If you would’ve talked to me five years ago, I never would have thought that as a new college graduate I would be greeting the new year by packing my bags and moving to Whitesburg, Kentucky, a small town in the heart of central Appalachia.
I also would not have guessed I would be taking a bus tour of Appalachia as an orientation to my new job, a year-long position at Appalshop in Whitesburg, as a part of the Appalachian Transition Fellowship.
I grew up in West Virginia my entire life, but the world of Appalachian advocacy is relatively new to me. As an adolescent I didn’t consider that my family’s views on hardship could be a part of a specific mountain ideology; I didn’t realize my grandmother’s quilting hobby or my grandfather’s love of finger pickin’ banjo music could be tied to a larger cultural narrative.
Perhaps most strikingly, I was naive to the history of oppression and exploitation this region has endured for centuries. With industries extracting our natural resources of coal, timber, and natural gas though the cheapest means possible, lacking any conscience for its negligence towards the local people and their land, it’s no wonder we’re in the position we are in. “The rest of the country treats us like we’re the cost of doing business in America,” Daile Boulis, a resident of Loudendale, W.Va., sums it up well. But there are silver linings. As we know, the world may be broken, but hope is not crazy.
We AppFellows took a tour of the region to become better oriented with the new and unfamiliar surroundings. In five days traveling the region, we visited thirteen organizations all fighting to make their communities better places for all people who live there.
In Kingsport, Tennessee we attended a conference focused on food and health in Appalachia. It was held at the Second Harvest Food Bank, an organization that processes 1.5 million pounds of donations every month. Their massive warehouse reminded me of a Sam’s or Costcos, except the shelves and freezers were full of food no one was going to have to buy to eat.
In Norton, Virginia we visited the nonprofit Appalachian Voices who is collaborating in a land study to identify who owns the land in the surrounding area. An alarming portion of land in Appalachia is not locally owned, and absentee land ownership is a huge obstacle for the economy. In 1982 a survey of 20 million acres of land and mineral rights found that almost half was owned by 50 private owners and 10 government agencies, with the federal government being the largest owner of property in Appalachia, controlling over two million acres.
In Hazard, Kentucky we met with the Community Farm Alliance (CFA) and Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, Inc. (MACED), two organizations committed to community development through food access and entrepreneurship.
Unlimited Future is a business incubator in Huntington, West Virginia who provides financial support, rental space, and training to budding small businesses to increase their likelihood of success.
Traveling to Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, we learned about What’s Next, WV, a two-year old communications effort that is actually succeeding at getting people to look beyond their differences and disagreement and actually start having productive conversations to identify problems and work towards solutions in their communities. Who knew this was possible?
We also stopped by KISRA in Charleston, who are growing the most visually satisfying and cutest lettuce I have ever seen in their farm-to-table greenhouse project, but then in Calhoun County, West Virginia, the cuteness of this historical village surpassed all expectations, the restored buildings all located in a local park and preserved by a small yet very passionate and dedicated historical society. The park is one of the few dark zones left on the East Coast, meaning light pollution is low there, which allows incredible views of the night sky. Known as the “Dark Skies Project” and the “Star Project,” one fellow is dedicating his year to updating the park to make it more tourist-friendly.
But these aren’t the stories that usually get told. Usually the only good thing I hear about Appalachia is that it’s beautiful. Our mountains, rivers, and forests tap deep into the souls of those who witness them.
But you rarely hear kind words about the people and our culture.
My new position is at Appalshop, a media, arts, and education center that’s been around for almost 50 years. My focus will be on regional communications with the hopes of strengthening our connections within Appalachia and beyond to the nation and world.
As we were in the van weaving in and out of the mountains on the tour, I kept thinking about if there’s something about Appalachia that has perhaps been overlooked, muting our struggles in the stillness of the mountains.
There’s no easy answer, but perhaps the first step is to simply share that we’re here too.