Finding My Place

After this learning tour, I understand much of the transition work going on in Appalachia better. But I’m only beginning to see my place in this work.

First, I ought offer a little background: the first two weeks of our Fellowship began with a tour of the many different sites in Central Appalachia where Fellows are hosted. All the Fellows and the leadership team did this together. We learned about the region, about transition work happening in the region, about how all our Fellowships are parts of a bigger whole, and we learned about each other. It was quite the time.

In Benham, KY, on the AppFellows' Learning Tour.

In Benham, KY, on the AppFellows' Learning Tour.

The visit with my host community in West Virginia made much clearer what will take place in Charleston if I’m successful. The biggest deal here is that the Charleston Area Medical Center – the third-largest private employer in the state – can benefit the community by buying their locally grown produce and herbs. At the moment, none of my hosts seem to know much about the needs and abilities of local growers. They are so knowledgeable otherwise – in other areas, their specialties – that it is clearly my responsibility to understand and respond to the needs of all communities. Rather than thinking that I ought to educate each group about the others beforehand, I’ve come to believe that education will come through working together. I’ll be leveraging the current economic strength of CAMC to transition the region towards a more robust, and democratic, agrarian economy.

CAMC's locally grown offerings in the hospital's cafeteria.

CAMC's locally grown offerings in the hospital's cafeteria.

Morganton, NC’s Opportunity Threads seemed like a clear example of the type of transition we do want. They’ve harnessed North Carolina’s historic fame for textiles into a sustainably-minded worker-owned textile cooperative. Doing so raises the wages and working conditions of those who produce our clothes and other textiles and it democratizes production. This is really important. But perhaps even more importantly, co-ops like this one seem to encourage greater consciousness and intentionality on the part of workers-owners towards our economic system and its place in our society. This can only serve to make us more intentional about the society we want to live in.

Worker-owned cooperative Opportunity Threads in Morganton, NC.

Worker-owned cooperative Opportunity Threads in Morganton, NC.

Greater consciousness and intentionality seem essential to the success of our movement for a more just and sustainable Appalachia – our “transition.” Here, I should take just a minute, play the philosopher, and discuss the meaning of words. The word “transition” comes from the Latin transitionem (nominative transitio) which meant something like “go over” or “go across.” It’s literally related to the word “transit” as in the phrase “public transit” as in “that thing that gets you from home to work”. So when we’re talking about “transition,” we’re talking about moving from one thing to another. Part of our mission is to make sure this happens justly and sustainably (although I’m glad that we aren’t all called the ‘Appalachian Just and Sustainable Transition Fellowship’; that’d be a mouthful).

And, with any movement across, one needs keep both sides of the journey in mind. The site visit with The Alliance for Appalachia and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition helped me keep in mind that from which we are transitioning away. Their discussion of legal challenges to the coal industry, the creation of the WVU environmental law program, and the discussion of cleaning up of rivers were all really important for helping me picture transition. As the coal industry fades in its economic importance, its legacy on our natural landscape looms larger and larger.

One of the most important things I learned on our learning tour, however, was that I possess a peculiar kind of ignorance. Over several years, I’ve become incredibly educated on issues of environmental justice; the intersections of economics, society, and politics; and on social issues of comfort, conflict, and identity. But I haven’t realized, until this week, how difficult it is for me to see all I need to see and to act in the most appropriate ways instinctually. There’s a lot of thick history that we’re all stepping into, and that can’t help but color the way we are thought of. Being better able to act rightly without thinking will require a richer familiarity with that place where, thankfully, I am. Gaining this familiarity will be a big project of mine this year.

 - Joey Aloi