For nearly a week of our orientation, App Fellows and Highlander staff piled into two vans, meandering from New Market, Tennessee to Grantsville, West Virginia, visiting all the host communities where Fellows will be living and working for the next year. On this Learning Tour we listened, observed, inquired, envisioned, laughed, cried, differed, and encouraged. Our adventure was widely educational as we grew in and complicated our understanding of geography, economy, community, each other, and ourselves. Upon returning, a friend asked me if we had a proper tour of Appalachia. My response was no. There are many Appalachias. This region, in its vastness, complexity, and diversity, will take a lifetime or more to see and know. But, I could confidently say, within a week’s time, our newly formed family of App Fellows saw a thought provoking representation of Appalachian Transition. We visited an array of places, both rural and urban, where folks throughout the region are collaboratively envisioning and creating opportunities in food, fiber, land access, media, culture, entrepreneurship, and natural resources. Our tour refreshed ideas, raised questions, and piqued curiosity as we saw projects on different scales, from local to multi-state. We wondered how all of these parts are interconnected, working towards something bigger than any individual project, yet all contributing through their own unique approaches and resources. We pondered the spaces where fellows, communities, and organizations can find common ground, support one another in work towards a rooted, vibrant, thriving Appalachia. I was encouraged and inspired to glimpse the projects that fellow App Fellows will be a part of. As I engage with my work in Hindman and Eastern Kentucky, I will hold in my mind and heart the work simultaneously happening in Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee, neighboring Kentucky communities, and West Virginia. I am excited and grateful to watch what unfolds in small and big ways over the course of the next year and beyond. I am honored to move into the tasks before me alongside a cohort of smart, compassionate, energetic peers who will offer mutual support along the way.
In reflecting upon the tour and the work we will be engaged in, two interconnected phrases keep returning to me. One phrase I remember from growing up in the Methodist tradition: “in essentials unity, in nonessentials diversity, in all things love.” The other a phrase I first heard from folks I knew in Grenada: “one hand can’t clap,” implying two or more hands are necessary to effectively make noise. As we traveled and listened to people throughout Central Appalachia on our tour, I heard a common thread of the necessity of working together amidst differences. In our communities, in our region, in our nation, we are surrounded by diversity in beliefs, politics, personalities, backgrounds, abilities, opportunities, ethnicities, nationalities, races, classes, genders, sexualities, etc. etc. etc. On this trip, I was reminded of the need to embrace common ground, to find those essentials that we are all working for, and to do so in a spirit of respect, with an attitude of love - dare I say, radical love: a love stronger than the bonds of oppression, a love that believes and moves towards collective liberation. And, what is beautiful, as we enter into this work, is that it is not alone. The work that came before us and will follow is intentionally collaborative: across histories, across passions, across methods, across mountains. Our collaboration is necessary. The freedom and justice we dream of together will take all of us, bit by bit, piece by piece. Daily, we are challenged to remember our work is both constant and interwoven, as civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer profoundly spoke, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
At the opening of our orientation, Elizabeth Wright reminded fellows and hosts that we are now a part of the history of Highlander. We join a legacy of folks who have dedicated their lives to transforming dreams of justice, dignity, and liberation into reality. Let us move forward together, boldly, lovingly, hands clapping in rhythm, towards a just Appalachia, South, nation, and world.