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.
Parts Of Me Come And Go
by Katie Myers
Our bodies are sore from sitting and listening this week. My mind and body disconnect sometimes when I’m tired like this. At school they called it attention deficit disorder. With my hands in my lap and my butt in a seat, my mind gets up and takes a walk. I’m in Tennessee, leafy, damp Tennessee; but my mind is in sun-baked Arizona, where thousands of innocent families are being held in detention camps. I have just come from two months out in the desert, working in solidarity with border crossers; the dust kicked up by Border Patrol trucks still catches in my throat, and the silence of the Sonoran night sky hums in my memory. But I’m here now, and I have to focus.
We’re sitting in Hemphill, Kentucky. One of our hosts is telling us his story. He didn’t mean to tell it, it just came out. We’re always asking people to stay in Appalachia, he says. He says, I wasn’t ready. He says, I’m not ready. He says, maybe I will never be ready. Parts of me come and go, he tells us, bending forward, head thrust out before his body, speaking into his hands. Parts of me wander out into the world and then wander back home, my mind and my heart and my ears and my mouth, all spread between the place I live, and my once and future place. His is one of the many tales we’ve been told, during our orientation as Appalachian Transition Fellows.
We’ve been told fantastical tales this week. Fairy tales, even, some beautiful and some sordid. There’s one about a Newport, Tennessee drag queen. She has a name from outer space, a name that gives birth to stars: Nebula. She performs in the town of Newport, Tennessee, where she gleefully points to the church she went to as a child and shrieks, elated, I grew up over there!!
There’s another fairy tale to be found in the town of Big Ugly, West Virginia. Some kids in the area, I was told, made up a creation story about their home: that a drunk giant, dragged home by his wife at night, carved the deep holler with his toe.
Then there’s the sordid ones: the kind that academics tell community members sometimes in the course of their research, saying, This is for you; I’ll bring it back to you when I’m done. The stranger makes a promise: the stranger leaves, gets a PHD, and never returns. Or the kind that self-styled job creators tell. “This manufacturing plant will bring a hundred jobs to your community!” though it’s another story once the plant opens. Or else, a well-intentioned organization smoothing over the rougher parts of Appalachia, smoothing over truths of hardship and pain, to tell a story about what they call “the greatest place on earth”: a made-up land that exists only in pamphlets and powerpoints.
In the mountains you have to backtrack sometimes to get where you’re going: South to Pikeville to get north to Charleston, east to Bristol to get northwest towards Harlan. In Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, we drove a ways down a dirt road and gave up and turned around. People that live around there probably take that road; it’s the quickest way between Morristown and the Clearfork Valley. These roads aren’t on a map. But they will get you there if you can find them and you have the wheels to take you.
If you don’t have the wheels, turn back and take another road: that way is longer, but there’s no shame in it. There’s no shame in taking the road you’re equipped to take, or coming back with the right wheels next time. To think about what parts of us and what parts of history we are taking to the future, what we need to remember of the struggles of the past, to accept history as it is, without denying or dwelling on it. There’s no shame in stopping to think as we talk about “transitional economics” and justice in our places, stopping to think about what do we mean? And who are we giving power to? And who are we taking it from?
That day we got stuck on the dirt road and turned around felt like a blessing. The rain had just stopped and a rainbow was following us over the ridgeline. “We’re the gayest cohort ever,” we said, with a laugh but also with pride: how lucky are we to have one another, when we know full well how it feels to be alone? In the middle of so many parts of us coming and going, in between history and memory, we have each other to hold onto. Between us we can parse out some truths, or sides of the truth, and carve a path forward. Parts of us are scattered throughout this place and we are collecting them, as quick as we can and as slow as we need, so that people here can come and go whole, as they please.
What's Next, West Virginia?
The sweat pools on my hands and threatens to erase the jail support number written on my thigh. The air is thick as cotton. I can still feel the teargas stinging my tongue and lips, can still see the white t-shirts and hip hair-cuts of the hundreds of Nazis marching through downtown Charlottesville. The governor of Virginia has just announced a State of Emergency, effectively cancelling the Unite the Right rally before it officially begins. Confederate flags battle with a banner that reads “SMASH WHITE SUPREMACY” in the flat blue August sky of the Shenandoah. Scattered empty water bottles and respirator masks litter the streets. I can still hear them shouting “We Will Not be Replaced” over and over in horrific chorus, can still see the heads of black clergy bowed in prayer, can still see their white knuckles burning into the bodies of my screaming friends.
For a moment though, we are not running or screaming. We catch a reluctant breath. Local organizers lead a march past Justice Park, and community members honk in solidarity as we chant “Charlottesville We got Your Back We Got Your Back We Got Your Back!” To our surprise, at an intersection we are met by hundreds of other counter-protesters carrying Black Lives Matter and IWW flags, a welcome contrast to the seas of white nationalists who poured down these same roads just hours before. For a moment, it feels like we’re winning. I catch myself spitting out a laugh as we talk about how well we blend in with the UVA preppy-chic in our strategic “Chad and Becky” bloc. The rally is shut down. White supremacists have lost a platform, once again. The pavement trembles against our feet and my bones relax. This ritual feels familiar, this march like every other march I’ve ever been on, feels almost comforting in comparison to the anachronistic nightmare of the morning.
Then there is a sound that is something like gunfire, something like limbs cracking. I happen to be on the sidewalk of the intersection. I run into a side street. The chants and singing collapse again into screams and confusion. I see a scattering of empty shoes, tattered banners. The sun shines like a belt buckle.
“Someone got hit” my friend from East Kentucky says, face plastic and panicked with tears. The cops cars role in, the sirens begin their low persistent moan.
My friend rushes to provide medical support for Heather Heyer. The police pull him away from her as he is doing chest compressions, despite the fact that no EMTS are nearby. My hands grow hot and sticky and the air smells like rust. My friend from Kentucky is crying on the sidewalk, her leg twisted and broken from the trampling crowd. This moment feels like loss.
But what I realize, in the days afterward, when my world becomes a flurry of anxious text messages and the country erupts into stormy rhetoric, is that this was in fact a victory. That the Left was attacked that day in Charlottesville not in a moment of weakness but a moment of strength. That the politics of the neo-confederate, white supremacist alt-right are at their core reactionary, regressive, envious even.
At the moment James Fields hit Heather Heyer with a car in Charlottesville, we were singing. There were masses of us. Despite our ideological and tactical diversity, on the street we supported each other, praying clergy working in tandem with militant black-blocs, medics and legal observers ensuring our safety when the police would not. Blind to the institutional power whiteness already affords and eager to claim victimhood, the far-right craves the comradery and collective resilience we have built for ourselves on the left, despite centuries of oppression and violence. Naming multiculturalism rather than capitalism or state oppression as the enemy of freedom, neo-nazis parrot and distort ‘identity politics’ to fetishize heritages of whiteness. They want our solidarity. They want our power.
These reactionary politics parallel and are informed by Trump’s rise following both the Obama administration and the development of the Black Lives Matter movement. Blaming both the neoliberal elite and racial demographic changes for the weakening white American middle class, white nationalists and Trump supporters locate hope in an autocratic return to 1950s, neo-confederate populism.
But there is only so much power in reaction, in nostalgia for a history both brutal and imaginary. True power rests not in nostalgia, but in faith. In a vision for the future that presents something better than what this fucked up, extractive, colonial world offers us. We gain strength not by pacifying our radicals and catering to the center, not by the Hilary Clinton-esque “unity” preached by mainstream Democrats, but through solidarity. Solidarity means collective struggle that respects a diversity of tactics, from punching Nazis to prayer to potlucks. Solidarity means honoring the leadership of people of color and the legacies of our ancestors who fought fascism in America and the world over. Solidarity doesn’t mean erasing our political differences, but strategically acting in coalition as the moment calls for it. Solidarity means addressing the economic conditions exploited by the Nazis and developing our own anti-racist/anti-capitalist movements for the social redistribution of wealth. Solidarity means recognizing the power that is inherent in standing on the right side of history, in sacrificing personal comfort for the survival of our fellow human beings.
The left tends to wallow in a narrative of weakness, of loss. I’ve even heard friends become so nihilistic as to say that winning isn’t even the goal, that going for wins in these times is to promise the impossible. But what I realized from the horror in Charlottesville is that neo-nazis have nothing on the gravitational pull and power of Black Lives Matter and Queer liberation activists, of antifa and DSAers, of indigenous and immigrant-led struggle. In the words of Assata Shakur, repeated like a prayer by activists in the shivering twilight of the blue hills of Virginia: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom—It is our duty to Win. “
This past week, at the annual Highlander Homecoming at the center in New Market, Tennessee, we remembered how to sing. I was honored and privileged to gather and break bread with organizers, healers, radical educators and revolutionary artists from across the various landscapes of the South. After leading us to braid our hands together in the same holy, powerful chain our movement ancestors have woven together for centuries, we sang “Which Side Our You On” with some of the original SNCC Freedom Singers, our voices echoing in the glittery twilight of the Smoky mountains. This felt like liberation to me. This felt like power.
Although I grew up in the northeast, for most of my adult life I have lived in rural towns in the Rust Belt and Central Appalachia. Confederate flags spring up on car decals and bay windows all over the towns I live and work in—but so do “No Hate in my Holler” t-shirts and ‘Goodnight White Pride’ stickers. The Traditional Worker’s Party, the KKK, and other neo-fascist organizations are actively trying to recruit working class white Appalachian people into their organizations, promoting white nationalism as the answer to crippling de-industrialization and systemic poverty. While much noise is made in the media about “backwards hillbillies” and “Trumps supporters who deserve to die if Medicaid gets cut”, I don’t often read about the everyday work community members are doing to uproot racism in the mountains. Or the fact that very few members of the local community in Pikeville, KY where the TWP hosted a rally this April, showed any kind of enthusiasm for the Nazis coming to town and in fact organized their own counter-event. The narrative that working class Appalachian communities are responsible for the current rise in white nationalism, or even the ascension of Donald Trump, reflects a misguided and factually inaccurate narrative with long historical roots. (https://www.nationofchange.org/2017/07/10/notion-white-workers-elected-trump-myth-suits-ruling-class/)
Coastal elites have consistently scapegoated Appalachian people for the racism that pervades every corner of American society and geography. While neo-confederate and white nationalist sentiment certainly exist in Appalachia, so to do movements to abolish prisons, challenge the police, and create democratic and inclusive communities. Where I live in Eastern Kentucky, we host a weekly radio show connecting the families of prisoners to inmates, run an active campaign to prevent a prison from being built on a mountain-top removal site, and host rallies and dinner table conversations centered on challenging racism and upholding the movement for black lives. Additionally, the narrative of “white racist hillbillies” erases the many communities of color that have made their home in the mountains for centuries. Affrilachian (or African American Appalachians) were in fact the first non-native people to settle in the Appalachian Mountains. (Check out Will Isom’s research on Blacks in Appalachia to learn more!)
While confederates, the KKK, and neo-nazi groups have always tried to recruit from the rural working class, it is important to recognize that these groups maintain their centers of power elsewhere, and that Appalachia has a long history of defecting from both confederate and white supremacist causes. During the Civil War, West Virginia split from Virginia in rejection of the confederacy and many counties in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina voted against secession. During the dramatic “mine wars” of the turn of the century, the UMWA was one of the first unions in America to demand that black workers be paid the same wages as white workers. This is not to absolve Appalachian communities from responsibility for the pervasive, ugly, systemic and interpersonal racism that does exist in the mountains, but to challenge the national narrative that explicit white supremacist groups are solely organized by the southern, rural working class. Richard Spencer and the National Policy Institute (which sponsors the white supremacist American Renaissance policy think-tank) are slick, white collar, wealthy politicians. The “western chauvinist” Proud Boys draw on upper-middle class frat culture to build their racist base. Even the purportedly “socialist” Traditionalist Workers Party has roots in Indiana and the upper Midwest. And let us not forget that Trump himself hails from the urban-northeast megalopolis of New York City.
Most importantly, resistance to white supremacy exists and is powerful in the hills and hollers of Appalachia. Counter-protesters overwhelmed Nazis not only in my home state of Massachusetts but deep in the coalfields of Pikeville, Kentucky. The question that remains in the aftermath of these demonstrations is how do we use these impressive displays of solidarity to leverage actual power?
In the everyday, long-haul, economic transition work I do in Hazard, Kentucky, community leaders are working to build bridges between diverse populations of black, immigrant, and white working class folks to develop a collective vision of what we want our future to look like in the mountains. This means hosting celebratory potlucks that highlight the cuisines of Syrian, Indian, Mexican and other populations that are an essential piece of Hazard’s community fabric, while spurring discussion about the complexities of Appalachian identity and what we can do to make Hazard a more welcoming place for all people. This means hosting poetry workshops with black community leaders centered on defining and re-envisioning home. This means ensuring that city development ideas must recognize and respect the economic and infrastructural needs of everyone up and down the holler, regardless of class or race.
In Appalachia, I believe that we need to draw strength from traditions of militant direct action and multiracial struggle against corporate enemies, from coal mines to Walmarts. We need to build a locally owned, dynamic solidarity economy that values the health of workers and the environment. We also need to do the slow, intentional, long-haul work of unseating centuries of structural and institutional racism. The work to resist prison expansion as a form of economic development, to advocate for single-payer healthcare, to fight gentrification and address environmental racism. That work has been happening for years before this most recent display of white brutality and it will continue now. If we are to actually prevent white nationalism from taking root in the mountains, the urban left must support and respect these ongoing campaigns and struggles in the rural south.
As Highlander Director and fierce change-maker Ash-Lee Henderson so often says, “The South’s Got Something to Say!” It is high time that everyone across the country
The population in urban spaces has grown dramatically over the last few decades. Many small towns are small and getting smaller. As the cities grow, waves of migration wash over small towns leaving residents to pick up the pieces. Grandparents accept that their purpose in life is to enjoy retirement with a daily trip to the cracker barrel, not to care and tend and provide wisdom to the incoming generation who are being raised in the nearest urban center.
Migration happens for different reasons. Some stick around post college, some are drawn to cities for high paying professions like architect or doctor, and some for entrepreneurial opportunity or working class jobs. And then others are there for resources. For the mental health care, VA hospitals, homeless shelters, SNAP agencies, transportation, food pantries, and other social programs that help people who have been forced into cycles of endless capitalism-induced struggle. Such strikingly different situations.
For a while I thought cities were a part of the problem, a concrete nightmare of traffic, pubs, restaurants, car exhaust, and moms driving their “kiddos” from the suburbs to soccer practice. That view has changed over time. I always feel drawn to the natural mountain spaces, the backwood waterfalls, the rolling pastures and deep valley floors that swell rich with a cool wetness. But the appeal of the city is there too. The ease of obtaining, the ability to bike and avoid driving, the constant potential for connection and friendship. The realness of it all. You see humanity in the city, in all its glory and kindness, in all of its despair and selfishness.
No matter what brings you to a city, or whether you have been there your whole life, it is a decidedly different lifestyle than the rural. Both with potential and both with very different circumstances and accolades. In Huntington, WV I walk to my nearby Kroger, over behind the tow yard, a path through the brush and across the tracks, check both ways for the train even though you’d hear it coming, and whisk myself across. I walk the somewhat awkward gravel, track side. I watch for needles. I talk to the guy hanging out nearby. When I reach the destination, coming out just behind the dumpsters, there is often a cop car stationed outside. I wonder to myself if this just serves as intimidation to deter petty theft. I understand that my trespass on the tracks won’t land much attention at all because I am a white woman. And I also understand that this simple walk to Kroger I enjoy is less likely in the rural, where most trips require a car ride.
I feel perpetually torn between the rural and urban, like two parts of me are being pulled in opposite directions. With a passion for farming I long for the ability to shape a piece of land. To learn all about its every curve and hill, to work with the land to cultivate life and sustenance. To discover from the land itself what I can and cannot do. But in the city I find easy connection. On the trip across the tracks that I value so much, I can meet people. I can ask what they want out of life. I can work with them for common goals.
And I wonder, can the truly desperate and most ostracized of our world exist in the rural countryside? Can they consume the abandoned waste from dumpsters without question, or encounter enough passersby to scrounge the money needed for a fix or a meal? Does this mean cities are one of our best hopes for a life built on solidarity for the many and not the few? Or is it that in the country, people rely more on one another in those desperate situations because the institutional support net isn’t as strong, or because travel becomes more difficult? I really don’t fully know those answers.
Maybe the point isn’t what they provide as opposites, but how the two can work together. I have hope for what this relationship could look like. In the perfect vision of a city there are parks and food and gardens and fruit trees. Clear running creeks meander through, ponds collect. People live in shared spaces, working together, using tools to help them collectively gain ownership. We are honest, we share our pain and frustrations, we admit guilt and mistakes, and we move forward. Power production is sourced through spinning windmills and solar arrays. Water is easily collected, purified, and stored. Bike paths cross through and weave the city into a beautiful basket. In the ideal city you find remediated and cleaned soil hosting food throughout.
In the small towns, in the country, we have to maintain the quality of life that makes the rural so wonderful. The small town feel, the neighborliness, and the connection with nature is what can be most promising in these places. In the ideal small town farms are plentiful and the infrastructure needed for processing of locally grown foods is readily accessible. Resources can be moved from these small towns to cities and back again, and with diligent methods we can create sustainability. It doesn’t have to be this hard we just have to put some real thought and resources into it. By putting food, shelter, water, and people first for both the urban and rural spaces, and with a focus on collaboration between the two being essential, we can create small ecosystems of abundance.
I have started to see the city and the countryside, not as opposing ideals, but as complementary ones. We need solutions that model synergy, “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects”. In this practice the city continues to do what it does best, even better, and the countryside the same. They work together to fill in the gaps and places where the other leaves off. They share and manage resources, production, and food. City and country work to perfectly support one another, and their inhabitants, in a way that is positive, life-affirming, and helps people control their lives with dignity and truth. Their partnership unites the forces inside all of us. The forces that guide us toward connection, to both land and to each other.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I was asked to help facilitate a poetry workshop for the congregation at Common Bound Ministries, one of the historic black churches in Hazard. Along with Hazard native Emily Hudson, we led a room full of grandmas, babies, young people, and teenagers in writing poems about what the concept of home means to them, using an exercise developed by Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon. Many of these people had grown up in Hazard, some had left and came back, some moved up from across the mountains and found themselves in this little city.
The process of writing and sharing these poems as a group made me think of what it means to define ‘place’ as a collective, along with who is invited to evolving conversations of what a place becomes when industry, development, and time change the landscapes we call home. In Appalachia, the loss of a thriving coal industry and efforts towards “just” economic transition have provoked questions about what regional identity means without this infamous industry. However, the homogenization of Appalachian cultural and geographic identity by mainstream media has already historically erased the complexity of the stories and identities of people living in the mountains. Until the 1960s, many academic journals formally defined the world “Appalachian” as ‘a white person living in the rural mountainous region of the eastern United States’. Frank X. Walker, founder of the “Affrilachian Poets” sought to challenge this racist, narrow definition by giving a platform to black poets with roots in Appalachia.
Why is it so important that a plurality of voices be involved in the communal defining of any place, and particularly of Appalachia? This collective storytelling matters because it is so easy for those who are awarded structural and political power to determine the economic and infrastructural future of given localities in times of transition. When “home” gets taken away by processes of deindustrialization, corporatization, environmental destruction, and neoliberal capital flight, too often it is only the owning class or political elite that are invited to “imagine” the future of cities and rural places. Often, this translates to city officials and financiers supporting economic development efforts that have the effect of dislocating low-income residents.
We need to start having a conversation in Appalachia about the difference between gentrification and community controlled economic development. Contrary to popular opinion, rural gentrification DOES happen in this country, and does happen in Appalachia, with Asheville, NC and the surrounding towns/cities as the most prominent example of this phenomenon. Gentrification is dangerous because it is a false solution to unemployment and post-industrial recession. The displacement, rising housing costs, and increased policing that so often accompany the creation of elite “creative economies” do not represent a “just” transition from extractive industry. They simply replace extraction economies with exclusive, expensive, tourist enclaves. Without community control over both industrial and downtown/main st development, the story of a place becomes one that is told only by economic and political elites, not by the diverse communities who are deeply rooted in the area.
When I talked to the poets at Common Bound Ministries about what they imagined the future of Hazard would look like, they emphasized a vision that reflected a desire for both growth and continuity, for the physical and economic spaces they call home to become more vibrant but to remain stable. Everyone wants more jobs and prosperity, but no one wants to be rendered expendable as a result of development.
Riding the rails due west through the rolling hills and plains of breadbasket America, I stitch some letters into a felted pillow for a friend. His wedding is this Saturday and the gift we bring is a pillow with scenes of abundance, home, and place sewn into its body. At the bottom it reads a simple quote by poet Wendell Berry, “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.”
Sitting in the lounge car of the Amtrak Zephyr I hold in my hands a reminder of the last few weeks. A souvenir from the Rage and Hope workshop at the Highlander Center, Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown, its edges beginning to curl like an orange peel missing its contents. But the contents of this book are all there, and I am immersed in them like I devour a cool watermelon slice in the heat of summer.
The workshop was a momentous experience as complete strangers came together in a room and faced one another with unadulterated vulnerability. We shared deepest thoughts and fears not holding back on the emotions that poured forth. Like the song we sang together said, “The Ocean refuses no rivers”, we created a collective river in those few days together, its path leading to the bigger pool of human experience, joy, and pain. And as the river leaves us, the river heals us, too.
A friend gifted this book to me, knowing that from the small minute of time we shared I would enjoy the value it carries. And I do. I remember a time in my early twenties when I had only begun to think of what the experience of this world means to me, as I started to challenge the Christianity of my childhood and look for a spiritual rational that fit what I truly knew deep within myself. I landed on relationships. Not simply romantic or familial, but a bigger belief that all interactions are relationships even if just brief in existence. I found that the definition of relationship was so broad and untethered in my mind, a constantly moving force that changed with time and action. A relationship between two individuals will become an entirely different organism with the addition of another being, and so forth. So I decided at that point I would personally replace religion, with relationships.
Emergence is described by Nick Obolensky as “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” Emergent Strategy is the practical lessons we can pattern our life around that put the simple and small in the forefront. Many small relationships and connections lead to something much bigger and more powerful than any state government or large corporation could ever even imagine. Many drops in a powerful river, perhaps.
Emergent strategy is dynamic, changing, chaotic, and at its roots requires collaboration and love that is based on the designs of the natural world from which we come. We often fail to see that the patterns of nature have designed us and brought us to where we are today. It is my personal belief that we ignore these lessons, but only through them will we be able to move forward to a better society.
Brown draws influence from inspiring leaders like Grace Lee Boggs who tells us that “critical connections instead of critical mass” are what truly lead to lasting change. We can get thousands of people to march on Washington and we can get thousands to sign a petition. But before the soles of their shoes have cooled from the pavement protest, people are back to their everyday lives that literally embody all the -archy and -isms we stand against when we stand on the streets.
Why is that? Have we derailed from our original purpose? It seems to me that we have failed to focus on making lasting change in the ways in which we carry ourselves through the world. What do Adrienne Brown and Wendell Berry and Grace Boggs all have in common? What I see in all of these leaders is a passionate emphasis on “good work”, “community”, and of course “relationships”. Right now people go about their lives: some organize, some work in non-profits, some small businesses. AND we go home to our apartments. We cook dinner. We eat over the sink. But organizing social change doesn’t just happen between 9-5 or the hours that we have a scheduled event. It is a part of all aspects of living. And people are hungry!...for food, for community, for change. So let’s give it to them by creating new ways to connect, to share, to dance, to celebrate, to cry, and to laugh. And if we do this under the auspice of working together to cover the many basic needs we all have for safety, food, shelter, art, and love….then we will be on the right track.
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.
Our Communications AppFellow Hope Hart, based at Appalshop, has been visiting each of the Fellows and documenting the work they are doing in their host communities. Check out this excellent album of photos to see the work and places our AppFellows are becoming embedded in!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.