By Courtnie Caldwell
Orientation flew by so quickly it felt like a dream. 10 incredible days with my fellers. We laughed, we cried (mostly me), we sang, and we overcame obstacles that we faced along a journey of a long hard, road of host sites, trials, and tribulations. Though a few of our sites were not pleasant we all maintained composure and for that I am proud of each of you. I know I’m new to this and I just wanted to take the opportunity to commend all of you all for being the courageous and wonderful individuals y’all are, including the education team.
Some sites had their flaws. Specifically, they lacked inclusivity. Like Brandon said in the debrief at Jenny Wiley, the host sites throw around this word “community” and never really know what it means. Community isn’t just about wealth and the wealthy. Community isn’t just about bringing businesses in. Community is about involvement of all people within that place, including those who will not shop at the latest boutique that opened on main street or visit the newest tourist attraction simply because they cannot afford it.
A few sites lack diversity amongst the group, my site included. It’s as if they try to paint the minority out of the picture entirely. Whether they were intentional or not, it is still blatantly obvious that there has been no outreach to different minority groups. I’m not sure if this comes from a place of fear or lack of trying but it is evident that something needs to be done. The suit and tie white man must be brushed out of the way in order to create a more diverse and inclusive looking community that we all know exists and that we all see.
My favorite part of the entire tour was probably Portal 31. I had never gone to the museum, oddly enough, being that I am from Eastern Kentucky. I’m quite surprised not even my schools in my younger days brought us here. This fun little exhibit was most special to me because it really painted a broad picture of what this area is full of. A diverse group of minorities. Italian immigrants, black immigrants, working class, cash poor folk who broke their backs in these mines for generations. Although I don’t think I have any ancestors who worked Portal 31 specifically, I could still feel the energy of my great-greats and all alike around me in that place.
In closing I’d like to leave you all with some words from Elizabeth Catte. “You know, people ask me now all the time, what it means to be Appalachian. If it’s not a mediocre memoir, if it’s not dependency narratives, if it’s not Scots-Irish heritage, if it’s not black and white poverty photos – what is it? And I like to decline to say because I think self definition is power and if I tell you what or who you are I have taken some power from you and I do not want to do that. I want you to ask these hard questions of yourself and get more powerful for the work that must be done.” I think each of us throughout these twelve months in our host sites should really reflect on what being Appalachian means to us as individuals and not what its meant over a duration of time. It’s not specific to mining, its not country music, its not the opioid epidemic. It’s special to each of us. Whether you’re from where you’re placed or you just moved there for a short period of time, that place is with you now and always.