On the eve of the presidential inauguration week, I drove over the Tennessee mountains at dusk from the Highlander Center to my new home in Berea, Kentucky. As I drove over the hills and curves of interstate 75, I thought about the future of this region, feeling the weight of an uncertain future at a time when there is so much in transition. With questions looming about the future of jobs and worker protections, affordable healthcare, basic human rights, access to clean water, and so much more, the difficult work of preparing for a just transition in our region feels more urgent than ever, yet necessarily gradual and slow.
Leaving the App Fellows orientation and tour, I felt a swirl of conflicting emotions: excited for new friendships, comradery, and the incredible innovative action toward change already in motion, humbled by the decades of difficult and dedicated work that so many Appalachian organizers have put into making dreams of a better world possible for younger generations, fear that the climb toward just transition is too steep, grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the important work of building a sustainable and just economy in my home region.
The decline of coal over the last few decades has had devastating impacts on the Appalachian region. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, it is undeniable that new economic opportunities are necessary for people in our region to be able to survive, thrive, and stay. Over the course of the App Fellows tour, we had the opportunity to learn about organizations that are engaged in innovative work and experimentation on building new economies in Appalachia. From building infrastructure to support local food systems, to conducting a comprehensive study of land-ownership in the coalfields, to building community power and re-envisioning rural downtowns for everyone, to facilitating community dialogues on economic transition across steep political divides, to supporting independent community media and creating media narratives that allow Appalachian people to speak for ourselves, organizations such as Appalachian Sustainable Development, MACED, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalshop, West Virginia Center for Civic Life, Community Farm Alliance, and more are doing the hard work of building new economies one day at a time.
After our regional tour, I headed home dreaming and scheming with an eagerness to dig into the work. One of the most beneficial parts of the tour were the hours upon hours that the fellows and management team got to talk with each other and Appalachian organizers about our visions and big questions. How do we generate wealth for our region that will benefit all of us and not just a few? What would it look like to have a new economy built by and for the most marginalized people in our communities? How can small economic projects, such as worker-owned food co-ops, small-scale fiber production, and star-gazing parks bring enough jobs to our communities to have impact? What would it look like to grow the textile industry in central Appalachia with worker-owned mills?
Though I left Highlander with no clear answers to all of these big questions, I felt an enormous sense of gratitude to be part of a program that is asking these questions and experimenting with building solutions created by and for Appalachian people. I am excited to dig deep and to learn from other Appalachian organizers committed to the long-haul transformation of our region and communities. On the way home from Highlander, the sun eased down behind the mountains, creating a beautiful canvass of deep purple and bright pink above the hills. I took a deep breath in, and a feeling of hope crept across me as I drove into the horizon.