Alice Beecher - Justice in the Just Transition

               At the recent AppFellows regional gathering in Benham, KY, after spending the day scheming, dreaming, and arguing over what it means to create a “just transition” in the Appalachian economy, we emerged from the conference room to visit the Kentucky Coal Mine Museum. At the Coal Mine Museum, we heard two former UMWA miners talk about their experiences both fighting for the union and fighting against mountain top removal. Then, climbing up a narrow flight of stairs to the roof of the museum, we were met with a fleet of solar panels glistening in the early mountain sunset. This image, which has been both ridiculed and celebrated by pundits commenting on the irony of installing such “green infrastructure” on a museum dedicated to the history of the infamous fossil fuel, illustrates the complexity of the regional debate around “Just Transition.”. According to a PSA about the project I heard on the radio, the solar panels were installed mostly to save money on utility costs, not to make a political point.  But the image made me wonder— if the coal industry is fading regardless of political intervention, and people in Appalachia are forced to consider economic alternatives regardless of their personal ideologies, does it matter whether or not our communities and our allies agree with our views? Additionally, to what degree does the mainstream media erase nuances in Appalachian political thought, making the installation of solar panels on a coal museum so surprising to outsiders?

               I have met many retired miners who are both dedicated friends of coal and fighters of mountain top removal. That “contradictory” stance comes from deeply felt economic realities, and represents a positionality I wish more of our political leaders would respect. The danger, however, in allowing for and embracing such ideological diversity, in making the tent of ideas that exists under the ‘Just Transition’ framework as wide and open as possible, is that a wide tent also makes room for projects that bear an eerie resemblance to the exploitative mono-economies we are supposedly “transitioning” away from.

Take the proposed federal prison in Letcher County, KY, for example. The proposed USP Letcher would take $444 million of federal money to build a maximum security prison on a reclaimed strip mine, in a country that incarcerates a higher percentage of its population (in particular, people of color) than  any other country in the world. But because this prison will bring relatively higher paying jobs to a county in deep economic distress, I’ve anecdotally heard many refer to the prison as a step in the right direction for East Kentucky, if not explicitly a “just transition” away from coal.

               This raises the question of whether or not we are working to push forward the collective education of our communities—specifically, collective education around power and structural violence. If we want to move away from the kind of industry that once paid miners in script and forced children to work for 18 hours a day in dangerous and back-breaking conditions, why would we support an industry that produces billions of dollars in profit for essentially unpaid labor—and relies of structural racism to justify this practice)? While I do not believe in activists self-isolating into ideologically pure subcultures that refuse to engage the people we are supposedly organizing, I think there is an immense danger in allowing terms like “Just Transition” to be appropriated and diluted by the power elite. And I believe we have a duty to be vigilant about recognizing when conversations around economic transition in Appalachia intentionally and unintentionally exclude people that will be directly impacted by whatever economic future happens in the mountains. [jh1] 

               Directly after the regional gathering, I attended a separate, larger conference about economic development in Appalachia.  While the conference introduced me to [jh2] many exciting projects and ideas, I believe [jh3] there were fewer than five black people present at the entire event, and few if any participants I met [jh4] were currently working in the manufacturing or service sector. It is less than surprising to me, given these demographics, that the keynote speaker of thesaid conference was an enthusiastic advocate for capitalism as a way to “get things done and create social change”—a statement that was met with applause and affirmation by most (if not everyone) in the room.  Similarly, when I have attended more local gatherings about economic development in eastern Kentucky, there are very few people of color present, and rarely any attendees who do not work in professional non-profit or government sectors. Where are the Dollar General and Walmart workers at these meetings? Where are the unemployed young people struggling with health issues or addiction? The jargon-heavy language used in such spaces is exclusive and alienating, even for many people who have had access to college education like me.

               I believe a diversity of ideologies, strategies, and tactics will be necessary to build the new world we want to see in Appalachia and across the country. But I can’t quite come to terms with the contrast between environments like The Highlander Center, where we talk about collective liberation and critiquing the machine of capitalism,, and events like the East Kentucky Leadership Conference, where aluminum plants and military drone launch pads are promoted as innovative steps forward for Appalachia. Does the term “Just Transition” really mean anything at all if such contradictory visions for the future can be encompassed within it? Is it still useful, however, to embrace these spaces of contradiction and political tension?  In Appalachia, there is a growing consensus that we need to work with the Trump supporter and the tree-hugger alike if we want to build any kind of real political power. I think it is deeply important to organize a base of diverse backgrounds and political persuasions, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get the world we’re fighting for if we prioritize networking with business owners and politicians over creating community with workers and unemployed people. I think we need to think critically about the term “Just Transition”—who defines it, who implements it, and who ultimately remains in power when the framework is applied.

Jenni Roop - Sunday Funday

At the current moment, I’m tired. Physically and mentally worn out. With my project in full swing, a garden, a family, and a house to tend to at home, throw some traveling in there and I’m done for. Fortunately, I’m not normally this much of a Debbie downer, I just so happen to be writing this with a mild case of the “Mondays”.

As I’m sitting here at my little desk in Abingdon, VA at the Appalachian Sustainable Development office, I’m stressing out about the mountain of laundry that needs to be done, the puppy hair tumble weeds bellowing about on the hardwood, the streaks of dried water from an unknown source ruining the shine of the stainless steel, all while planning and scheduling, designing, and facilitating….the list goes on and on. As tension may seem high, I can’t help, but feel grateful. I’m grateful that I get to walk through the doors of an organization that actually strategies and executes meaningful work. I’m grateful that my sunflowers are sprouting. (I was scared to death that I screwed that up!)  I’m grateful that when I came home from the our first AppFellows Regional Gathering, that my husband was waiting there, with a smile that would make any heart melt, ready to scoop me up and shower me with “I miss yous” and kisses. Most of all, on the Monday-est of Mondays, I’m grateful, that in a few short hours, I’ll have the best work buddy ever, sitting beside me and spinning around in an office chair, even though her feet don’t yet touch the ground. The best part of being involved in this work is the freedom to have Annabel Lee beside me when a baby sitter falls through. Thank goodness for decent, understanding folks and the absence of ridiculous rules and regulations.

Sunday’s are family night at Casa De Roop. We put on our jammies, pop some popcorn on the stove, and pick a movie to watch together. Last weekend Annabel got to watch “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time, and a time before that “Harry and the Henderson’s” (If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s really funny!). Sundays are a time to relax and enjoy the presence of those you love and cherish the most in your life….at least that’s how we like it. This past Sunday, however, was a little different.

jenni table4.jpg

Appalachian Sustainable Development had the second FUNdraiser of the year Sunday the 21st. Our Director of Communications and Development, Sylvia Crum, came up with the brilliant idea to host a family style Sunday supper at the brand new, up and coming events facility in Blountville, TN: The Ron Ramsey Regional Agricultural Center. Lindsey Keen, the Farmer’s Market Promotion Coordinator, and I were on the planning/execution team this time around…known as the “Biscuits” per Sylvia. The tables were set up like long harvest tables adorned with white table clothes and a variety of beautiful, random dishware. The center pieces were made up of a variety of fresh cut flowers; peonies and lilies from my garden, roses from Lindsey’s, and wildflowers from the fields of Sylvia’s land. An assortment of rustic décor (Most of which came from my mother. Thanks, Mom!) And informational pieces were scattered about the lobby were a cocktail reception was held; can’t beat BYOB! There was locally sourced food prepared and served by ASD Board member, Chef Mike Archdeacon, owner and operator of the local food truck “Foodie Fiction” and his team. Set up began at 2:00pm Sunday afternoon and cleanup was finished up by 10:00pm with a 30 minute drive home to follow. It was a long, busy evening. Our dogs were barking, eyes were heavy, and bodies felt like a bunch of limp noodles, but this was, by far, one of the most rewarding experiences I have been a part of yet with ASD.

Though our quaint little family night was interrupted, I wouldn’t have had it any other way this weekend. The rewarding (and nostalgic) rush of planning and executing an event, even with a few qwerks, is like no other. The best part was getting to spend the slow moments in between the hustle and bustle with amazing new friends and my undyingly supportive husband and mother. There isn’t enough thank yous in this world to express my gratitude for a life that I wouldn’t dare trade for anything in this world.

Alice Beecher - Alfombras

Walking down Main Street in Hazard past the Kentucky River on one of the first t-shirt hot days in April, I noticed a group of teenagers spreading flakes of colorful sawdust into images of flowers and football regalia on the sidewalk. They were constructing Alfombras, a traditional Spanish folk craft made at the beginning of Easter, meant to represent the coming of spring. Made from such delicate materials, it is understood that the Alfombras will blow away at the first high gust of wind, leaving only a kaleidoscope mash of colorful dust behind.

The temporary nature of these Alfombras made me think of how much the work we do in community is ephemeral—moments of joy and celebration and resistance that fade after the last song plays or the last tomato is sold, after the rally ends and (in a darker vein) we kick the Nazis out of town. Is it worthwhile to spend so much time planning events and programs that are by their nature fleeting, locked in particular moments in time and space? From InVision Hazard community gatherings to summertime arts festivals to even the mobilization against the Nazi rally in nearby Pikeville, I often wonder what impact is left by these events after the proverbial sawdust blows away.

While it is easy to dismiss such events-based organizing as un-substantive, perhaps the moments of beauty, joy and power created by these temporary spaces give us the strength to keep moving, to do the long-haul, unsexy work of building a new economy and a new resistance. As we discussed at our last AppFellows gathering, the bravery required to build what often begins as temporary, small-scale acts of participatory democracy—planting a community garden, creating a coffee cooperative, painting a mural downtown, etc.—can be leveraged into larger scale transformations in the ways people determine the future of the land they live on and the economy that governs their lives.

In similar vein, when I think of the patchwork quilt of new economic paradigms proposed by AppFellows projects—a fiber shed, a food and dance trail, film/tech coops, farmer’s markets, a star park, Hazard’s downtown—I wonder if these projects can scale up to a new economy resilient enough to exist and thrive against the competitive threat of mass-produced goods and strip malls. The “no silver bullet” concept seems to be a favorite phrase of community economic development experts here in eastern Kentucky. There is an understanding that a diverse, decentralized “economic ecosystem” that supports new entrepreneurs without relying on a single, monopolizing industry will be the most effective model to lift Appalachia out of structural poverty. But does the formation of a new economy need to be centrally planned and implemented in order for it to succeed against global capitalism?

I don’t know. What I do know is that whether it involves revitalizing a downtown or fighting the spread of white supremacy in these hills, bravery is a requirement in scaling up.  And while beautiful moments and colorful spaces are so necessary to keep our movements vital and strong, we must find a way to make this work impactful for years and generations down the road.

Jenni Roop - Still Truck on Two Flat Tires

It has been 5 months since the 2017 AppFellows adventure began and everyone seems to be getting down and dirty with their host community projects. Here in Virginia and Tennessee, we have hit a couple of potholes in the road with the Working Groups. Some are very active with very promising projects underway, others yet to meet or have stopped meeting all together. Unfortunately, the time our members invest into these groups is strictly volunteer time, whereas my full time job is to focus on the group’s success. 

After applying for and awarded a small $5,000 grant through the Central Appalachian Network (CAN), the Policy and Economic Development Working Group will act as the steering committee for a program titled Building Political Capital in Northeast TN and Southwest VA. The program will begin with a one day, region wide Policy 101 Workshop that will teach its participants basic local, state, and federal policy knowledge. Following the Workshop, we will be scheduling a series of 3 Roundtable Flash Talk and Small Group Discussion Luncheons: the first with local officials, second with state officials, and third with federal officials.  The project is structured to increase community capacity and leadership, develop a more “policy wise” region that is comfortable communicating with their elected officials and identifying when they can lead community efforts through policy change. Members of the other 4 working groups will be invited to attend. We also hope to get the Fellows down to participate as one of their scheduled monthly workshops!

The Food Access Working Group will be developing two projects this year. First, they will be working with different organizations throughout SWVA and NET who have up and running Summer Feeding Programs in order to develop new sites in the neediest counties. Second, the group will create a plan of action titled “Farm to summer” for getting fresh, local foods, prepared on site (at the markets) and served to the children registered with the program. The action plan will then be presented to Market Managers, local elected officials, and Summer Feeding program operators in October. We hope to hold two pilots (1 in NET and the other in SWVA) in the 2018 Farmer’s Market season.

The Workforce Development Working Group has two very active group Chairs meaning all I would really have to do for them is take the minutes. AWESOME! Not only that, but these two very driven women want to focus on creating pathways for High School Agriculture and Culinary Arts students to College Courses with CET dual enrollment programs. VERY AWESOME! Sadly…this group has yet to meet for the year, but I’m not giving up hope and continue to badger them on a regular basis!

Beginning in June 2017, a pilot program titled “VeggieRX”(Modeled after the very successful “Farmacy” in Whitesburg, KY) will kick off for the duration of the summer months in Washington County, TN. The Food and Health Systems working group is currently acting as part of the Steering Committee. The goal for participation is, since the group is made up of SWVA and NET folks, that in 2018 when the successful program broadens, that it will be carried across the VA/TN border. Unfortunately, only a few members of the group have been able to participate in the planning meetings so far.  To add to the discouragement, the Food Production, Marketing, and Distribution Working Group met once in March this year. We scheduled a follow up meeting in April to plan for our Farmer/Producer Regional Assessment, but no one ended up making it to the meeting.  The lack of participation from these 2 Working Groups means 1 of two things: Going back to the drawing board and revamping the groups or deleting them indefinitely.

When I started this journey, it was a pretty bumpy start, what with being away from my family and diving head first into the unknown world that is nonprofits. Thankful for being a quick learner and fairly adaptive, I took the steering wheel from my predecessor (The previous Working Group facilitator, Mary Beth.) and, despite the bends and bumps, my Host Community Project is still trucking right along, even if we seem to have 2 flat tires. AND! I already have an amazing plan laid out for my Appfellows individual project. Stay tuned for further Working Group updates!

Brittany Means Carowick - Be the Neighbor You Want

Lately, this phrase has been popping up a lot in my life:

“It’s up to us to make it how it used to be.”

My husband and I have started taking a “Master Homeowner” class, offered by our local Habitat for Humanity. It’s pretty cool—we will learn about multiple aspects of home ownership, from the legal and financial issues of buying a house to how to rewire an electrical outlet or fix basic plumbing issues. Modeled after Master Gardener classes, it’s a good mix of practical and theoretical skills that home owners need to know.

We’ve spent the last two weeks talking about neighborhood relations and home safety. We covered the city’s expectations of property upkeep and maintenance, how to deter burglary, and how to be a good neighbor. Throughout all of this discussion, the importance of knowing and talking to your neighbors has come up again and again. It’s an underlying thread that helps people maintain high property value, feel safer, and respect their neighborhoods. But both instructors and our other classmates have said, “It’s just not like it used to be.”

Here’s how they say it used to be:
People knew their neighbors. They knew their names, their children’s names, their grandkids’ names. They knew their schedules; when they came and went, about what time they turned off their lights at night, and where they liked to park. They would help each other out—grab mail or water plants when someone was out of town, mow their grass if they were sick, and lend cups of flour or sugar.

This made neighborhoods safer. People knew if something was amiss in the neighborhood, and they would check on their neighbors. Someone found their car had been broken into? They would tell everyone on the street, to make sure everyone was vigilant and no one else was missing anything. People felt more secure; they knew if something happened to them, their neighbors would call them or their relatives to check up on them. Did Old Jane’s lights stay on all night, and she didn’t move her car today? Someone would knock and make sure she hadn’t fallen.  Neighbors would chat over fences or while weeding their lawns; if something was wrong, you had a relationship with your neighbor and could talk it out. Sometimes, it was annoying--especially if you were a kid. Your mom would know any trouble you got into before you were even home! But, people who tell these stories laugh about it fondly, wishing their kids were watched after by the whole neighborhood like that now.

And at the end of these reminiscences, our instructor always reminds us that “It’s up to us to make it like it used to be.” That is to say, if you want to live in a good neighborhood, start by being a good neighbor.

This discussion comes at an opportune time for me. It’s getting warm here. We have a big front porch on our house that we share with our housemates, and we’ve been spending a lot of time on it recently. A young family just moved into the house next to us, and the mom is an acquaintance of mine. We’ve started inviting them over to “porch sit” with us.

With these recurring words in my head, I started a Facebook group chat for our housemates and new neighbors.  It’s already helped us become closer (and saved one of us from a parking ticket).

But I still don’t know my other neighbors. Who lives across the street? What are the names of their kids? Who lives on the other side of us? What do they even look like?  

As my husband and I consider and work toward buying a home (outside of our current neighborhood), I find myself wondering if it’s worth investing my time and resources into getting to know my neighbors. I hate that I ask myself that—I don’t think I would have, if we were living in the world as it “used to be.” Is it worth forming new relationships if we might leave soon? Would my neighbors invest in me if they knew I was leaving? I think about my other Fellows, many of who are in communities or neighborhoods they won’t stay in after this year, and wonder if they feel the same way. Do their communities feel that way about them? What is the balance of forming relationships that you know will soon change, with people you know will soon leave?

As I mull over these questions, I’m also reminded that it’s up to us to make the world we want to live in. I want to live in a world where people are kind and considerate, and where they enjoy fellowship with one another and look out for one another. For however long they’ll be around, I want to enjoy fruitful friendships with them that will let us help each other grow. So, I guess it’s up to me to initiate them.

Alice Beecher - Third Spaces

               Growing up in my quiet hometown of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, what I remember most distinctly was that there was one of everything downtown. One coffee shop, one pizza place, one gas station, one pharmacy, one ice cream parlor. All locally owned, no franchise businesses or strip malls. I would bike down the hilly, tree lined streets past the 60 year old elementary school and meet my friends for a greasy calzone or sugary cup of iced coffee. That this particular experience was representative of a dying small town tradition never occurred to me. I thought our town would stay the same forever.

               Of course it didn’t. The local pharmacy has been replaced by a CVS and the coffee shop now competes with a Starbucks, along with a host of other chains, in a strip mall down the road. While the political contexts of rural New England and Appalachian Kentucky are dramatically different, the slow corporatization of Hazard and Hopkinton share distinct parallels. In Hazard, what was once a vibrant and busy downtown is now still and quiet—aside from city buildings and professional offices, downtown is comprised largely of residential or abandoned/unused properties. As of now, there are no restaurants downtown, and few retail businesses.

               Working with InVision Hazard, the community group organizing to revitalize Hazard’s downtown, has led me to wonder why it is that we fight to hang on to our hometowns. Collective attachment to a place that is unique in its particularity, embedded in our memories of home and community, is in many ways contradictory to the forces of global capitalism that dissolve idiosyncratic local spaces. Hazard is surrounded by the kind of strip-malls that now engulf the majority of small-town America, monotonous in their identical repetition, the WalMarts and the RiteAids stretching like concrete mountains from Maine to Florida. In the strip mall parking lot you could be anywhere. A sense of place is exchanged for the sterile ease of uniformity, free of particular associations, free of story or memory.

               Over the past few weeks, I have come to appreciate the tight social bonds and deep community memories that form the story of Hazard. I have come to understand that the objective of revitalizing Hazard’s downtown is not only to provide jobs and income to small business owners, but to create more of those increasingly elusive “third spaces”, where people can gather to celebrate collective social experiences that transcend work and home boundaries.

               One beautiful and bittersweet example of the necessity of such third spaces in Hazard is the story of the Tree House Café. When I met with Jenn Noble, the visual artist and Hazard native who started the Tree House (which was Hazard’s only coffee shop) she spoke to me about the sense of joy and community visitors brought to the TreeHouse. Packed with diners that travelled as far as Lexington to sample a taste of Hazard, the Tree House brought vibrancy, art and necessary social space to town. Jenn hosted poetry readings and political debates while serving up fresh and healthy local food. A TV crew from Japan even came to document the restaurant’s success.

               Unfortunately, high utility costs and the difficulties of running a business in an old building with a difficult landlord forced Jenn to close the Tree House. Too often, this same story has become the narrative of locally owned businesses in small Appalachian towns like Hazard. The structural reality of absentee or uninvolved property ownership in Hazard, where landlords charge high rents for buildings that are poorly maintained and thus difficult for small businesses, parallels the larger history of absentee and corporate land ownership across Appalachia.  When common space is controlled by wealthy or powerful elites, be they local or outsiders, the reclamation of both rural landscapes and downtowns becomes an act of community self-determination.

               Make no mistake, however, downtown revitalization efforts are also a response to a blunt economic reality in the coalfields.  According to the 2016 Kentucky Center for Economic Policy report on “The State of Working in Kentucky:” “In June 2016, Kentucky had 10,600 fewer coal jobs than in June 2009. With an average weekly wage for Kentucky coal workers of $1,394 in 2015 compared to $831 for all workers in private industries it’s not easy for displaced coal miners to find employment that pays them as well” (4).

               Of course, there are questions about the long-term sustainability of small-businesses in towns like Hazard, where few residents have the disposable income available for a $5 latte or a new hip record. However, by building a strategic, democratically designed plan for downtown Hazard, community members hope to build a diverse and resilient economic ecosystem that reflects the needs of Hazard’s residents.

Brennan Zerbe - Mud Bog

“Actually, it turns out to be beautifully accurate when you once make the plunge and compel yourself to open your eyes in the limpid depths under its confused surface.”

-Pale Fire

Eroding Hillside

The Mud Bog refers to a specific event, not existential or moral torpor.   For the uninitiated, Mud Bogs are a kind of spectator sport, where an audience gathers to watch vehicles of discrete builds slog through a large viscid morass, flinging shit colored mud wherever they drive, and denuding the ground so that what remains resembles the bare and etiolated earth of an abandoned strip mine.   But on a different scale.

It’s a sport with many varied Appalachian and West Virginian traditions contained within in it, but probably the most important one, as I see it, is the tradition of a complex relationship between the people that live here and the environment they inhabit. A sociocultural disposition alternating between hostility towards the impassive dismissal of life wrought on Appalachians by their natural surroundings or by the exigencies of their working lives, and the need or desire to extract their livelihood from the land.  The mud bog seems to channel unabashed contempt, or at least vague indifference to the land, while at the same time celebrating rural life. Rurality, as such, in opposition to urbanity, but also in opposition to, or dominion over, the vagaries of the natural world.

The park board has been in open and vitriolic dispute about the proposed continuation of the Mud Bog, and why not? It fits squarely outside of, and squarely within, two competing visions of the future of the park. One, is typified by sedate activity, and mostly family oriented events, the other, is amenable to the open din of a modified truck slamming into dirt and disgorging that dirt in every direction as it toils onward, also, probably people drinking, carousing, & c.  I find myself agreeing with both sides for various reasons.

I think this is where it would be helpful to explain how I’ve come to see my goals for the park.  There are essentially two main goals for the park.  One, the explicit reason I am here, is to facilitate the edification of the Dark Skies aspect of the Calhoun County Park, to help in any way with its eventual establishment, through grant seeking, brochures and whatever else.  An unstated aspect of this goal and that of MOVRC and its partners, is that it seeks to attract wealthy tourists to the park for purposes of redistributing their wealth to the actual residents of the county. The other goal I have is to augment in any way possible, the perception of the park as a place for people to congregate, through: farmer’s markets, gun shows, old time shows, fairs, etc, so that the the people living here come to view the park as a resource, their resource.  And so this is why I’m torn on the issue of the Mud Bog, though I don’t take part in the park board’s discussion over it, I feel that either way, it’s a loss either for the park or for the community at large.

The point of talking about the Mud Bog is that it facilely illustrates the difficulties rural towns face when confronting competing needs and interests, specifically,  environmental issues versus the needs of a community.  To think of it this way, it’s important to understand the role that the Mud Bog plays in bringing people together where otherwise they wouldn’t.  It’s one of the few activities left to rural communities which can largely be funded and participated in, usually, in some degree of proximity and with little monetary dislodgment.  The issue is that unless the land is reclaimed afterwards, it will eventually ablate the surrounding ecosystem, eroding the banks of hills, eradicating grass, becoming generally uninhabitable for anything or anyone else.  If the event were judged solely upon the material costs as opposed to financial benefit , it would be a no brainer: the event itself operates at a financial loss for the park as well as a material and environmental loss, so it doesn’t make much sense for it to continue;  however, if the non material, non quantifiable benefits are examined: being one of a hand full of activities likely to attract people in large numbers or the importance of shared, communal experiences, especially, in our supremely individually atomized modernity, then, I believe, its value to the park and to the community is more difficult to ascertain.

tree1.jpg

You can extrapolate a lot about the divisions in rural life when money, work, and young people have abandoned or retreated from it. A lack of access to these resources does not always encourage people to band together, and here, more often than not, it seems, these issues over ostensibly petty disagreements foster an atmosphere of contempt, resentment, and disaffection from the community at large.  This has larger implications for political changes, if there were any on the horizon, in that, small towns and communities are often prone to petty squabbling, repression and revanchist tendencies, which is the frustrating truth about rural America and small scale communities, at least, experientially: that life in them, often portrayed as being less complicated, more mundane and straightforward, is often more complicated, more divisive and potentially more acerbic.  In cities or large towns, the anonymity and solitude afford less day to day conflict and less interest in who does what with what resources.

Courtney Boyd - Let's Be Like the Ants

An economic argument often presented for the promotion of capitalism centers around the idea that capitalism breeds excellence, innovation, and thought.  Those notions claim that capitalism is natural to our systems of order, that it exists in animal and plant ecosystems in the form of competition and “survival of the fittest”, and that these forces guide animal and human societies alike.  But the concept found in Darwinian thought isn’t complete, and the emphasis it places on individual struggle and competition is lacking and narrow, if not entirely incorrect, in my perspective.

 

This competition-based view is only one part of the story in a far greater epic of evolution and life.  The missing piece is a tale of cooperation, mutual aid, mutual struggle, and mutual confidence.  Meaning, the forces that have shaped evolution and society have relied equally, if not more, on working together, than on competing for our own individual interests.  What we have been taught about capitalism, or what has been imposed on is, simply isn’t true.

 

Recently, at the Appalachian Studies Association annual conference, I woke up to the foggy stupor of a dream that caught my attention for its metaphorically relevant nature.

With a ping my eyes shot open, and I considered what I had just seen.

 

In a large stone building, I had been running down the steps when abruptly the steps ended with a dramatic drop to the floor below.  The other Fellows were meeting downstairs and I was stuck up here.  

 

I called the Appfellows leader, Kierra.

 

Courtney: Hey, Kierra.  The steps aren’t here and I don’t know how to get downstairs!

Kierra:  Okay, don’t worry, we can figure this out.

 

She called back a few minutes later to tell me that they would meet me at the steps. I ran back to the location and down below I could see Kierra and Samir.

 

Kierra:  Jump!

They held out their arms.

 

Courtney:  What?  No, it’s like 40 feet, I am not doing that!

Kierra:  Come on, it’s okay, jump. Everyone else already jumped. [Meaning the other Fellows.]

Courtney:  [Thinking there had to be another way down] But how did you get there?  Who caught you, when you jumped??

 

And my dream ended there.  I don’t remember actually making the jump, but it doesn’t seem to matter anyway.  The point that my inner self was trying to make is simple, and it really highlights the movement for a better world that so many people, our fellowship cohort included, believe in.

 

In Peter Kropotkin’s book, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, he writes,

 

“And yet the ants, in their thousands, are not much destroyed by the birds, not even by the ant-eaters, and they are dreaded by most stronger insects.  When Forel emptied a bagful of ants in a meadow, he saw that “the crickets ran away, abandoning their holes to be sacked by the ants; the grasshoppers and crickets fled in all directions; the spiders and the beetles abandoned their prey in order not to become prey themselves; even the nests of the wasps were taken by the ants, after a battle during which many ants perished for the safety of the commonwealth.  Even the swiftest insects cannot escape, and Forel often saw butterflies, gnats, flies, and so on, surprised and killed by the ants. Their force is in mutual support and mutual confidence.”

 

I am not saying we should create an army (or am I?), but the point is that the lies of individual competition are at the root of the current structure in America.  While I am very often intimidated by community organizing work that requires me to “put myself out there,” I know that it is important to challenge the ideas of individualism and learn to ask what we need of each other; ask for help, ask for consideration, and ask for support.  And in turn, offer that to others as much as possible.  Because at the end of the day, someone has been in your position, someone has taken a leap before you came along, and someone will be scared to jump long after you are gone.  But we are a force so very great in our numbers and even greater in our love for humanity and our desire to see it thrive. So, let’s remember the power we have.  Let’s be like the ants.

Abby Huggins - Tangles of Seed Packets

In my fellowship thus far, I feel like I am looking at a table overflowing with piles of roughly organized seed packets – herbs and flowers, peas and beans, cabbage and collards, tomatoes and peppers. Then, we discover this special winter squash from a friend, this beautiful bean seed we must plant, this tasty kind of melon, this interesting mustard green. Then, we look at the maps of gardens that came before, to make sure we’re not duplicating, make sure we’re not taking too much of one thing from the soil, but also giving back. Then, we consider perennial fruits and herb terraces and magical bean pole labyrinth forts to build. Then, we notice a whole container of seeds we overlooked and should also sort through.

There’s more possibilities than practicalities. So what are our parameters? How do we understand our limitations but create space for growth and nourishment and beauty? How do we push the edges of the garden while protecting it from being overtaken by wildlife? Are we the best people to be deciding about this garden? Are there other ideas and visions we’re missing? The process, the tangle of thoughts, is both inspiring and paralyzing at the same time. And metaphorically, in my work, I have felt a similar dance between optimism and confusion.

With gratitude, I’m learning about endless dance and food happenings and hopes in Eastern Kentucky: long standing community dances, plans for community canning kitchens, square dance calling mentorship, growing farmers’ markets, farmer support, food access efforts, culture based community organizing, and dreams of square dances on farms. Every week I learn more, talk with more folks, and feel inspired by the creativity, pride, and ingenuity moving all around.

Caption 1: Farmers and farmer supporters gathered at Hindman Settlement School at the Eastern Kentucky Farmers Conference in February, organized by Community Farm Alliance.

Caption 1: Farmers and farmer supporters gathered at Hindman Settlement School at the Eastern Kentucky Farmers Conference in February, organized by Community Farm Alliance.

As I immerse in this project that will highlight food and dance in Eastern Kentucky, I can feel overwhelmed by the prospects, the questions, the choices, and the ways this work fits into a bigger picture.  How does this connect with larger Appalachian transition and justice work? How does a wide vision translate into day to day details? How do we measure work that feels abstract and difficult to quantify?  How do we branch out beyond our comfortable networks to hear a diversity of voices? How do we create spaces where people can gather and organize around common ground? How are we careful to complement, not duplicate, existing efforts? How do we support emerging leaders who have potential to create change in their communities? How am I contributing a project that will live on beyond me in a sustainable way? How does tourism help to strengthen local communities without being another form of extraction? What do we mean by heritage? Who gets to define it? How is this work both dynamic in the present and respectful of the past?

The questions will remain. The questions should be pondered, revisited, and pondered again. Still, there are gardens to plant, one seed at a time. There are harvests to work towards. There are hands to join with and dance. Accepting uncertainty with patience, but also striving towards movement, I hope the penciled plans we have created will turn into something fruitful and good. The soil is warming. The daylight is lengthening. I’m excited and thankful to be a part of spring and to watch what grows.

Caption 2: Carcassonne Community Center, home of the oldest continually running square dance. Flag is half-mast to remember Ruby Haynes Caudill, matriarch of the dance, who recently passed on at the age of 99.

Caption 2: Carcassonne Community Center, home of the oldest continually running square dance. Flag is half-mast to remember Ruby Haynes Caudill, matriarch of the dance, who recently passed on at the age of 99.

 

 

Jenni Roop - The Benjamin Button of the Workforce: From Depleted to Rejuvenated

It has been almost two months since this new journey began and for the most part, it has been like nothing I have ever experienced before. I have been working since I turned of age to do so without parental consent and if you are familiar with the food production industry, you know those concrete floors and 50 pound bags of flour are more than unforgiving. I do miss the constant activity: the rush of a lunch shift, the rewarding feeling of tired feet, and the sizzle of a fresh, hot meal ready to be served to eager, watering pallets.

The kitchen realm is one focused on time. If you are waiting tables, your tip gets lower with every passing minute. If you are the cook, you have servers starring daggers at you to get that food on a plate. Then there is management, the jack of all trades: Creating menus, recipes, and procedures, training and scheduling multiple staff members, ordering supplies, inventory counts, surprise health inspections, covering shifts for no extra pay, whether you’ve already worked 60 hours that week or not. The worst part? Dealing with your own supervisors. You know the ones…nothing is ever good enough, nothings on time, you’re not doing enough because they can’t see your every move while you’re stuck in that boiling hot, fluorescent, concrete and stainless steel cave. When your every move is scrutinized, you get good (fast) at documenting and reporting, disciplinary action and delegation, time management, and organizing. So good, in fact, that it is engrained in every fiber of your being, making it much harder to adapt to such a laid back environment. Though the world as I knew it before becoming an Appalachian Transition Fellow was high stress and required me to have no life and little relationship with my family, the skills I have developed have been extremely useful in the work I have been able to produce with Appalachian Sustainable Development so far. (Luckily, all of my colleagues here are driven to the MAX!)

Since January 17th, the working groups have begun the decision making and planning process for their 2017 projects, I have met with the Washington County Virginia School Boards Nutrition Director to create a working bond through their backpack program, there have been clear intersections developed between ASD, First Tennessee Development District, and 2nd Harvest Foodbank of Northeast Tennessee through Senior SNAP outreach and the potential VeggieRX program, planned to pilot in Bristol. I have also completed a short side project for Sylvia Crum, the Director of Communications and Development with ASD; a NO FARMS, NO FOOD flyer for our Farm to Table themed events that can be reused throughout the year.

There has been more than enough to keep me busy each day and, for the first time in my life, I really look forward to coming to the office every day and to go home without a million pounds of stress and bitterness resting on my shoulders. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the work, that I view through previously hindered eyes, to be larger than life. Though I still have a lot to learn, I am ready and willing to use a newly developed passion and wisdom gained through hard work and constant scrutiny to make a difference in our region, our communities, and our families’ lives. With a clearer mind, rested body, and happiness in my heart, maybe those premature grey hairs will stop sprouting from my 26 year old scalp!

Hope Hart: step 1 - Orientation

If you would’ve talked to me five years ago, I never would have thought that as a new college graduate I would be greeting the new year by packing my bags and moving to Whitesburg, Kentucky, a small town in the heart of central Appalachia.

I also would not have guessed I would be taking a bus tour of Appalachia as an orientation to my new job, a year-long position at Appalshop in Whitesburg, as a part of the Appalachian Transition Fellowship.

I grew up in West Virginia my entire life, but the world of Appalachian advocacy is relatively new to me. As an adolescent I didn’t consider that my family’s views on hardship could be a part of a specific mountain ideology; I didn’t realize my grandmother’s quilting hobby or my grandfather’s love of finger pickin’ banjo music could be tied to a larger cultural narrative.

Perhaps most strikingly, I was naive to the history of oppression and exploitation this region has endured for centuries. With industries extracting our natural resources of coal, timber, and natural gas though the cheapest means possible, lacking any conscience for its negligence towards the local people and their land, it’s no wonder we’re in the position we are in. “The rest of the country treats us like we’re the cost of doing business in America,” Daile Boulis, a resident of Loudendale, W.Va., sums it up well. But there are silver linings. As we know, the world may be broken, but hope is not crazy.

We AppFellows took a tour of the region to become better oriented with the new and unfamiliar surroundings. In five days traveling the region, we visited thirteen organizations all fighting to make their communities better places for all people who live there.

In Kingsport, Tennessee we attended a conference focused on food and health in Appalachia. It was held at the Second Harvest Food Bank, an organization that processes 1.5 million pounds of donations every month. Their massive warehouse reminded me of a Sam’s or Costcos, except the shelves and freezers were full of food no one was going to have to buy to eat.

In Norton, Virginia we visited the nonprofit Appalachian Voices who is collaborating in a land study to identify who owns the land in the surrounding area. An alarming portion of land in Appalachia is not locally owned, and absentee land ownership is a huge obstacle for the economy. In 1982 a survey of 20 million acres of land and mineral rights found that almost half was owned by 50 private owners and 10 government agencies, with the federal government being the largest owner of property in Appalachia, controlling over two million acres.

In Hazard, Kentucky we met with the Community Farm Alliance (CFA) and Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, Inc. (MACED), two organizations committed to community development through food access and entrepreneurship.

Unlimited Future is a business incubator in Huntington, West Virginia who provides financial support, rental space, and training to budding small businesses to increase their likelihood of success.

Traveling to Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, we learned about What’s Next, WV, a two-year old communications effort that is actually succeeding at getting people to look beyond their differences and disagreement and actually start having productive conversations to identify problems and work towards solutions in their communities. Who knew this was possible?

We also stopped by KISRA in Charleston, who are growing the most visually satisfying and cutest lettuce I have ever seen in their farm-to-table greenhouse project, but then in Calhoun County, West Virginia, the cuteness of this historical village surpassed all expectations, the restored buildings all located in a local park and preserved by a small yet very passionate and dedicated historical society. The park is one of the few dark zones left on the East Coast, meaning light pollution is low there, which allows incredible views of the night sky. Known as the “Dark Skies Project” and the “Star Project,” one fellow is dedicating his year to updating the park to make it more tourist-friendly.

But these aren’t the stories that usually get told. Usually the only good thing I hear about Appalachia is that it’s beautiful. Our mountains, rivers, and forests tap deep into the souls of those who witness them.

But you rarely hear kind words about the people and our culture.

My new position is at Appalshop, a media, arts, and education center that’s been around for almost 50 years. My focus will be on regional communications with the hopes of strengthening our connections within Appalachia and beyond to the nation and world.

As we were in the van weaving in and out of the mountains on the tour, I kept thinking about if there’s something about Appalachia that has perhaps been overlooked, muting our struggles in the stillness of the mountains.

There’s no easy answer, but perhaps the first step is to simply share that we’re here too.

Terran Young - Orientation Tour

I considered this tour a start of a journey, if you will. If you had asked me at my high school graduation if I saw my life headed in the direction that its in now, well, I probably would have said “yes.”  I have always wanted to do work that would bring about change in my community. I admired the ones on the front lines of the movement trailblazing and laying groundwork for the rest of us. That was the wide-eyed innocence of youth, appreciating yet glamorizing the struggle of activist and organizers and people trying to bring abut change.

 

Little did I know that life doesn’t usually go as planned. After what seemed like an eternity of personal struggle, hardships, loss, development and growth I found myself here, at Highlander Center wondering what in the world had I gotten myself into.

 

9 days was the longest I’d been away from home since my mother passed away. I don’t like being away for long but I felt good about it.

 

After 3 days at the Highlander Center we set out for our first stop. Our first full day theAppalachian Sustainable Development Conference was a bit rough for me. Not only was in a long day, but it was also the 1st anniversary of my mothers passing. However, I did meake it through.

 

For the rest of the week, we went to different locations. I was surprised to see so many cultural programs in rural areas. Looking at the other Fellows, I noticed that everyone was able to relate in some way, except for me. There was certainly a lack of cultural diversity in Appalachia.

 

There is a rich history surrounding the people of this region, yet I could not help but feel left out. Although my family has been in Appalachia for over a century I saw no representation of myself on this tour.

 

So I find myself on this internal journey to find myself and my identity in Appalachia.

Abby Huggins - Orientation and Learning Tour

For nearly a week of our orientation, App Fellows and Highlander staff piled into two vans, meandering from New Market, Tennessee to Grantsville, West Virginia, visiting all the host communities where Fellows will be living and working for the next year. On this Learning Tour we listened, observed, inquired, envisioned, laughed, cried, differed, and encouraged. Our adventure was widely educational as we grew in and complicated our understanding of geography, economy, community, each other, and ourselves. Upon returning, a friend asked me if we had a proper tour of Appalachia. My response was no. There are many Appalachias. This region, in its vastness, complexity, and diversity, will take a lifetime or more to see and know. But, I could confidently say, within a week’s time, our newly formed family of App Fellows saw a thought provoking representation of Appalachian Transition. We visited an array of places, both rural and urban, where folks throughout the region are collaboratively envisioning and creating opportunities in food, fiber, land access, media, culture, entrepreneurship, and natural resources. Our tour refreshed ideas, raised questions, and piqued curiosity as we saw projects on different scales, from local to multi-state. We wondered how all of these parts are interconnected, working towards something bigger than any individual project, yet all contributing through their own unique approaches and resources. We pondered the spaces where fellows, communities, and organizations can find common ground, support one another in work towards a rooted, vibrant, thriving Appalachia. I was encouraged and inspired to glimpse the projects that fellow App Fellows will be a part of. As I engage with my work in Hindman and Eastern Kentucky, I will hold in my mind and heart the work simultaneously happening in Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee, neighboring Kentucky communities, and West Virginia. I am excited and grateful to watch what unfolds in small and big ways over the course of the next year and beyond. I am honored to move into the tasks before me alongside a cohort of smart, compassionate, energetic peers who will offer mutual support along the way.

Caption 1: Mike Dixon shares insights with App Fellows on a tour of Hindman Settlement School. Photo by: Catherine Moore.

Caption 1: Mike Dixon shares insights with App Fellows on a tour of Hindman Settlement School. Photo by: Catherine Moore.

In reflecting upon the tour and the work we will be engaged in, two interconnected phrases keep returning to me. One phrase I remember from growing up in the Methodist tradition: “in essentials unity, in nonessentials diversity, in all things love.” The other a phrase I first heard from folks I knew in Grenada: “one hand can’t clap,” implying two or more hands are necessary to effectively make noise. As we traveled and listened to people throughout Central Appalachia on our tour, I heard a common thread of the necessity of working together amidst differences. In our communities, in our region, in our nation, we are surrounded by diversity in beliefs, politics, personalities, backgrounds, abilities, opportunities, ethnicities, nationalities, races, classes, genders, sexualities, etc. etc. etc. On this trip, I was reminded of the need to embrace common ground, to find those essentials that we are all working for, and to do so in a spirit of respect, with an attitude of love - dare I say, radical love: a love stronger than the bonds of oppression, a love that believes and moves towards collective liberation. And, what is beautiful, as we enter into this work, is that it is not alone. The work that came before us and will follow is intentionally collaborative: across histories, across passions, across methods, across mountains. Our collaboration is necessary. The freedom and justice we dream of together will take all of us, bit by bit, piece by piece. Daily, we are challenged to remember our work is both constant and interwoven, as civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer profoundly spoke, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Caption 2: App Fellows crossing the Troublesome Creek at Hindman Settlement School on a tour of campus. Photo by Abby Huggins.

Caption 2: App Fellows crossing the Troublesome Creek at Hindman Settlement School on a tour of campus. Photo by Abby Huggins.

At the opening of our orientation, Elizabeth Wright reminded fellows and hosts that we are now a part of the history of Highlander. We join a legacy of folks who have dedicated their lives to transforming dreams of justice, dignity, and liberation into reality. Let us move forward together, boldly, lovingly, hands clapping in rhythm, towards a just Appalachia, South, nation, and world.

Caption 3: Viewing Pound Gap on the Virginia and Kentucky state line in our discussion about land ownership with Adam Wells of Appalachian Voices. Photo by Catherine Moore.

Caption 3: Viewing Pound Gap on the Virginia and Kentucky state line in our discussion about land ownership with Adam Wells of Appalachian Voices. Photo by Catherine Moore.

Brittany Means Carowick - Becoming, Together

“We’re either gonna live together or die together, but by God it’ll be together. There’s not much other choice.”

This sentence was said by Les Roll, of the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development, during our AppFellows tour of Hazard, Kentucky. He was speaking about the decision of his community, Hazard, to come together to talk about tough issues. They addressed community development, such as what to do with their dying main street, as well as issues like persistent homelessness and the new highway. Everyone had different opinions about what the community needed, but they knew that at the end of the day, what they would become, they would become together.

This story got my attention because it’s the kind of work that I’ll be doing this year. Through the What’s Next, WV? initiative, the West Virginia Center for Civic Life (my host community) leads communities in conversation about what’s next for them. Often, these communities are post-coal or in other kinds of economic distress. They experience “brain drain” and an aging population. They also come together to plan how to become whatever they will become, together.

After talking to Les in Kentucky, a few days later we were in West Virginia talking to Betty Knighton, from the WV Center for Civic Life. She was talking about the “invisible roads” of civic infrastructure. If your town doesn’t have good civic infrastructure—a way to come together and discuss and evaluate ideas—what bearing does this have on your ability to be a good citizen?

That phrase struck me.  I jotted a note in my journal:

How can you be a good citizen when you’re not a citizen?

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “citizen.” In our work at the Center for Civic Life, we talk about community members, residents, and mostly—citizens. What does it mean to be a good neighbor and responsible citizen? We use “citizen” as a simpler way to say “person who is entitled to a say about what happens in a community.” It breaks up the repetition of using “community member” and “resident” over and over again, and it indicates someone who is involved by choice, not just happenstance.

But today, I can’t ignore the secondary nature of that word. The legal, political meaning of “citizen” problematizes our definition of communities. It brings with it the association of naturalization, immigration status, permanent residency, and a host of other complications. I find that in today’s political climate, and especially with so much rhetoric around citizenry, I have hesitations about using the word “citizen” in the work I do for the Center.

I may be especially sensitive to this word because of my background. My graduate research involved communities of undocumented residents, and I also have many friends who continue to reside in the United States through various gray areas of immigration law. I feel like when I say something like, “the citizens of Parkersburg came together to talk about injustice in their town,” I am leaving out a group of people. Or, if I would say that an issue “affects all citizens of Wheeling,” then I am saying that it does not affect people who are not citizens. Or, that if it does affect non-citizens, it doesn’t matter, because only citizens get a voice.

This is an issue I grappled with during orientation, and then in the first few weeks on the job. One of my first tasks was to write a blog post about a recent conversation that the What’s Next, Wood County? group had held on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The conversation touched on many sensitive topics, and several community members were not comfortable with me using their names in the post. I tried to use “community members” and “residents” whenever I could—but it was hard. The conversation took place in a community that straddles state lines—so descriptors such as “West Virginians” were unavailable to me, and I found “both West Virginians and Ohioans in the Mid-Ohio Valley” cumbersome. In addition, some of the speakers were identified as being from other countries, and I didn’t know whether they were citizens of the United States or not. Through some fancy footwork, I was able to avoid getting too uncomfortable by using “citizen,” except in one instance:

“I can tell you exactly how many confederate flags there are between Marietta and the mall in Vienna,” said one citizen.

This quote came from a prominent black woman in the area. However, she was not comfortable with this quote being attributed to her for local media to distribute. She did not wish for her occupation to be revealed, so I couldn’t identify her that way.  I found myself suddenly unsure if I should call her “black” or “African-American”—and moreover, I felt that identifying her by her race alone would just reinforce the dividing lines that the conversation took place to blur.  What I saw as my only option was the word I was trying so hard to avoid: “citizen.”

These are the issues that weigh on my mind as I go into my year here with the Center for Civic Life. How can we be a good citizens when we aren’t even citizens, how can we use more inclusive language, and -how can we do it in a way that brings us together for the long haul? For what we are to become, we will become together.

Alice Beecher: Moving Past Cynicism and Into Community

As my car curves up the crooked gravel driveway that leads to the Highlander Center, the sun dips against the Tennessee Mountains like a melting copper coin. There is something energetic, almost sacred, about walking this ground, about the history of resistance embedded in this landscape. Every time I come to the Highlander Center, my internal cynic loses another inch of her grip on my heart. At Highlander, surrounded by brilliant thinkers and organizers, I find myself really believing that a better, more just, more resilient world actually is possible.

As I embarked on a tour of Central Appalachia along with the rest of the 2017 cohort of Appalachian Economic Transition Fellows, I realized that this faith in the possibility of change is essential to building a new, democratic economy in the mountains. In many movement and organizing circles, fatalism can be contagious. In my own history as a community organizer, I have too often felt mired by the weight of confrontation. I fixate on all the systems and institutions I want to tear down, rarely focusing on creating the community and relationships essential to developing the world I want to build up. The Appalachian Transition Fellowship gives young people an incredible opportunity to both learn from and add capacity to organizations doing the slow, confusing, and creative work of imagining the future of this region. From a star park in beautiful, rural Calhoun County WV to community radio and video production in Whitesburg, KY; from an aggregation of growers and food marketers in urban Kingsport, TN, to downtown revitalization efforts in Hazard, KY, the AppFellows host sites present a diverse and creative template for a new economy in Appalachia (and across the country).

In the years I have spent organizing in and around Appalachia, I have gone on many tours of a very different nature. Tours of abandoned mountain top removal sites and toxic prisons. Tours of company stores and fracking wells, oily water and artifacts left by miners who fought and died for their right to unionize. It goes without saying that the industrial development of this region carries a heavy history. It is only the fortitude of tightly bound and proud communities that can transform the economy of these mountains from one based on extraction and exploitation to one built on collective participation and the just distribution of wealth and resources, an economy that is owned by and built for the people who live here. Of course, what that looks like in real terms is complex. As we visited the various sites, it became clear that there is no silver bullet industry that will shift the economic landscape in Appalachia. Nor should there be. A diverse, community centric, and dynamic economic ecosystem is essential to challenging the monopoly on wealth and power responsible for the poverty that exists in these communities.

As an outsider, I decided to come to Appalachia because it is the first place I’ve ever lived that felt like home. A place where my neighbors ask me about my family history, where my friends are quick to pull my car out of the ditch in the road and give me free jars of homemade sauerkraut. While we were driving back to Tennessee, my friend and Highlander staffer Samir told me that the original Greek definition of the word “economy” was “to take care of home”. While I was not born here, Appalachia is my chosen home, and to take care of this land means to plant the seeds of a slow and diligent resistance. By building up alternative economic structures that will give Appalachian people agency over their health and livelihoods, we work to contradict a history of oppression and create collective power.

Brennan Zerbe - Dark Skies

“..because in any case it is deadly to return, in the helpless despair of a final effort to survive, and therefore in a redoubled helplessness and despair, knowing of no other way and knowing that there is no other way, that there can be no other way, it is deadly to return in the end to one’s parents’ house in one’s home town, one’s home land, one’s so-called final refuge.”  

-Thomas Bernhard

 

This is my first blog post for Highlander and the first blog I’ve ever written, and, by way of a caveat, I hardly ever engage with blogs and so questions of tone, style and degree of functionality remain pertinent.  I guess I’ll just let it unfold as organically as possible, or whatever.

Moving to Grantsville ended up being a bit more tedious and protracted than previously hoped- the car I bought had broken down,  I had to buy furnishings for the apartment as I had none, and the apartment had to be purged of all  its previously discarded office supplies: telephones, old floppy disks, fake plastic Christmas trees, scattered wasp remnants,  plaster,  legal tomes, various cords, all of the now useless technological and informational ephemera slowly accumulated in offices all over America.

The town of Grantsville is small, around 500 people live here, and though much of the original buildings show signs of dilapidation, the immediacy of the surrounding mountain is such that, every contour, every stone and precipice is easily discernible from my room, in a large brown reticulation,  you get the impression that you are living wholly within a nest.

 

I’m, just now, really beginning to understand the work I’m to do here.  Right now it consists mostly of seeking out and securing funding to match an ARC grant we a hope to get later in the year.  Roger has largely been an invaluable resource in articulating the political, financial and social hurdles we face.  I found out through him, that the park also houses a number of gas wells, wells which don’t contribute money back into the park, but use the park’s infrastructure to extract the gas.

The issue here, as it is everywhere, is where and from whom to ask for money, knowing that the success of any initiative undertaken, here, is, without any doubt whatsoever, prefigured in its dollar amount, and in the capacity of its proponents to ensure steady injections of cash whenever it starts to dwindle.  In contracting towns all over the United States, as the endemic sources of capital decline in the form of whatever industry propagated it to begin with, there can be no doubt about who holds the power over what remains. It is only in the form of non profit money redistributed from large and well monied industries outside of small towns which can address the banal but important infrastructural needs, easily (or not) addressed by the town itself, decades ago.  Here the money comes from gas or from the federal government, and the local government can control very little of it’s own municipality when it has been rendered irrelevant or innocuous by it’s lack of capital.

There are many people involved in the gas extraction: there are the people who own the mineral rights, the people who own the wells (of which there are multiple different owners),  and there are people who own land just outside of the park for the purpose of extraction.  The county owns the park but the park gets very little in the way of financing from the county.  It’s hard yet to say if this has something to do with some internal grudge, bureaucratic negligence or simply scarce resources.  All three might be at work.  

Roger and I talked a little about what it would take to solicit some of these folks for money from the park. He talked, smiling, about how some rely on the current infrastructure belonging to the park, that there is legal precedent to gently remind them of if they balk at donating to the park, but that they could argue their way out of any legal injunction through other means, but that really we wouldn’t want to roil the waters and spur any dispute.  Generally we are at the caprice of those with superfluous capital to donate, and until these benefactors are certain, we’ll have to busy ourselves in other ways.