A Letter to my Loved Ones: Why I’m doing Appalachian transition work and why I need your help

What are your plans after you graduate?

I can’t tell you how many times this question was asked of me over the past twelve months. This time last year, I was toying with the idea of pursuing a master’s in economics or policy, either in the US or the UK. There was also an outer-realm chance I might masochise myself through law school. The question was where and what to study. Not, should I go to school at all? And just as I was beginning to have a response for those wondering what I was doing with my life, my graduate school plans spontaneously combusted.

Now, if you’ve ever witnessed spontaneous combustion, you know it’s second only to stuffing a 20 lb. watermelon with “mortar shell” fireworks, (not that I’ve ever done that), in terms of obliteration that’s so stunning a rainbow should appear afterwards. So you can imagine that the halt of my school plans was brought on by my discovery of something even more exciting and rainbow-worthy: a newly developed program called the Appalachian Transition Fellowship, managed by the Highlander Research and Education Center. I’d heard of that place. I’d heard a lot about that place.

Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932 in the bowels of the Great Depression. Amidst extreme resistance from Southern employers as struggling workers tried to organize labor unions, an activist, an educator, and a Minister founded Highlander "to provide an educational center in the South for the training of rural and industrial leaders, and for the conservation and enrichment of the indigenous cultural values of the mountains."

In the 1950s, Highlander shifted its focus from labor programs to trainings that would fuel the Civil Rights Movement. In 1954, Highlander director Myles Horton, referred to by many as the “Father of the Civil Rights Movement,” hired Septima Clark to lead Highlander’s workshops. Together, Horton and Clark, whom MLK Jr. and others often called the “Mother of the Movement,” trained upwards of 10,000 organizers and teachers at Highlander and in Clark’s Citizenship Schools.

The history gets even richer. In 1955, Clark held a workshop on “Race Relations” at Highlander, in which non-violent civil disobedience was discussed as a tactic to achieve social change. One of the participants in that course was Rosa Parks. Using many of the things she had learned at Highlander, Parks’s actions later that year sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Indeed, many of the Movement’s most visible leaders—MLK Jr., Congressman John Lewis, Ella Baker, James Bevel, Hollis Watkins, Ralph Abernathy, Bernard Lafayette, and Anne Braden—trained at Highlander, and many of the tactics, programs, and strategies of groups like the SNCC and SCLC were borrowed from Highlander.

Cultural programs also played a huge role in Highlander’s institutional character. Zilphia Horton, wife of founder Myles Horton, led Highlander’s cultural programs and is generally credited with transforming a number of hymns and black spirituals such as “We Shall Overcome,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” into organizing songs. Legendary folk musician Pete Seeger, a student of Highlander, adopted and first published Zilphia’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” Guy Carawan, who succeeded Zilphia as music director, went on to introduce “We Shall Overcome” to leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in 1959. Today it is arguably the most recognizable movement song in the world


Highlander’s history has been one of training and capacity building, of laying vital movement infrastructure throughout the twentieth century. Highlander wasn’t a visible piece of the Labor Movement in the way that massive unions like UMWA, CIO, or AFL were. Highlander wasn’t the face of the Civil Rights Movement because it wasn’t leading actions in the way that SNCC or SCLC or MLK were doing. Across both of these movements, however, Highlander provided the crucial space for training and movement strategy. It was at Highlander that most of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement learned how to organize. Highlander made possible the collaboration that birthed programs like the Crusade for Citizenship, Clark’s citizenship schools, and even the creation of SNCC itself.
 

In the belly of the Civil Rights Movement, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander’s charter under the pretense that the school was—of all things—illegally selling liquor. [Earlier in the year, the TN legislature had investigated Highlander for communism, though many believe the red-baiting was prompted by Highlander’s substantial desegregation work. Excerpts from Highlander’s FBI file show that the Bureau had had its eye on the school since at least 1936, when a letter to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the school as “a hot-bed of communism and anarchy.”]

When the sheriff showed up to close the school, it’s said that Horton told the sheriff, “You can padlock a building, but you can’t padlock an idea.”

It was the power of the premise behind Highlander that fueled its immediate rechartering from Monteagle, Tennessee to Knoxville. Eventually, the school relocated to a hillside in New Market, where it operates today. In many ways, this crisis underlined the spirit that you still feel when you’re at Highlander today: no matter how much you can beat down, kill, silence, or discourage people, an idea can never be locked up or destroyed. It is because ideas are immortal—bound neither by time nor treasure nor blood—that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice.”

And if that is the spirit of Highlander, then its foundational principle is this:

Knowledge is power and people have a right to education—where education can be found not in the ivory tower but in the conversations we have with each other in our communities, according to how we want to use knowledge in our lives. It is because of this principle that Highlander’s work has always been about building the capacity of the region to determine its own destiny. The cornerstone is education, because empowering people through knowledge and skills is what gives them the means to pursue whatever change they see best for their communities.

Which brings us to 2014. As we saw throughout the twentieth century, Highlander’s story is about forging the trail to get from the grassroots to the highland. Like the programs of Highlander’s past, the Appalachian Transition Fellowship exists to increase the capacity and connectivity of people working for a just and sustainable economy in Central Appalachia. Fellows have been placed from North Carolina to Appalachian Ohio on projects as diverse as local foods to textiles to renewable energy, and it’s oriented towards developing solutions for the future.

I was floored to discover a Fellowship run according to principles with which I resonated. Things got even better when I was placed at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center (ACLC) in Whitesburg, Kentucky—a beautiful, yet scarred rural area of small coal towns long past their heyday. ACLC provides free legal service to people of the mountains. Our small band of brilliant attorneys takes on a load of interesting and significant cases, which fall into three main categories: black lung cases, mine safety cases, and environmental cases. Witnessing black lung depositions and hearing about property law’s relation to strip mining permits on a daily basis keeps me intrigued, but my work is neither as an attorney nor a paralegal.

Through a participatory research model, I am leading a research-and-action project around the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund. The purpose of the AML fund is to reclaim abandoned coal mines that pose health and safety hazards to communities or the environment. I’m currently writing a white paper on the AML fund that will lay out a set of state and federal policy recommendations on how to best leverage the billion dollar AML fund for economic transition in Central Appalachia. I’m working alongside Kendall Bilbrey, who is doing the outreach and organizing necessary to take our research into action as the project progresses.

Working towards Appalachian transition is something personally dear to me, and I’m more than happy to put off grad school for this chance. I believe change is possible here, at this moment, on a scale Appalachia has yet to experience. One of the main reasons: the coal has run out. It’s no longer controversial that coal seams like the ones that literally powered the industrial revolution, World War I, and World War II no longer exist in Appalachia. After more than a century of mining, the cheap coal of Central Appalachia is gone. The bits that are left have no hope of competing on the market with cheap, fracked Appalachian natural gas

Last week a former miner remarked to me, “The coal market isn’t coming back from this one. I’ve seen my fair share of cycles over my career—the ‘booms’ and the ‘busts’ of the coal industry—but this one, it’s different.” Even if coal makes some miraculous recovery nationally (which it won’t), it’ll be from coal of the Powder River Basin, not Appalachia. So, big changes are coming to Appalachia’s economy whether we like it or not. The inevitability of Appalachian transition presents us with a crucial choice, one that will shape the region for the next century and beyond: what will the new Appalachian economy look like?

Will fracking and natural gas replace coal’s dominance of our political economy? Or will we actually diversify the economy and develop a healthy, sustainable supply of energy?
It is difficult to overstress what such a critical moment presents for Appalachia. What we decide to do with our economy over the next ten years will have untold implications on the future of this region. And it’s largely because of this “Appalachian moment” that many people think some sort of a renaissance is possible. With coal on its way out, Appalachians are presented with the opportunity to construct change in this region in ways that would’ve been unthinkable as recently as five years ago

And it’s about time we make some change because economic need continues to persist here. Take the poverty rate of the average American county. Then double it. This’ll give you the average poverty rate in Central Appalachia. And the per capita income? Half of what the average American makes. The only congressional district poorer than the one I live in—Kentucky’s 5th –is the South Bronx. Sadly, these figures represent more than money: under our current economic system they represent a family’s freedom to simply lead their lives. They represent the means—or lack thereof—to put food on the table, afford an emergency operation for a family member, or put kids through college. The people of Central Appalachia on average have half the means to provide basic necessities for their families simply by virtue of where they live.

And despite the fact that a piece in the NY Times recently called Eastern Kentucky the hardest place to live in America, there’s still a lot more to a place than its economic statistics. Rural spaces like Eastern Kentucky, with their history, culture, and people, will always be worth protecting. As Whitesburg City Councilman Tom Sexton puts it, the transition to a groundbreaking economy is possible here in ways not feasible in other boom-and-bust locales like the Rust Belt, because coal’s boom was not accompanied by significant infrastructure and community investment. The economies of small Appalachian towns were only fueled so long as there was still coal under the mountain. Unlike “steel mills,” “coal camps” were part of an economy engineered to be temporary.

Despite the incomprehensible wealth reaped from coal profits for over 100 years, there has been a surprising lack of metropolitan development—like the kind that’s been a blessing and a curse for the Rust Belt—throughout Central Appalachia. In short, there’s been no rust here because there was never any steel. And the lack of rust in some ways represents a clean slate.

Twenty-first century Appalachia could be a breed of economic comeback America’s yet to see: one that erects industry and lays infrastructure while maintaining rural character and functioning symbiotically with the local people and environment. The fact that the “development” leviathan has left relatively little rust in Appalachia, coupled with the large hole left in the economy by coal’s retreat, provide a once-a-century opportunity to “create a new society in Appalachia from the ground up,” as Tom puts it.

This “Appalachian moment” is partly why I’ve decided to work towards transition. I’m starting a personal blog as a weekly space to share thoughts on Appalachian economics, politics, and culture, to explore questions like: What is Appalachian transition? Why an economic transition? And why transition, not Appalachian revolution? What does a just and sustainable economy really look like? Why has poverty lingered in Central Appalachia? How do I as a layperson find and understand laws relevant to my life—and use them to help make change in my community?

The hope is that we’ll get a collaborative space going to explore the new Appalachian economy at a time when we have a chance to actually bring change to a system that is not working for people in some terribly real ways. Many of my wonderful friends and family often ask me if they can be of help in any way—to let them know how they can support me. To my loved ones, I offer you a reply: you can support me by reading my blog.

You don’t have to agree with it or think my dad jokes are funny. But the first step in creating a better economy for Appalachia has to be sharing ideas about how we are going to do just that. And it would mean the world to me if you would pull up a rocker on Friday mornings and take a few minutes to see what Appalachian nonsense I’ve drawn up this week.

- Eric Dixon