Transition Means Not Passing the Blame

Being Appalachian has many meanings to the people of this region.  When our group of fellows embarked on a two-week tour of the region, we saw many communities that make up the Central Appalachian region, and what I love about this group of people I get to now consider friends is that everyone loved everywhere we went. Together we saw the problems that faced these communities, but more importantly we saw the beauty. 

At times we found ourselves in one of our own home communities doing the tour, and those moments were some of the most valuable experiences for me.  Carol, who is working in Athens, Ohio, was able to host us for a cook-out at her house one evening.  Sitting on the front porch listening to people laugh and sing campfire songs, or have conversations where we were able to learn about each other more was incredible.  The day we visited Fairmont, I was able to walk around with Joey, whose family lived there, and he grew up there, but he hadn’t lived there in a few years.  I’ll admit we didn’t pay much attention to the walking tour, because I wanted to know the details of the community from someone I could relate to and had a real love for his community.

We had started in Tennessee, traveled to several communities in West Virginia, then on to Ohio. When we had left Ohio and started for my region of East Kentucky, someone in the van pointed out that each state had its own look.  You could physically see the differences of the states and how great it was to know that even nature was providing diversity for the region.  Maybe the tour spoiled me.  Being able to see and love Central Appalachia with people who were also seeing and loving it and more importantly respecting it, all of it, made me want everyone to appreciate these places the way we did.

However, it’s not easy for people to break habits.  We’re all from a region of stereotypes and jokes.  It’s not uncommon to hear someone from outside the region make a joke and hear the Appalachian respond “oh that’s not my state that’s (insert neighboring state here).”  I’m from East Kentucky.  I’m from the coalfields.  I may be the fellow from the smallest community of the group.  It hit me on the tour that my community probably more closely resembles “the sticks” as people have so often been saying in my work outside of home, and I always wonder if my home community is the one they’re always making fun of?   

Recently someone told me they didn’t know how mountain people survived, because of their isolation from the rest of the world.  What really amazed me is that I could tell they believed they were complimenting the region because they added statements like “they’re a hardy, resilient group of people.”   Yet, I was sitting in the same room with them in another state, I had the same smart phone and same computer he did, our experience in media was quiet similar.  I wasn’t isolated.  I’m well-traveled.  Many folks I know are well-traveled.

I met another man from Western Kentucky and he made a comment that people in my end of the state put Mountain Dew in baby’s bottles.  “You’re speaking in stereotypes” was what I managed out of my shocked and furious mind.  After some discussion he apologized and said that people often spout stereotypes at him because he is from Kentucky and he should be more understanding and respectful to not turn around and do it to his fellow Kentuckians.

Central Appalachia is diverse, and we all have developed this defense mechanism to pass the blame of the stereotype onto someone else’s community.  That’s not what transition looks like at all.  One thing I became more aware of during this tour is that Appalachia has several decently sized cities as well.  Knoxville, Charleston, Huntington, and even some of the smaller cities are still larger than the cities I grew up with.  I also have noticed things in these cities being said like “I went so far back in the mountains one day I could hear banjos playing.”   First off, let me say thank God for the banjo - it’s the instrument that leads older people on the dance floor to flat foot at Friday night community centers, and young people experiment with and feel a connection to their home even when they’re not there.  Secondly, quit using it as a stereotype or spouting it out of your mouth like it leaves a bad taste. 

We all love our part of Appalachia and we all want to protect our piece of home; the answer to this is not to belittle someone else’s.  As Appalachians we can all agree that stereotypes are a terrible thing, but we will never break those stereotypes if we say “that’s not us, but it does still exist here in this community.”  To me, transition is helping people to see deeper into the region.  Understand the layers that exist here and you don’t have to over-romanticize this place. If that were the case, we wouldn’t even being doing transition work.  Just realizing that obviously there’s something here to make 14 young adults stay and invest here, and that we can all look at each other’s communities critically and thoughtfully.

- Willa Johnson