On Friday, December 3, fifty High Country residents gathered for the Second Community Town Hall to address the negative impacts of Appalachian State’s growth and management. The discussion was hosted by the Appalachian Climate Action Collaborative and the App State chapter of the American Association of University Professors in response to community demand at a similar event at the Watauga Public Library on October 27.
In her opening remarks, Climate Action Collaborative organizer Sarah Sandreuter said the goal of the Town Hall was to begin uniting the diverse initiatives that are working separately right now to improve regional well-being, including the Watauga Housing Forum, Immigration Justice Coalition, Black at App State, Black in Boone, Climate Transition Blue Ridge, student mental health and LGBTQ+ justice advocates, as well as individual efforts from residents throughout Watauga, Ashe, and Avery Counties. “How can we join forces?” she asked. “How can we learn to listen to one another and take on each other’s struggles as our common struggle, so that we can gain the strength to change this place for the better?”
Participants then divided into small groups to identify the largest problems linked to the university, and to brainstorm solutions. The problems identified ranged from unaffordable housing to food insecurity, job loss, racial discrimination, and even the university’s decisions to bring 20,000 students to the region during a pandemic.
The facilitators described Friday’s conversation as a beginning, with extensive community consultation to follow. However, some of the proposed solutions included capping university enrollment, redirecting student fees away from athletics and debt payments, requiring Appalachian studies and community service as part of every degree, changing regulations on short term home rentals, better managing New River Light and Power to benefit ratepayers and encourage solar energy, and changing the composition of the Board of Trustees so it includes community members, staff, faculty, and students.
App State alumna Hannah Cullen said afterward, “It was disheartening to hear stories about the endless attempts to go through the school’s systems of democracy and the countless blocks they hit with no changes made. The lack of accessibility for the locals to communicate with Appstate is ridiculous. But it was also heartwarming to hear and feel the excitement in the room when we brainstormed possible solutions and turned shaking heads into slow nods as we talked about next steps. It’s clear that if our community gets together, we can have so much power.”
To follow up, ClimAct organizers are convening a steering committee so a broader group of community leaders can begin planning additional conversations and actions.