​The Places Project

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer

The way mountain folk are often portrayed in the media can be anything but kind. Margo Shea, a Connecticut-born, Massachusetts-bred Mellon fellow with the Sewanee-Yale Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies, was all too familiar with the stereotypes. And, these are the standards she hoped to reshape with her work.
“The focus of a lot of mountain communities is on what’s wrong with them, and I wanted to change that story. I wanted to showcase the things people in Sewanee are most proud of, and what defines them, made into this beautiful map,” she said. “All of the communities on the Mountain are really characterized by long-standing roots. Sewanee families are legacies. There are people who are the great grandchildren of alumni. I wanted to let people highlight that,” Shea said.
From her work as a Mellon Fellow with the collaborative came “The Places Project: A Crowd-Sourced People’s Map of the South Cumberland Plateau,” which is fueled by the stories of locals about their most-loved “places” around the Mountain.
“I just realized as soon as I arrived that people’s relationships to their places went really deep on the Mountain. I am really interested in getting people to participate in the construction of the identities of their communities, and I hadn’t seen anything like it before,” she said. “I was really intrigued and inspired by people’s connections to their communities. They talked about great grandparents and cemeteries and when they look around their landscape, they see traces of their family. To be able to map, name and place fishing holes and favorite walks really invited folks to rethink their own perspective on what it means to connect to natural beauty.”
Shea’s work was focused around giving locals the chance to tell their own stories—to remove themselves from the narratives written by others and to instead pick up the pen for themselves.
“There is something about being from a small town that makes you very visible and people think they know everything about you. Having the opportunity to narrate your story on your terms to someone who isn’t going to say ‘That’s not how it happened’ is special. A guy told me a story about proposing to his wife at Vespers point and someone said “which wife?” That’s something I didn’t throw in his face because I didn’t know, not being from there. A lot of times people say you can’t do community engagement if you don’t know a community really well,” she said. “I contend that not knowing can also work in your favor as long as you come in knowing you don’t know.”
Anna Summer Noonan, class of 2017, joined the project in its early stages after taking a class with Shea.
“It was after this experience that Dr. Shea reached out to a couple of students and me about the chance to continue working on the project throughout spring semester as an independent study. One aspect of the Places Project that I was really drawn to was the ultimate goal of taking the research back into the community from which it came,” she said. “This is such an important project because it creates a space where all stories of the places around the South Cumberland Plateau can be heard and valued. I am excited to see the permanent exhibit on display and to see the online platform being utilized by community groups and schools.”
Shea said one of her biggest takeaways is noting that special Sewanee magic that seems to be in the air.
“It’s a rare and beautiful thing to be in a place where you feel really confident and sure that if you need help, you will be helped, if you are lonely, you will find someone to be with. It’s not perfect, but I think people step up for each other in a really unique way,” she said.
The Places Project, according to Shea, was designed with its evolution mind—people in the community can add to the map to continue the story.

For more information go to https://www.facebook.com/theplacesproject/.