As my car curves up the crooked gravel driveway that leads to the Highlander Center, the sun dips against the Tennessee Mountains like a melting copper coin. There is something energetic, almost sacred, about walking this ground, about the history of resistance embedded in this landscape. Every time I come to the Highlander Center, my internal cynic loses another inch of her grip on my heart. At Highlander, surrounded by brilliant thinkers and organizers, I find myself really believing that a better, more just, more resilient world actually is possible.
As I embarked on a tour of Central Appalachia along with the rest of the 2017 cohort of Appalachian Economic Transition Fellows, I realized that this faith in the possibility of change is essential to building a new, democratic economy in the mountains. In many movement and organizing circles, fatalism can be contagious. In my own history as a community organizer, I have too often felt mired by the weight of confrontation. I fixate on all the systems and institutions I want to tear down, rarely focusing on creating the community and relationships essential to developing the world I want to build up. The Appalachian Transition Fellowship gives young people an incredible opportunity to both learn from and add capacity to organizations doing the slow, confusing, and creative work of imagining the future of this region. From a star park in beautiful, rural Calhoun County WV to community radio and video production in Whitesburg, KY; from an aggregation of growers and food marketers in urban Kingsport, TN, to downtown revitalization efforts in Hazard, KY, the AppFellows host sites present a diverse and creative template for a new economy in Appalachia (and across the country).
In the years I have spent organizing in and around Appalachia, I have gone on many tours of a very different nature. Tours of abandoned mountain top removal sites and toxic prisons. Tours of company stores and fracking wells, oily water and artifacts left by miners who fought and died for their right to unionize. It goes without saying that the industrial development of this region carries a heavy history. It is only the fortitude of tightly bound and proud communities that can transform the economy of these mountains from one based on extraction and exploitation to one built on collective participation and the just distribution of wealth and resources, an economy that is owned by and built for the people who live here. Of course, what that looks like in real terms is complex. As we visited the various sites, it became clear that there is no silver bullet industry that will shift the economic landscape in Appalachia. Nor should there be. A diverse, community centric, and dynamic economic ecosystem is essential to challenging the monopoly on wealth and power responsible for the poverty that exists in these communities.
As an outsider, I decided to come to Appalachia because it is the first place I’ve ever lived that felt like home. A place where my neighbors ask me about my family history, where my friends are quick to pull my car out of the ditch in the road and give me free jars of homemade sauerkraut. While we were driving back to Tennessee, my friend and Highlander staffer Samir told me that the original Greek definition of the word “economy” was “to take care of home”. While I was not born here, Appalachia is my chosen home, and to take care of this land means to plant the seeds of a slow and diligent resistance. By building up alternative economic structures that will give Appalachian people agency over their health and livelihoods, we work to contradict a history of oppression and create collective power.