Two journalism professors at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media will lead a series of collaborative community events throughout Appalachia to explore voting rights and engage young people in democratic processes with the support of a $300,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation.
Dana Coester and Joel Beeson have a 20-year track record of working with key community members — faith leaders, veterans, educators, parents, youth and civic leaders — throughout Appalachia, specifically in West Virginia. These relationships will be the bedrock of a series of nonpartisan virtual and in-person workshops, presentations, panels and screening events that will help build community resilience to off- and online disinformation, manipulation and political violence threatening election integrity and community stability.
Coester and Beeson’s goals include developing community pride and learning regional histories as part of helping young voters understand the importance of informed, civic engagement with democratic processes. They also hope to foster collaboration between communities and academia that furthers trust in local institutions.
Beeson said this engaged scholarship will look at the region’s longstanding issues from a new perspective.
“Appalachia has had a lot of research done on it as a subject and this project isn’t that,” he said. “It centers community members’ cultural knowledge, history and lived experiences in addressing the real challenges a generation of young people face as they are beginning to define their civic lives.”
Much of West Virginia’s population has suffered shared generational trauma, in part due to the long decline of extractive industries and population loss, compounded by the opioid epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, many residents harbor a well-founded mistrust toward government, institutions and leaders that have failed to support them. This skepticism can lead to a susceptibility to manipulation and the spread of disinformation which, in turn, can result in voter suppression and intimidation, the researchers believe.
Coester and Beeson said they hope to address Generation Z’s experiences and perspectives on their roles, rights and access to democratic processes. Young people who spend time online are exposed to sophisticated mis- and disinformation.
“Young people are experiencing their world like no other generation before them and the technology generation gap is accelerating divides,” Coester said, adding that the solution is not as simple as reducing access to technology. The researchers want to connect with young people about how their online culture affects their view of democracy and their place in it.
“We would never ask young people to get off their phones. But we do ask them to consider all the ways that technology shapes their civic lives and the way that democracy takes shape around them. We want young Appalachians to be influencing how that plays out in their tech spaces, not the other way around.”
Through oral history and other non-traditional sources, the nonpartisan discussions will utilize empathy and deep listening to reach across divides in race, religion, class and politics. However, the process will come with challenges. In addition to the existing divide between residents’ attitudes and politics, rural West Virginia itself creates physical barriers to connection and peer-to-peer networking. The state’s rural nature and the distance between communities make travel and convening difficult.
The researchers’ focus will be on re-engaging communities that may lack connection with academic and formal humanities activities but whose lives and expertise are rich with humanities-based knowledge. They hope their efforts will result in increased participation and engagement in the 2024 election cycle both on local and national levels.
“When we work with young people, they don’t necessarily have a shared understanding of what ‘democracy’ means — and why would they?” Beeson said. “This project asks young people to engage deeply with history as a first step in defining their own and their community’s futures through democratic processes.”
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, founded in 1969, awards grants in four core program areas including Arts and Culture, Higher Learning, Humanities in Place and Public Knowledge. The 2022 Higher Learning Call for Concepts was open to all accredited, non-profit, four-year degree-granting institutions and focused specifically on civic engagement and voting rights, race and racialization in the United States and social justice and the literary imagination. Of the 280 submissions, Coester and Beeson’s proposal was one of 26 to receive funding.