Last weekend, our ACRI cohort traveled to Fayette County to explore community assets in Connellsville and Uniontown. We were able to meet with incredibly engaged community members, all of which were passionate about both the businesses they ran and the individuals that their businesses supported. The CBA, sustainability, urban studies and political science groups spent the days working on their own initiatives and reconvened at several points throughout the weekend, mostly for meals and s’mores by the fire.
The community-based research we conducted throughout the trip has transformed the business cohort’s direction for the rest of the project. Our main deliverables now include compiling a list of trainings that will be most effective for generating educational initiatives and entrepreneurship workshops within Fayette County. In order to deliver something this semester at the Appalachian Regional Conference, the business cohort will construct an Etsy training with the primary purpose of making ecommerce accessible to existing small businesses in the local community. We are currently awaiting responses from the community leaders we spoke to throughout our visit, but based on the conversations conducted in-person, the business cohort identified grant writing, marketing, social media, Word, Excel, professional development, history classes, and job application workshops as a primary need. We plan to outline beginner, intermediate and advanced level courses for all programs allowing content delivery to be tailored to different audiences within Fayette County.
One highly opportunistic area our group identified was the possibility of preserving history for a new generation through the employment of technology. While speaking to visitors at the Canteen for lunch, it was brought to my attention that Fayette has the necessary technology to implement true innovative change, but currently lacks the expertise to engage the community with modern tools. Through the workshops we identify and outline throughout this semester, I hope that Fayette County residents can learn how to use their resources to the fullest extent. While speaking to community members, it was clear that everyone was incredibly proud of Fayette County’s history and the role that town members played in World War II. Almost every young man in the region left home to fight in the war, and women worked 24 hours a day to provide food to soldiers passing through the town on trains. Older generations fear that this pride will be lost among younger generations. In order to preserve history and local culture, Fayette County history workshops that are tailored to appeal to a younger audience (through technology) will bring great satisfaction to residents of all ages.
What surprised me most about the visit was the diversity of opinions among community members. The Appalachian Collegiate Research Initiative is my first interaction with community-based research. The professors explained that strong diversity of opinion is normal- but I found it highly unusual in a seemingly united and close-knit town like Connellsville and Uniontown. While walking through the towns and speaking to members of the community, I heard many different perspectives. Many small business owners were incredibly optimistic about economic development (optimism seemed to be largely concentrated in Connellsville), but some were surprisingly pessimistic about the true impact of our project and whether or not individuals would actually attend workshops. While disappointing to hear, this raw perspective was incredibly important. It ultimately identified the business cohort’s need to fully engage the community in order to generate sustainable change.
Based on the conversations I had throughout my first visit to Fayette County, I believe that it is critical to conduct community outreach research in order to optimize the effects of the workshops. Identifying community needs and creating educational content will be useless if we cannot successfully increase the likelihood of local attendance. I believe that over the 10 years of the research initiative, trust will inevitably be built between the University of Pittsburgh and residents of Fayette County, and I hope that a culture of credibility and inclusivity allows individuals from this region to find success. I believe that over time, the Entrepreneurship Center and educational workshops hosted there will be viewed as an opportunity for personal and professional growth, experimentation, and economic empowerment for community members.