Meet Fahe’s Research Director, Katy Stigers

appalachia, Research | November 18, 2019

Fahe is a multifaceted organization that impacts the lives of thousands of people every year with a variety of services and millions in investments into Appalachia.  To achieve our mission effectively, we gather and utilize data from our projects, Members, and the communities we serve.  Our research helps Fahe in important decision making and provides valuable insight to our Members, partners, and funders.

Katy Stigers, Fahe’s Research Director, plays a vital role in the process of how we collect, access, and share qualitative and quantitative data.  Stigers fell in love with Appalachia while she pursued her bachelor’s degree at King College (now King University) in Bristol, TN.  She then went on to earn an MA in Urban Affairs at Saint Louis University, with course work including planning, public policy, and evaluation research.  Stigers also received additional graduate studies in research methods and political science while attending Emory University as a doctoral student.  Stigers eventually found her way back to Appalachia and has now built a life and career in the region. 

The research Stigers conducts, and the information she able to access, is used to support our Members and document the needs and changes taking place in Appalachia. Recently, Stigers sat down for an interview to discuss her role as Research Director and share about her experiences. Here is a portion of that interview:

What does your job entail?

My job is to take a perspective on Fahe’s work that helps us document our impact through numbers and stories. We want to know how much we’re doing and how much is changing. We also want to know why it matters to people and places, and we want to talk about how communities have been able to improve conditions for their residents. If we can find a way to track what they’re doing, then we can do it well in other places too.

What do your day to day activities look like?

Every day is really different. Some days I’m working with other people at Fahe to collect numbers of people who served or figure out what dollars we leveraged. Some days I’m using that data to create maps or charts to visualize the impact of our work. Other days, I might be interviewing staff at a Member organization, and listening to a local leader talk about how things go from being really intangible, like a loan product or an investment package, and how those turn into opportunities for their neighbors.

Even though everyday can be really different, I’m always trying to take what we’re doing and present it in a way people outside our region can understand it. We want them to see that we’re approaching our work in a rigorous way and that the investments people are making matters.

I have also been working with others to do that because research skills also rely on subject matter knowledge. I’m, by far, not an expert in everything. That’s what you learn as you become more of an expert in one area. You realize how little you know about others. So, I’ve been trying to build partnerships with other people in research, and other scholars, who can bring their own expertise to our communities and our region.

How has your background in communication and development shaped your career as a researcher?

Because I’ve spent a number of years in my career doing communications and fundraising work, I have the ability to take what could be very abstract, or even obscure, and make it more concrete and understandable for the public. That’s probably what I like most about my job. I have the opportunity to take something really complicated, like a methodology, and then drill down into our data to try and make it something that anybody can care about. If I can help someone understand that bringing more investment into Appalachia is going to make a difference, that’s what I want to try to do. I think my previous experiences have really helped me to develop that skill.

Why is conducting research in Appalachia important?

Rural areas are understudied in some disciplines, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s hard to get data here. It’s hard to get some kinds of quantitative information about what’s happening because our population is less dense. We have fewer people in general. With that in mind, we have to look at things on a different level of geography, and the opportunity to do research here requires a lot more painstaking effort. However, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, and there’s still a lot of important things to learn. We have an opportunity through our Members to collect information others have potentially overlooked or have not been able to access. Fahe can collect that information and help lower the barriers to scholarship.

Why can it be more difficult to conduct research in Appalachia?

Our geography is one of the things that has always been challenging throughout the history of the region. It makes it a little bit harder to get places. You have to go little bit farther and travel a little longer to get where you need to be.

Also, working in the non-profit sector, we simply have to recognize that our Members, the people that are doing the work on the ground, are incredibly busy. It costs them a lot of valuable time to step aside and either collect data from their archives, give time for an interview, or conduct a focus group. We need to make sure what we’re doing adds value to their work. It has to be a two way street—and a partnership. We don’t want to take information from our members, or from other people working in the nonprofit sector, and have it end up in something that wouldn’t be useful.

We have a real obligation to make our work actionable. Fahe is special because we have such a strong relationship with people on the ground—those who are locally based leaders and are practicing community development.

We have to be a bridge between practice and scholarship. It’s not a problem, but it’s a challenge because we have to walk the line between doing rigorous work and making sure it’s not too abstract for people to use. It’s a balancing act.

In Appalachia, what are the common trends being seen in the research that’s being conducted?

Research on the social determinants of health is very important because of the way we’ve suffered from the opioid epidemic. Fahe’s work is at the intersections of things like housing, community development, job opportunities, and health access. There’s a lot of opportunity to look at how we’re trying to bring solutions to the area and see kind of what works and what is working better than other things.

There’s not just what we’re doing, but what a lot of other people are doing in the field of public health is related to that. Things like energy efficiency, improving the quality and safety of housing, and how that impacts health is another important area of research.

There are other scholars who are looking at how supportive services, which are attached to housing, can make a difference for people and where they live. It helps them stay in the region long term if they don’t have to leave to get an education or get recovery support services. If their families, and themselves, can receive access to housing + treatment, or housing + education, or housing + child care + education, there isn’t a need to relocate.

Another thing we’re seeing is we haven’t recovered from the recession. We haven’t recovered from the housing crisis, so we have aging housing stock. We also have a limited supply of folks in the trades who can build housing and keep those costs down and make it affordable. A lot of people understand the housing affordability crisis in big cities and on the coast, but we are also having a housing crisis in our rural areas and in Appalachia. A lot of it’s related to affordable supply. There’s a philanthropy gap in rural areas and cities, particularly in coastal cities. We’ve fallen behind because we don’t have the same level of resources. There’s definitely interest in how, in spite of that, the social fabric of these rural communities is really what allows them to punch above their weight. That’s something unique and powerful that these areas can definitely teach more resourced areas.

What do you feel like your biggest win or accomplishment has been so far?

Getting the chance to meet as many of the Members as I have, learning about how many really awesome projects that need to be documented are out there. In terms of materials we’ve put out, there was a housing issues memo distributed to the Members in the early summer, late spring. They seemed to really value the information, and that was great because providing that is one of the most important things I can do. Being able to do work they don’t have time to do for themselves and help collect data that I can compile into something concise and relatable is vital. That brief information will help them to do their work better, and that the fact we can offer that to them, is a win.   

Research Pieces

Below you can find several pieces Katy Stigers has authored during her time at Fahe: