“Just Transition” For Who?
By Olivia Lowery
Our learning tour was five days of listening, sharing, and discovering through each central Appalachian state. We ran those mountain roads in our van to visit all 12 host sites. From reclaimed mine lands to urban Appalachia skylines, I feel like I got a crash course in the region I grew up in.
During the tour, we had many conversations about the region-wide initiative “Just Transition” and we met many people who were working towards that goal. But what is, “just transition” anyway? For some this is an effort to revitalize the economy across the region by creating new pathways to making a living. Depending on where you are this could look like downtown revitalization, reclaiming abandoned mountaintop removal sites to grow food on, tourism, uplifting the work of artisans, or just trying to make people see the good in where they live.
For myself, “just transition” is a buzz phrase being used across the region as a stamp to show good virtue while rebranding our current economic system. Good intentioned in its beginning, it’s currently being co-opted and losing meaning as conversations move away from rights of working class people in this region and towards convincing those outside the region that they should spend their money in our communities. So that some lucky person will have a business idea that takes off and the unlucky ones can work for him making $7.25 before taxes.
It is time to have a conversation as a region about this phrase - about extraction. What kind of “just transition” is it if our communities are underpaid, our work undervalued? If we move away from coal but our public schools still have enough students in poverty that 100% of the student body receives free breakfast and lunch, most of them truly needing that aid? How much are we really doing if we replace the industry that harmed our communities with new ones that don’t pay living wage and rely on outside visitors’ tips to make ends meet? If new jobs pay well but cause displacement of people from their homes or require training that is only available to those with a college degree?
It’s time, as a region, to decide who we are working for and what we want our communities to look like. The conversation is only beginning and I’m excited to ask these questions to my community members, cohort, and hosts. It’s time to imagine an Appalachian transition that those who most need it will benefit from.