A Most Gracious Host (Community)

I’ve dedicated the past couple posts about the work I’m doing and now I’d like to touch just a little bit on what I think is one of the neatest things about my Fellowship experience: my host community.

(Despite what is an overall warm-and-fuzzy post, I’m not trying to win any favors here – and it wouldn’t do me much good. The pattern seems to be that even when there’s a rift, a difference of opinion, or any measure of frustration, people still find a way to work together. And that’s not something you see just anywhere.)

Most of my work happens in and around Perry County, a seahorse-shaped county in eastern Kentucky with a population of just under 29,000. The county seat and largest city is Hazard, my home for the Fellowship (and beyond?). Hazard itself has a population of something like 4,500, though both population numbers fluctuate with job availability.

The city and the county – not to mention eastern Kentucky as a whole – are abuzz with what we can generally call “transition work.” I would argue that at the center is a force. That force is the “staying spirit” – the want and urge and need to make a community that people can stay in and have their employment, educational, and social needs met.

Let me give you an all-too-brief look at some of what’s growing out of that “staying spirit” here in Perry County.

The first thing that comes to mind is our downtown revitalization group, InVision Hazard. I know that my good friend and fellow Fellow, Willa, would challenge the idea that downtown revitalization is the solution to our problems, but I do think it can be part of a solution – and not just if it’s successful. The most amazing thing about trying to revitalize downtown is how quickly it gives people a focus and a reason to come together. There’s something more tangible about the concept of downtown revitalization than “strengthening economies” or “rebuilding community.” Although a relatively new group, InVision has already hosted several successful events – including a “Haunted Harvest” for Halloween that brought as many as 700 people to downtown. But, skeptic Mae asks, what if we don’t walk away from InVision with a revitalized downtown? I will bet that we will still be better off because people came together to talk, to plan, to make, and to build – and that in itself is community revitalization.

One of the first Invision Hazard steering committee meetings ]

One of the first Invision Hazard steering committee meetings ]

Closely related to InVision is our River Arts Greenway project. The concept behind this project is to get people outside AND downtown by developing a walk alongside our river (which may ultimately also result in more cleanup efforts for the river which may lead to more watersport tourism which may lead to more restaurant demand etc etc).  Accompanying this Greenway will be pieces created by local artists representing the area’s history, heritage, hopes, and future. It is a creative project that can help lead to greater interest in the arts, the outdoors, and the area.

Drawing from an Artists Charrette for the RiverArts Greenway Design 

Drawing from an Artists Charrette for the RiverArts Greenway Design 

Another effort that, to me, indicates a way-to-stay search is the “food and agriculture movement” which is comprised of several initiatives including my own position, Farm to School, Farm to Table, Grow Appalachia, all the great work of the area Extension offices, and farmers’ markets. In the past decade or so, the “food movement” has exploded on a national scale and is often touted to perhaps be more of a panacea than reality proves, but it does offer its own piece of the solution to rampant diet-related disease and diminishing job opportunities.

Farm to Table Coordinator, Jason Brashear, helps deliver local tomatoes to a Perry County school 

Farm to Table Coordinator, Jason Brashear, helps deliver local tomatoes to a Perry County school 

Real quick, while I’m thinking about local food, I have to give a shout-out to our Treehouse Café and Bakery in downtown Hazard for two reasons:

1.      It’s one of the few places to get lunch and dinner downtown

2.      If the walls could talk, they could tell you about the countless meetings over cupcakes and coffee to plan all the pieces of the “transition movement.”

One of many community group meetings over dinner at Treehouse – this one about engaging more stakeholders in InVision efforts.

One of many community group meetings over dinner at Treehouse – this one about engaging more stakeholders in InVision efforts.

Eating and meeting at Treehouse and backing InVision, the ag/food initiatives, and so many other projects is the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, one of my hosting organizations. The Foundation is inspiring in that it promotes philanthropy not only in the form of monetary contributions – but also in “time and talent.” Their goal is to engage everyone in philanthropy and help them invest in their own community. Beyond their mission and their extensive involvement in so much that’s going on, they are also a delight to work for: watching and working alongside people who are trying to make a dream come true – and believe that you can too – is truly the best motivation. 

Check out Our Mountains' Episode 13 on YouTube for more information: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HutCqqbDaqY

 

Apart from these and the many other organizations and efforts I didn’t even mention thanks to space constraints, I would cite another indicator of the staying spirit: a turnover in the local government with the most recent elections.

Audience of the Town Hall Candidates Forum for Mayor and Judge Executive. Photo by Robert Donnan

Audience of the Town Hall Candidates Forum for Mayor and Judge Executive. Photo by Robert Donnan

As with many small towns, Hazard has its share of long-term incumbency and a “that’s just the way it’s done” mindset. Our last mayor came into office in 1978 and had been there until he passed away in 2010, at which point his widow assumed office as the first female mayor of Hazard. My point is that thirty years of mayordom is a long time for anyone, living or otherwise. With this past fall’s elections, we witnessed a huge turnover in our elected officials. I can’t say for sure that I agree with all of the new officials’ visions and ideas (more research is needed), but the fact that voters decided, “Out with the old, in with the new” shows to me at least some sense of a readiness for change.

Now, I will absolutely acknowledge that in each of these efforts, there are certain people who are missing from the table. I don’t mean to claim that any one of these projects or efforts will solve all our problems. But I will assert that the work happening through each of these projects and the others I didn’t mention can be powerful, can be catalysts, and can possibly help make Hazard, Perry County, and eastern Kentucky be a place where people want to - and can - stay. 

- Mae Humiston