Abstract: Connecting to the Big Picture: Making Meaning of the Choice to Stay in Appalachian Kentucky (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

707P Connecting to the Big Picture: Making Meaning of the Choice to Stay in Appalachian Kentucky

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jeanelle Sears, PhD, Research Manager, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY
Lesley Harris, MSW, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY
Thomas Lawson, Professor, University of Louisville, KY
Background and Purpose

Appalachian Kentucky has faced persistent youth outmigration for many decades. This is sometimes referred to as ‘brain drain given that desires for educational attainment drive youth out of rural communities and limit their opportunities for return. Many communities are interested in understanding how to mitigate or even reverse this phenomenon, yet most research focuses on those who leave. In contrast, this study explored the experiences of college educated Millennials who deliberately stayed in the region and were working toward economic, social, and environmental progress therein. Using illustrative diagrams and exemplar quotes, this poster will share their responses to the question: How do you make meaning of your decision to stay and work toward positive change?



In-depth interviews were conducted with 30 young adults and supplemented with participant observation activities and document review focused on contextual issues being faced in the region. Data were coded using Constructivist Grounded Theory techniques. The analysis was also aided by memo writing, constant comparison, diagramming, situational analysis, and member checking. In the later stages of the analysis, data were managed and analyzed using Dedoose™, a password protected, web based data analysis program.


Connecting to the big picture was co-constructed by the primary researcher and participants to reflect how meaning was made of their commitments to Appalachian Kentucky. This category is comprised of two properties. First, scaling up and down refers to the way young Appalachians saw connections between personal and local challenges and those experienced at other levels, including nationally and internationally. This property has a range of dimensions then from the micro to the macro level. Second, reflecting across time encompasses how younger Appalachians also drew upon time to make meaning of their experiences in the region. The dimensions of this property include the past, present, and the future. By scaling up and down and reflecting across time simultaneously, participants activated a mixed set of meaning making mechanisms; constructing meaning interpersonally, relationally, and in exchange with structural and abstract components of their environments.


Conclusions and Implications

This study suggests that the process of meaning making shapes young adults’ commitments in one’s work and of one’s sustainability in place. Given the difficulty in recruiting and retaining social workers for rural practice, it is important to consider the implications this has for social work education and practice. One suggestion is to create more opportunities in our curriculum and our organizations to explicitly facilitate meaning making across time and space, as indicated here. Existing literature suggests that meaning making is an important component of increasing empathy, expanding relationships, and exchanging creative ideas toward the goals of sustainability and justice. Thus, this aim fits with our ethical and professional goals toward justice and toward local goals of recruiting and retaining young adults for meaningful work and livelihoods in distressed communities.