ACRI 2023

Hi! My name is Moses Lemann, and I’m majoring in Urban Studies and Political Science. Something unique about me is that I’m blind in one eye and have been since birth. Obviously, that sounds like a massive disability, and it is I guess, but I don’t see it that way. To me, it’s just a different way of seeing the world. That why I mention it as my “unique thing” as per the prompt for this blog post- I don’t think there are very many people who see the world like me, literally. Is that a positive reframing of a core trauma that is more narrative than truth? Maybe, but it’s what I’ve been telling myself for the last 15 or so years, and I think this narrative of seeing the world a little differently has become a core part of who I am. Hopefully I can take that and apply it metaphorically to this project as well.

So what is ACRI and why should anyone care? The ACRI project comes from a problem facing the Appalachian region in general: brain drain. Those Appalachians who receive college degrees are often quick to migrate out of the region. The ARC wanted to change this, while also having another avenue for supporting local communities. ACRI is that solution. College students are trained in applied research by directly participating in the development of Appalachian localities, which also hopefully will create lasting connections between the students and the communities. I also think it’s an important project for a completely other reason. Working directly in distressed rural regions adds a valuable counterbalance to the life of academia that students lead. For the students, this program gives them an opportunity to take what they are learning outside of theory and see what holds up and what doesn’t. My big hope for this project is that the students walk away from it knowing that they have made an actual difference in the lives of real people, instead of walking away with a grade, like we usually do. For the community we’re engaging in, I would hope that they walk away feeling empowered that these young people are so motivated to help their community reach its full potential. A lot of what these communities are fighting is a sense of hopelessness. If they see that we care, maybe they’ll care more too.

I want to go into urban development, so the connection from that to this project is obvious. What’s also obvious is that urban development and rural development deal with very different sets of problems. I’ve spent the last three years focusing on the problems of urban development, to the point that perhaps I’m becoming a little rigid in my thinking on development overall. I’m hoping this project will force me to confront my assumptions about development, and to field test my own ideas on what works and doesn’t work that I’ve been percolating on for the last 3 years. For example, I’ve found that many of the academics before me whose work I read talk down on their subjects, or at least didn’t really explain what it is they were after when they are trying to find best method of development. For example- how do you deal with people who want manufacturing and industry back in Appalachia, when that’s clearly not going to happen in any meaningful way. Instead of skirting around the subject, or “gently reframing” as they call it in development world, I want to see what happens if you are just straight up and honest. What would happen if you told these people what the academics would say about bringing manufacturing back (albeit with all jargon translated)? I suspect it might go better than most other people would suspect. For people who are used to being promised big and then let down, maybe bluntness will be refreshing. At least they’re not being lied to. Frankly, it’s the same ethos Donald Trump used to win the 2016 election, just not directed towards the same things. I’m hoping that a combination of honesty and empathy will strengthen the connection between the developer and the resident, and I hope to use this opportunity to strengthen this combination.

But that’s not why I’m here, these are things I’ve come to realize since coming onto the project. There’s a couple of reasons I joined this project in the first place. The first is that I’m a fan of Dr. Glass, so when he mentioned he was doing this as a sort of extension of his Appalachian Regionalism class I was interested in that regard. The second reason is that since moving to Pittsburgh I’ve seen how much Appalachia shapes the culture of this city. When my dad dropped me off here, I remember he told me “Moses, a lot of people are going to be arguing around you about whether Pittsburgh is on the East Coast or part of the Mid-West. It’s neither, because it’s the capital of Appalachia.” That has stuck with me as a truism for the last three years, and I’ve greatly enjoyed my time in the capital of Appalachia, and I’m interested in seeing some of the rest of it. The third reason is because of where I’ve lived before Pittsburgh. I’m from Manhattan, but before coming to the University of Pittsburgh I lived for a few years in rural Montana, which piqued my interest in rural development. The area I was in was experiencing a massive influx of people from California, so the development issues were wildly different, but many of the structural elements were the same. I view the research aspect of this work as a continuation of what I was doing, perhaps without even knowing I was doing it, in Montana. For too long and for too many there’s been these two different worlds, the rural and the urban, and they have not understood each other. I know from having lived it that people from rural areas often make vast generalizations about me based on my urban background, and frankly I’ve done the same about their rural backgrounds. But when you get to know these people, there’s actually a lot I can learn from them, and they can learn from me. That exchange has been one of the most meaningful parts of my life, and I’d like to continue it.

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