this—the poison being peddled to kids is holding the community back.
In Connellsville, the crew I was walking around with also had the chance to interact with the Mayor, Greg Lincoln. We had heard really great things about him from community members, and were impressed by the various community engagement initiatives he has been spearheading. Some of the great assets of Connellsville include natural resources and rich history, but most importantly, their sense of community and pride in it. While the region is a victim of the brain drain and that is something they are actively fighting, there are so many people who either stay or come back later in life because of their sense of belonging and community. Harnessing that pride is not an easy thing to do, and Mayor Lincoln has done an excellent job with this.
When my group traveled over to Uniontown, we did a small business walk and traveled along the main street popping in and out of businesses and asking some basic questions about how they were doing; if the pandemic has impacted them and what types of initiatives the government is engaged in to promote the local businesses and boost the economy. We observed that there was a strong sense of community pride as there was in Connellsville, but it was more fragmented. There was a strong desire on the part of the business owners to work with the city government to promote all of the local businesses and have a more central place for tourists to find them. Following the business walk we had dinner with the Mayor who expressed similar concerns for the town. He also expressed a willingness to work with us to implement suggestions or proposals we would ultimately craft.
That led us to one of the deliverables that I helped to spearhead: the Celebrate Uniontown proposal. The Celebrate Uniontown Proposal is a multifaceted approach to increasing community engagement, promoting local businesses, increasing economic activity and giving students the opportunity to connect and work with local government.
As someone with experience in the communications field and with community engagement, I saw a need for this from our fieldwork and felt a desire to construct a plan. People expressed enthusiasm for an increase in community engagement in Uniontown and this was something our group had the proper experience in to make happen.
This proposal outlines several suggestions for Uniontown based on interviews and other data collected. These all serve to improve the existing community. This report is part of a 10-year research partnership between the University of Pittsburgh and the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Eight undergraduate students at Pitt’s Frederick Honors College compiled this proposal.
This spring I plan to work with the Mayor of Uniontown and the Fayette County Cultural Trust to begin to implement some of these initiatives as part of our continued commitment to the region. When we went back to present our proposal to the community, there was excitement surrounding the various engagement opportunities and strategies we proposed. I look forward to continuing this work and partnership next semester.
While I find enjoyment from learning in a classroom setting, I find extreme fulfillment from being able to break outside the walls of a classroom or outside of a textbook and learn things first hand and meet new people. This experience has been so unique, rewarding and engaging, and I am elated to continue the work and begin to implement some of these recommendations in the spring. I also truly enjoyed the interdisciplinary aspect of this honors course. Being that our cohort was comprised of Sustainability, Urban Studies and Political Science students, we all had different perspectives and brought different things to the table. This was really valuable and helped us create a well rounded proposal.
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