For the past 53 years, Dr. Bobby Starnes has been dedicated to empowering every person with whom she works—students, fellow educators and community members—employing relationship building and inclusive dialogue to support their development as participative critical thinkers, lifelong learners and co-creators. That passion earned Dr. Starnes the Appalachian Studies Association’s Cratis D. Williams/James S. Brown Service Award for her exemplary contributions to Appalachia and Appalachian studies.
Dr. Starnes has served at Berea College since 2006, first in the Education Studies department, serving as chair from 2007 to 2015. She then moved to the Appalachian Studies department, where she has become a tireless mentor for white male students from distressed Appalachian counties. Many of these students have difficulty finding their feet at Berea, said Chris Green, director of the Berea’s Loyal Jones Appalachian Center.
This work is part of Berea College’s Male Initiative program that seeks to increase the engagement and quality of the educational experience for first-year male students in various populations. In addition to Starnes’ work with Appalachian students, there are parallel efforts supporting African American and Latinx male students.
“I’ve often told Bobby how during that first year of working with her it was like I was one of our AMI students taking the class myself,” said Rick Childers ’16, an Appalachian Male Initiative program mentor. “Although I’m from the region and graduated from Berea, I didn’t realize what was missing from my understanding of the place I called home. Bobby is able to use the history of our region to help our students make the cognitive leap from Appalachia as merely a place where they’ve grown up into how this place and its people have shaped their communities, their families, and the deeply held personal values that steer the course of their lives.”
Originally from Knott County, Ky., Starnes’ family migrated to Dayton, Ohio, when she was 6 years old. After graduating from Wright State University and teaching elementary school for four years, Starnes founded the Oxford School, a K-8 school in Oxford, Ohio, and served as its director for a decade. The school operated as a true learning community where Starnes emphasized the importance of teaching and learning in the context of student relationships.
In 1986, she brought Appalachia to Harvard. In addition to starting a movie series dedicated to Appalachian topics, she edited issues of Harvard Review of Education and served as book editor, regularly writing and publishing reviews of Appalachian scholarship while completing her graduate degree. At Harvard, she united her own experience as an Appalachian immigrant with studies of multicultural education. In 1987, she conducted research in Cincinnati regarding what public school teachers believed about Appalachian students and how they interacted with and educated them. Her work transformed the way the Urban Appalachian Coalition (UAC) understood how teachers thought about and taught their Appalachian students.
In 1994, Starnes became president of Foxfire, which at that time was a national school reform organization in Georgia focused on community-based education. At Foxfire, she traveled the nation supporting teachers in creating place-based materials relevant to the lives of their students. From there, Starnes taught Chippewa and Cree children on Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana. During her time on the reservation, she published “What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Them: White Teachers, Indian Children.” Between 1998 and 2006, Starnes continued her educational work, primarily serving culturally-diverse populations with teaching, consulting and providing professional educational development to Native Americans, with urban schools in West Philadelphia and Asheville and with rural schools in Appalachia and across the Black Belt.
“Bobby and I discussed how teachers like me, who are white and teaching in places removed from native communities, had few resources and limited background knowledge to implement what was then a new state mandate called Indian Education for All,” recalled Wendy Warren, Berea’s Forestry Outreach Center coordinator and long-time friend of Starnes. “So we decided to do something about it. As a result, Full Circle Curriculum and Materials was born. We knew we were capable of creating classroom-friendly materials, but we also knew the content had to be guided by representatives from tribal nations who would decide how they wanted their own stories told.
“Based on her Appalachian values, when Bobby takes the lead in any group, its members are involved in co-constructing a shared community,” Warren continued.
“All that Bobby does and has done is characterized by meeting her students where they are so that they can eventually take the lead in discovering and building who they are and want to be,” Green added.
Today, Starnes has honed her classes in Appalachian Studies to her core work as an educator. “In class, students come to discern and clarify their own values and history alongside other students as they discover their interconnection and difference,” Green said.
This coming year, Starnes will take a sabbatical and plans to work on a book manuscript tentatively called, “Learning to Act White: Appalachians’ Stories of Assimilation and Resistance in Higher Education.” Her goal is to show educators how to create positive learning environments for Appalachian students, the challenges they face as they experience pressures to conform and assimilate in higher education or the stereotype threats that silence their voices in classrooms. The Cratis D. Williams Service Award was instituted in 1993. It is named for Cratis Williams, who helped pioneer the field of Appalachian studies with his interdisciplinary approach to understanding the cultural life and history of the region. In 2000, the award was renamed to also honor James S. Brown ’37, who devoted a career to understanding community life in eastern Kentucky. Brown’s pioneering studies of the region’s society, demography and migration provided a solid foundation for the field of Appalachian studies