"What images first come to mind when you hear the word “Appalachia”? No, really. The first image?
One of the things I like to do in a group setting, particularly with students, is run through this exercise. I explain that there is no right or wrong answer. It always starts slowly. Not a peep from anyone. Inevitably, someone mentions coal. Then bluegrass. After a few minutes and some steady coaxing, we get down to the nitty-gritty. Incest. Trailers. Mountain Dew. Lazy. Uneducated. Now we’re talking. After compiling a list of a dozen or so of these visual cues, everyone seems to breathe a sigh of relief when it registers that they’re not alone in their answers. Nearly everyone thinks these things, but to say them out loud? That can be frightening. My next question is to ask what about these cues are unique to Appalachia or can they be found in other places in America. One by one, we all agree that not a single stereotype listed can be ascribed solely to Appalachia. So why is it then that we’ve come to associate them so strongly?"May points out that many of the very well meaning New Deal and Progressive Era images of staggering poverty have stuck in the global imagination.
"Those images often represented the poorest parts of the area — to muster support for their intended cause — but unjustly came to present the entirety of the region while simultaneously perpetuating stereotypes.
So, what is it about these stereotypes, these visual triggers that are immediately conjured up when Appalachia is referenced? And how can we retrain our thinking and seeing?"How have these stereotypes perpetuated the very poverty they aimed to fight? Brain Surgery and robotics in Pittsburgh is as much part of the "Appalachian Story" as poverty in Logan County, West Virginia.
50 years after the "War on Poverty", May aims to crowdsource a more complex and realistic picture of a vast area- that includes the entire Pittsburgh metro.