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“There’s nothing to do here” is an all too commonly overheard statement in my southern West Virginia coalfield region. When I think of economic decline in the coalfields, as with many Central Appalachian places, the arts, culture, and social recreation venues were (and are) the first to dissolve. In my county, Boone, there used to be dozens of small coal camp communities that were fairly self-sufficient, equipped with grocery stores, mechanics, hardware stores, restaurants, and a maybe a bowling alley, theater, or a dance and music hall. This is no longer the case. Access to local entertainment and social venues is nearly nonexistent, and in some places, they don’t exist at all.
The availability of social venues and access to local entertainment can help free families of a small bit of financial burden as they seek enjoyment when times are tight. In many cases, families can only participate in free or really low-cost activities--it’s their only option. According to the Child Welfare League of America, in West Virginia in 2015, 180,000 children lived below 200% of poverty.
Then: I vaguely remember as a small girl, maybe 4, walking into the bowling alley in Madison, down Spars (Sparrows) Creek. Dim lighting. Smoke. A bright child’s playroom with colorful toys off to the right, where my dad ushered me in while he went to talk to someone. It was the first and last time I was ever in the place, circa 1983. Not long afterwards, the bowling alley was boarded up and closed down.
In the late 80s and 90s, the closest bowling alley to my family was at Garrett’s Fork, next to Chapmanville, about a twenty minute drive from my home. Doesn’t seem that far from Madison, but when I think about the hollers beyond Madison on Rt. 85, folks traveled an hour to an hour and half to go to that bowling alley. It was an all day affair, just as it is now. The Garrett’s Fork bowling alley closed down sometime around 2000, and the nearest bowling alleys today are at least an hour away from Madison.
Now: It’s not often the average parent in rural Appalachia can afford to take their kids to do activities like bowling, movies, trampoline parks, ice skating, or escape rooms. These are great ways for families to engage with each other, but they’re not always practical; they are, in these parts, a luxury, much like fabric softener or shampoo that’s not Suave. Of course, there are creative ways to get around some of the financial challenges. On the rare occasion when my kids and I see a movie in a theater, we generally go on $5.00 Tuesdays, and sometimes we skip popcorn. That’s $20.00 for 4 on a Tuesday versus splurging $55.00 for tickets and popcorn on a Saturday. Realistically, though, this still isn’t possible for many families.
Let’s talk about bowling in 2018. The cost to let my kids participate in this activity is one thing, but the added travel expense and feeding my family during an extended outing outside of our town more than doubles what I would pay if we had a local bowling alley:
Bowling: Family of 4 (if something was available locally)
$40.00 2 games each, shoe rentals
Bowling: Family of 4 (32 miles away)
$40.00 2 games each, shoe rentals
$20.00 fuel (64 miles roundtrip)
$15.00 packed lunch and drinks
Bowling: Family of 4 (32 miles away)
$40.00 2 games each, shoe rentals
$20.00 fuel (64 miles roundtrip)
$30.00 “cheap” dining out and buying drinks at venue
So, why is it important to have accessible local entertainment and social venues?
Access to local arts and culture events contributes to family and community engagement and helps build social skills in young people, all of which can increase youth academic success. Accessible local entertainment can be seen as a supportive relationship to the community just as much as an avenue for entertainment. Access to local entertainment and social venues gives youth and families opportunities to engage with others to learn new skills, strengthen talents, and share their skills and talents with others in their community.
Although West Virginia has lots of great stuff to offer, the state possesses a notorious reputation of collecting bad stats (so sorry for going here). This is nothing new for places of poverty. One of the most jaw-dropping stats, though, is about children’s home life during an addiction epidemic. Fifty percent of children across West Virginia do not live with their biological parents, and in some counties, that number skyrockets to around sixty percent. Economic decline. Poverty. Foster care. Kinship care. Single parents. Grandparents raising grandchildren. Great-grandparents raising great-grandchildren. When people are struggling to keep the lights on and food in bellies, social recreation isn’t always a priority, let alone an option.
Think about that.
Now, meet Layla and Isaiah.
Layla and Isaiah are two young musicians from Boone County.
Layla, 17, is homeschooled and lives with her dad, uncle, and beloved pets. Layla is interested in getting an education in linguistics and international studies, and would love to have a career teaching English abroad. Currently, she can speak Russian and will soon start learning Chinese.
Like many young folks, Layla would love to see more support around the LGBTQ community in southern WV.
Isaiah, 21, works a full-time job and lives with his maternal grandmother, great-grandmother, and two younger siblings. He’s interested in music as a career, and dearly loves sharing his talents with others. Sadly, Isaiah’s home recently caught fire and was destroyed. No one was injured, but nonetheless a traumatic experience.
Layla and Isaiah have their love of music in common. Their talents are their strengths, and they have used their strengths as a way to cope during challenging times. Layla and Isaiah share something else in common as well--neither of their mothers are present or active in their lives, and these absences are directly related to substance use disorder in West Virginia.
In spite of these missing figures, Layla and Isaiah have been generously loved and supported by their families. Single parenting, in Layla’s father’s case, and kinship care, as with Isaiah’s grandmother, are crucial topics when discussing the support needed during the recovery and healing of families and communities during an addiction epidemic. Do these nontraditional families have what they need? What do they need to thrive, not just survive? What systemically needs to change in order to meet the needs of all families and youth who are struggling right now and for the next decade? These are difficult questions with no real solutions in site.
However, there are actions that community leaders, residents, and volunteers can take in order to ease the burden of this crisis and provide some support that will help encourage productive adulthood for many youth who need extra support.
One way to address this is to provide healthy social environments and access to local entertainment. For example, a few of us have committed to hosting an open mic night the last Saturday of each month in Madison. This is a small step, I know, but I’m hopeful it’s a step in the right direction. When young people like Isaiah and Layla get up on stage and share their stories, their talents, their fears, and their hopes, and they have people actively listening to them, it strengthens their connections to community and helps them find value in being a part of a group. Creating that safe space, securing long-lasting relationships, having a growth-mindset--these are just a few of the actions that will help transition us into a new Appalachia.
A few weeks ago I was in Knoxville and some friends took me for the first time to a huge second hand bookstore when “Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia” caught my eye. The book has on my reading list after a friend said my family’s hometown of New Hope was mentioned a lot. I am not much of a reader, but over the past few quiet days in the valley I have really enjoyed sitting on my porch and digging into the book while listening to sounds of the holler. I think the book struck me because of the connections to my family roots but also the new places and people in Central Appalachia I am growing to know that were mentioned, several the hometowns of new friends I've met. Wildly enough, the book wasn’t the only place where venomous snakes have entered my reality recently. On the way back from spending an evening with a good friend in Duff, TN wading in the creek by their home, driving on Campbell County backroads, and sharing a meal together over watching Shameless with his mama, I spotted a big ole timber rattler in the middle of the road.
I swerved to miss it, and slammed on my breaks kicking up the white dust that completely and constantly covers my car. I whipped around to check it out and after snapping some shots I threw a rock near it causing it to turn around and slither off back into the safety of the grass. The encounter with this snake brought up thoughts for me about peoples relationship with land and creatures and how stereotypes around caring about nature or land are oftentimes harmful. As someone who has been involved with conservation and environmental education I think a lot about how this relationship is so much more complicated than is often discussed in these “granola” spaces. I think about how a dear friend of mine went to a highly praised environmental education camp in elementary school, and they told me that their first reaction was “what are these white people going to do to me in the woods?”. I reflect on a conversation I had recently with another fellow about how often only certain ways of enjoying nature are praised but that there are so many ways people appreciate and enjoy the “outdoors”. I think about how the community I am in enjoys nature. People go four-wheeling, fishing, and hunting. We sit on our porches, we barbecue, we swim. Vicki Terry, a Woodland Community Land Trust member that was very special in the Clearfork Valley, was working to build an outdoor kitchen and campground before she passed, so that she, her family, and others could enjoy the treasures and tranquility of Rose Ridge Retreat.
The other day I enjoyed touring a local woodworker’s garden and work shed and having conversation over a tasty water melon that he grew along with squash, green tomatoes, and cucumbers that he graciously shared with me. I feel like enjoying the outdoors if often framed or praised in a very exclusionary way that centers wealthy, white, able-bodied people. I also see a lot of paternalistic patterns of discrediting the local knowledge and intimate relationships with land that communities have. An elder in my community talks about how exchanges between “professionals” that work with land and local people needs to be a two-way street where the expertise of community members are honored and centered, rather than discredited. I think about what happens when this doesn’t happen. In Uniontown, Alabama waste water spray fields were installed on two separate occasions, costing millions of dollars, while community members with generations and ancestors of farmers and sharecroppers in the community knew that the soil would not hold the water. Because their expertise was not honored, they continue to live with fields sprayed with human waste that sits on top of the soil. I also think about how my comrades in Birmingham, at the foothills of Appalachia, are organizing a Community Land Trust but their work struggles to be seen as environmental while they are literally using regenerative urban agriculture to grow food for their community and restore polluted and deserted land while resisting gentrification. Who is framing what is and isn’t “environmental” work? Framing what is and isn’t “real” ways to enjoy nature? I’m not sure how rattlesnakes brought me here, but I think we need to recognize the complex histories and relationships with people to the “outdoor” environment and honor local knowledge, and the ways in which different groups of people use, enjoy, restore, and reclaim land.
Land reform is a global issue – and a particularly complicated one in Appalachia, where there is so much inaccessibility surrounding knowledge about who owns the lands, who owns the mineral rights, what issues exist surrounding taxation, and many other unanswered questions. Working on land reform in Appalachia feels so good, but it also feels slow and like I could only begin to chisel away at the tip of the iceberg in a year. When the iceberg is violent colonization, years of economic and racial oppression, classism, and unimaginable ecological destruction and extraction (unless you live here and have seen the effects of mountain-top removal, fracking pipelines, mass clear-cutting and timbering, etc) that feels a bit overwhelming at times. I think the scariest part about talking about land reform in Appalachia, is thinking about what it will take to make it happen. If folks want to lobby about land issues, or chain themselves to mining equipment, or knock on doors and have call-in campaigns, I support all of those things. If folks want to get involved in local governance, or even if they are just trying to get by and don't have a lot of time, energy, or resources to invest in political issues – all of these struggles have value and are a piece of the end goal. But I wonder if any of them bring us that much closer to what we want. Sometimes I wonder if land reform must mean the demise of capitalism – I think it probably does. I wonder when land reform is a tangible means to an end that people have access to, when people can thrive in Appalachia, when there will be reparations for indigenous folks who both left and stayed in this region, and when these things are something more than just radical ideas we talk about with like-minded friends and comrades. I wonder when we can feel safe and not afraid to look in the face of our oppressors and say 'These. Are. Our. Demands'.
Right now, there is a national prison strike happening from August 21st- September 9th. I am so proud of those folks on the inside for taking a stand against their oppressors and saying just that: These are our demands. I can't write a blog for the internet and not think about those folks and their bravery, strength, and resilience right now. You can read more about the prison strike here: https://incarceratedworkers.org/campaigns/prison-strike-2018.
To connect two issues for the sake of it, if you haven't already done so, I'll just say; land reform can't happen without the abolishing the prison industrial complex. Prisoners aren't messing around when they say slavery never ended – it just continued with the 13th amendment and when you hear xenophobes and racists talking about how people overseas are taking our jobs, feel free to remind them that actually, people in prison are doing what-used-to-be a lot of our jobs, usually for very little or even no money at all. Corporations you probably support use prison labor to make their products, offer their services, or otherwise funnel money from free labor to huge corporate systems. In this region, everyone talks about labor and jobs (and revitalizing these today-ineffective economies, whether they were once dependent on coal, now dependent on tourism, etc.) yet there are so many of these modern-day plantations where people work for little to nothing at all, and for most of us on the outside, it is easy to spend all our days without even thinking about those folks, who are literally locked away from society.
Read this interview about the prison strike with Kevin "Rashid" Johnson, currently serving a lifelong sentence in Red Onion State Prison, a maximum security prison in Wise County, VA, facing solitary confinement and other inhumane forms of repression for speaking out about the prison strike here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/23/prisoner-speak-out-american-slave-labor-strike
Prison expansion has impacted the region of Appalachia specifically, and a lot of folks on the inside here face a number of issues such as no access to public transportation or airports when they get out, are locked away in remote areas that make it hard for their family to visit, are in prisons with a number of inhumane environmental conditions, not to mention the vast amount of horrible, evil abuse that happens in prisons in our region. I don't have the answers to land reform in Appalachia – and I love that my job is to strategize and learn from folks about what they think the answers are. But for me, I hope we start with the prisons, or at least, we get to them pretty early on.
In solidarity with the prison strikers in Appalachia and worldwide--
 Dr. Brian Burke described his ethnographic field work in Columbia as “active immersion—not just ‘being there,’ but laboring to know a place,” (publication pending).
I first came to know Martin County, Kentucky through news headlines: Kentucky’s ‘worst’ water system might be only weeks away from collapse (January 26, 2018); Why One County Has Avoided Drinking Its Water For 18 Years (February 8, 2018); The water runs milky and can feel like fire. In this impoverished county, Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan may not help (February 12, 2018).
In the past couple of months, I’ve been getting to know Martin County from my front porch swing in Quail Hollow in Inez. Mickey McCoy’s grandmother grew up in this house, and Mickey remembers when the yard was filled with a large garden with beans, tomatoes, and all kinds of other vegetables that he would help harvest, preserve, and eat. Most days when I sit out on the porch, I chat with a neighbor who passes my house on the way to visit the elderly couple that lives next door. She told me that soon, we will have to drive up the road that leads to the Big Sandy Federal Prison to watch the elk that pass by there in the evening.
I am getting to know Inez at dawn when the mist catches on the mountains and at dusk when the sky colors with the setting sun.
I am becoming familiar with the Inez Walking Trail that follows the creek through town. One evening, a county employee shows me to the part of the path where endangered turtles return year after year to lay their eggs. Another evening, my dog Fiddle, and I briefly share in the excitement of a young family who spot a big turtle in the creek while feeding bread to the ducks. I tell them about the time last week when Fiddle tried to chase a group of ducklings on the water.
I am learning about Martin County during monthly water board meetings, while reading thousands of pages of legal documents about the Public Service Commission’s investigation into the Martin County Water District, and when combing through the archives at the Mountain Citizen newspaper office on Main Street.
I am getting to know Martin County when I buy bottled water at the Walmart in Johnson County, when I buy gas in Floyd County, and when neighbors in Martin County offer me tomatoes, corn, and hot peppers from their backyard gardens.
Mostly, I am learning about Martin County through stories: stories of sickness; stories of corruption; stories about water leaks; and stories about high school football games, the annual Harvest Festival and family reunions.
This place, like every place, is full of contradiction, complexity, joy and grief, and the experiences of everyday life. Martin County is shaped by decades of extraction with very little investment in water infrastructure; it is also shaped by the people who live, work, and play here. Slowly, I am laboring to know Martin County and listen to its many dreams and visions for the future.
By Raynalle Rouse
Anxiety cycled in my stomach like the eye of a hurricane the night before the Appalachian Fellow Tour simply because it was uncharted territory for me. As an African American born and raised in an urban city, I had only become familiar with section of the Appalachian region I live. But, when its time for one to progress, life will make you uncomfortable to move one forward.
As I entered the 15 passenger van to embark on this tour I had no idea what to expect, but the Highlander staff created a safe and open environment amongst the cohort making it really easy to see Highlander will always have our best interest in mind. This formed a trusting relationship, that stands on what brought everyone to the same space, mobilizing the community. As we arrived to the first location in Cosby, TN , I noticed their was a scene of seclusion. Seclusion maybe by choice or possibly by the systems that benefits from cash poor towns. No matter the cause, I feel humans deserve the quality of life. In order for one to have all they need in a rural area they must have wealth to compensate for the large prices companies charge for service.
The organization SEAD understands the how Internet access is a necessity today and contributes to the quality of ones profession and personal life. They have hired a company to install broadband in their community. Broadband will allow the community to use satellite for Internet access instead of fiber optics underground. The new tendency we have to depend on technology will not end, I appreciated seeing an organization who understands that and aims to provide rural areas with internet access.
As we arrived to Eagan, Tennessee we witness an organization dedicated to rebuilding a strong and thriving working class in their area. One way Woodland Community Land Trust assists the community is by proving a program the assist with homeownership. Woodland owns properties that are rented to community members with the hopes of them building enough wealth to receive a mortgage loan to purchase the property.
I noticed that a couple of the groups, though well prepared for us, did not have deep connections to the community. When members state that their communities don’t know what they need, they show there is no interest to know what the community actually feels they need to change their circumstances.
The highlight of this day for me was the Portal 31 tour. There are many families whose history in the Coal Mines appears to be none existent because of white supremacy and racism but Portal 31, in its own way, displayed the diversity in the Appalachian Coal Mining history. It also showed the evolution of mining as technology and time changed.
As members of the Appalachian Community, we are beginning to see there is no running from the drug epidemic. Maced and Appalshop have provided a space for those who want to recover from drugs to work and contribute to society. They have started a catering company and pizza kitchen, used to feed the community.
This day, Wednesday June 20, 2018 was a little challenging for me because I knew we were entering and area that despised my kind, an educated African American woman who was sure and secure about myself. But knew I wouldn’t allow other peoples fear of me prevent me from being present and supportive of my cohort. When we arrived to Inez, KY I noticed there was no minority presence but didn’t allow that to make me anxious. Unexpected it was the actions of a local officer that interfered with my experience. Subconsciously I noticed that another fellow feared asking the officer where to find the restroom so joined her to provide support. Unfortunately for us this officer didn’t see the need to communicate with us, so he rudely shooed us away while local officials watched. Once our experience was brought up in the town meeting, we were invited too, I since us being dismissed so I eliminated all expectations. I knew the initial goal of this town hall meeting was addressing the dirty water in Inez. I appreciate the support other fellows provided when we met with host community members to discuss the ways they could support us better.
Another highlight of orientation for me was the West Marion Community Forum. With harvesting multiple community gardens, this organization is providing the community with veggies to assist with healthy lifestyles. They provide youth with a since of accomplishment because they literally get to plant seeds and watch them grow. This organization also holds forums to provide the community with a safe space to speak and share stories.
Orientation week as impacted my life forever. I am ecstatic to create partnerships while learning for my cohort. I believe we all have something to offer and genuinely care about one another and the empowerment of the people.
“Just Transition” For Who?
By Olivia Lowery
Our learning tour was five days of listening, sharing, and discovering through each central Appalachian state. We ran those mountain roads in our van to visit all 12 host sites. From reclaimed mine lands to urban Appalachia skylines, I feel like I got a crash course in the region I grew up in.
During the tour, we had many conversations about the region-wide initiative “Just Transition” and we met many people who were working towards that goal. But what is, “just transition” anyway? For some this is an effort to revitalize the economy across the region by creating new pathways to making a living. Depending on where you are this could look like downtown revitalization, reclaiming abandoned mountaintop removal sites to grow food on, tourism, uplifting the work of artisans, or just trying to make people see the good in where they live.
For myself, “just transition” is a buzz phrase being used across the region as a stamp to show good virtue while rebranding our current economic system. Good intentioned in its beginning, it’s currently being co-opted and losing meaning as conversations move away from rights of working class people in this region and towards convincing those outside the region that they should spend their money in our communities. So that some lucky person will have a business idea that takes off and the unlucky ones can work for him making $7.25 before taxes.
It is time to have a conversation as a region about this phrase - about extraction. What kind of “just transition” is it if our communities are underpaid, our work undervalued? If we move away from coal but our public schools still have enough students in poverty that 100% of the student body receives free breakfast and lunch, most of them truly needing that aid? How much are we really doing if we replace the industry that harmed our communities with new ones that don’t pay living wage and rely on outside visitors’ tips to make ends meet? If new jobs pay well but cause displacement of people from their homes or require training that is only available to those with a college degree?
It’s time, as a region, to decide who we are working for and what we want our communities to look like. The conversation is only beginning and I’m excited to ask these questions to my community members, cohort, and hosts. It’s time to imagine an Appalachian transition that those who most need it will benefit from.
Reflection on AppFellows 2018 Learning Tour
By Brandon Jent
Quite a few things come to mind when reflecting on our AppFellows 2018 Learning Tour, a trip that took us across twelve communities in five states in six days. There’s a lot I could cover, as I had a lot to reflect on, but for purposes of this blog I’ll talk about what I kept coming back to both during and after the trip:
-People should be our #1 priority, always;
-A community member we met in Sunset Gap, TN said her approach to the work she does is to “flow like water;”
-We say the word “community” an awful lot, and it can mean vastly different things from person to person;
-The best example of “creative placemaking” (a buzzword I’d often heard in nonprofit/community and economic development circles before this fellowship) that I can think of is a church revival in my hometown that took place in May… in a tent in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
I promise that last point is related, even though it wasn’t part of the learning tour or even this fellowship. In fact, all of them boil down to the fact that there are lots of people, interacting in lots of different ways, gathering in lots of different groupings (communities), within any given area that we tend to define as one blanket “community.”
We should identify these smaller communities, where they’re gathering (and why or how) and overall be working towards serving as many people as we can, in as many ways as we can – not just a general area, or county, or even a town. We’re not going to be able to find every single one, and we’re not going to be able to serve every single person in our work (although that should still be what we strive for!)… but we can do our best to work holistically in order to serve as representative a group of people as we can in the areas we work.
A way we can do this is exactly as the community member I mentioned described above – by flowing like water. Not just flowing in the sense of “going with the flow,” but also by moving around obstacles, not making more. What I mean by this is that I feel like I see a lot of “if you build it, they will come” mentality in community and economic development efforts in Eastern Kentucky, and while this has certainly had success in the past, maybe we should try the opposite, too: find where they’re going, and start building there.
This is where the revival comes in. Wal-Mart is an area where lots of people from all over Letcher County come and the church in question knew that as locals. They had a packed tent for a long period of time, with people coming and going as they came and went from the parking lot. I’m not saying we should start staking claim to Wal-Mart parking lots, but just that this is a great example of where our priorities should lie: we should be meeting people where they’re at, literally and figuratively, and building FOR them, WITH them, always keeping them the main priority. How can we have a fair, accessible, thriving economy if no one can participate in it? How can we have a fair, accessible, thriving economy if no one WANTS to participate in it?
By Courtnie Caldwell
Orientation flew by so quickly it felt like a dream. 10 incredible days with my fellers. We laughed, we cried (mostly me), we sang, and we overcame obstacles that we faced along a journey of a long hard, road of host sites, trials, and tribulations. Though a few of our sites were not pleasant we all maintained composure and for that I am proud of each of you. I know I’m new to this and I just wanted to take the opportunity to commend all of you all for being the courageous and wonderful individuals y’all are, including the education team.
Some sites had their flaws. Specifically, they lacked inclusivity. Like Brandon said in the debrief at Jenny Wiley, the host sites throw around this word “community” and never really know what it means. Community isn’t just about wealth and the wealthy. Community isn’t just about bringing businesses in. Community is about involvement of all people within that place, including those who will not shop at the latest boutique that opened on main street or visit the newest tourist attraction simply because they cannot afford it.
A few sites lack diversity amongst the group, my site included. It’s as if they try to paint the minority out of the picture entirely. Whether they were intentional or not, it is still blatantly obvious that there has been no outreach to different minority groups. I’m not sure if this comes from a place of fear or lack of trying but it is evident that something needs to be done. The suit and tie white man must be brushed out of the way in order to create a more diverse and inclusive looking community that we all know exists and that we all see.
My favorite part of the entire tour was probably Portal 31. I had never gone to the museum, oddly enough, being that I am from Eastern Kentucky. I’m quite surprised not even my schools in my younger days brought us here. This fun little exhibit was most special to me because it really painted a broad picture of what this area is full of. A diverse group of minorities. Italian immigrants, black immigrants, working class, cash poor folk who broke their backs in these mines for generations. Although I don’t think I have any ancestors who worked Portal 31 specifically, I could still feel the energy of my great-greats and all alike around me in that place.
In closing I’d like to leave you all with some words from Elizabeth Catte. “You know, people ask me now all the time, what it means to be Appalachian. If it’s not a mediocre memoir, if it’s not dependency narratives, if it’s not Scots-Irish heritage, if it’s not black and white poverty photos – what is it? And I like to decline to say because I think self definition is power and if I tell you what or who you are I have taken some power from you and I do not want to do that. I want you to ask these hard questions of yourself and get more powerful for the work that must be done.” I think each of us throughout these twelve months in our host sites should really reflect on what being Appalachian means to us as individuals and not what its meant over a duration of time. It’s not specific to mining, its not country music, its not the opioid epidemic. It’s special to each of us. Whether you’re from where you’re placed or you just moved there for a short period of time, that place is with you now and always.
Appalachian Transition Fellowship 2018-2019 Orientation and Tour
By Kandi Workman
I spent a lot of time bouncing in and out of observation and reflection modes during this time, wondering how I play a part in change, how I recognize my own power (or lack thereof), and, most importantly, how I support others with their struggles by learning how to empower them. I pondered on what I can learn from all of the wonderful young people I'm partnered with over this year (which, I must say, has been and will be plush and plenty); their acceptance of me; and the merging of cultures and communities, experiences and wisdom.
Wisdom is present at all ages, if we choose to embrace it in all its forms. I think the same can be said about all the communities we toured. There’s wisdom in them mountains, my love. Collective. Cathartic. Courageous.
Wisdom Tradition is a synonym for Perennialism, the idea that there is a perennial or mystic inner core to all religious or spiritual traditions, without the trappings, doctrinal literalism, sectarianism, and power structures that are associated with institutionalized religion.
Appalachian spoken word artist Kirk Judd performs a poem called “The High Country Remembers Her Heritage.” In it, Judd says,
My people was music
They throw’d down roots
And growed up families
They stayed during a time of self-sufficiency. They stayed during a time before industry. They stayed, forged new ways, forged new traditions. They stayed. We are not in an entirely dissimilar situation today. If we are to stay, we have to Adapt. Transition. Change.
The place I grew up loving and being loved in is hurting. But it isn’t just my place. It isn’t just my people.
I was so moved by each and every one of my fellow partners while on this tour. The immersion into this kind of work is what my soul has desired, yet my path was a little longer than others.
To evoke change, to witness change within myself and others, to spend my time with compassionate people, to learn about people power, to love more and deeper than ever before, these are the things of which I will measure the rest of my time on Earth.
Orientation and Learning Tour Blog
By Ricki Draper
On June 15, 2018, as we began the first day of the AppFellows orientation, news continued to break about families being ripped apart at the US/Mexican border. On June 18th, as we loaded the 15-passenger van for a whirlwind 6-day tour of our host sites across Central Appalachia, people gathered at detention centers across the country to protest family separation.
While the world weighed heavy with these and other inhumane acts of state violence, our AppFellows cohort visited vibrant community centers, museums, gardens, and non-profit centers across Central Appalachia; meeting and visiting with the network of people and organizations that make up the 2018-2019 AppFellows program.
One day as we discussed the enormity of climate change and white supremacist violence, my good friend and mentor, William Isom, asked, have we lost the luxury of doing the slow, long-term building work we so believe in? His question played through my head as I sat in on a brainstorming session about new community projects at the Big Ugly Community Center in Southern West Virginia, while children played on the playground outside. I thought about it while teenagers showed us community gardens they helped start in Marion, North Carolina and while we learned about the transportation system the Marion Community Forum built and maintains. I keep thinking about it as I approach the water crisis in Martin County, Kentucky, where I will work for the next year.
As I become overwhelmed with the state of the world and question my position in it, I come back to the imperative “battle while we build”. I believe that we must take care of each other through crisis, the crises of poisoned water and capitalism and the crises of anti-immigration policy, mass incarceration, and police violence. Taking care of each other involves resisting repressive forces while also building community infrastructure and networks of support. Community organizing can be the most effective response to disaster, and those already doing the work in place are often in the best positions to respond.
The Learning Tour strengthened my conviction in place-based organizing. We had met many of the hosts and partner organizations during our orientation at Highlander, but it was significantly different to see the hosts at the sites. There was a sense of comfort and pride as people welcomed us in, pausing in their day to introduce us to their work. Each of the Fellow projects are embedded in and tied to place. Visiting each site allowed us a glimpse into how people are engaged in their places as they respond to both local and global political, social, economic, and historical forces that together make a place.
I am also strengthened by the conviction of the AppFellows cohort and wider network and our collective desire to build better worlds. I hope that our desire to ground our work in justice manifests itself in action this year, and that our work finds viable points of articulation with broader movements for justice. So...here’s to a year of earnest listening, learning, and building, while also humbly pushing, stretching, and battling. I’m excited and grateful for the opportunity to work with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center and Martin County Concerned Citizens this year, and I look forward to reporting back on our work soon!