Reflection on AppFellows 2018 Learning Tour

Reflection on AppFellows 2018 Learning Tour

By Brandon Jent

Quite a few things come to mind when reflecting on our AppFellows 2018 Learning Tour, a trip that took us across twelve communities in five states in six days. There’s a lot I could cover, as I had a lot to reflect on, but for purposes of this blog I’ll talk about what I kept coming back to both during and after the trip:

 -People should be our #1 priority, always;

-A community member we met in Sunset Gap, TN said her approach to the work she does is to “flow like water;”

-We say the word “community” an awful lot, and it can mean vastly different things from person to person;

-The best example of “creative placemaking” (a buzzword I’d often heard in nonprofit/community and economic development circles before this fellowship) that I can think of is a church revival in my hometown that took place in May… in a tent in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

I promise that last point is related, even though it wasn’t part of the learning tour or even this fellowship. In fact, all of them boil down to the fact that there are lots of people, interacting in lots of different ways, gathering in lots of different groupings (communities), within any given area that we tend to define as one blanket “community.”

We should identify these smaller communities, where they’re gathering (and why or how) and overall be working towards serving as many people as we can, in as many ways as we can – not just a general area, or county, or even a town. We’re not going to be able to find every single one, and we’re not going to be able to serve every single person in our work (although that should still be what we strive for!)… but we can do our best to work holistically in order to serve as representative a group of people as we can in the areas we work.

A way we can do this is exactly as the community member I mentioned described above – by flowing like water. Not just flowing in the sense of “going with the flow,” but also by moving around obstacles, not making more. What I mean by this is that I feel like I see a lot of “if you build it, they will come” mentality in community and economic development efforts in Eastern Kentucky, and while this has certainly had success in the past, maybe we should try the opposite, too: find where they’re going, and start building there.

This is where the revival comes in. Wal-Mart is an area where lots of people from all over Letcher County come and the church in question knew that as locals. They had a packed tent for a long period of time, with people coming and going as they came and went from the parking lot. I’m not saying we should start staking claim to Wal-Mart parking lots, but just that this is a great example of where our priorities should lie: we should be meeting people where they’re at, literally and figuratively, and building FOR them, WITH them, always keeping them the main priority. How can we have a fair, accessible, thriving economy if no one can participate in it? How can we have a fair, accessible, thriving economy if no one WANTS to participate in it?



By Courtnie Caldwell

courtnie 1.jpeg

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. 

courtnie mine.jpeg

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.


Appalachian Transition Fellowship 2018-2019 Orientation and Tour

Appalachian Transition Fellowship 2018-2019 Orientation and Tour

By Kandi Workman

I spent a lot of time bouncing in and out of observation and reflection modes during this time, wondering how I play a part in change, how I recognize my own power (or lack thereof), and, most importantly, how I support others with their struggles by learning how to empower them. I pondered on what I can learn from all of the wonderful young people I'm partnered with over this year (which, I must say, has been and will be plush and plenty); their acceptance of me; and the merging of cultures and communities, experiences and wisdom.

Wisdom is present at all ages, if we choose to embrace it in all its forms. I think the same can be said about all the communities we toured. There’s wisdom in them mountains, my love. Collective. Cathartic. Courageous.

Wisdom Tradition is a synonym for Perennialism, the idea that there is a perennial or mystic inner core to all religious or spiritual traditions, without the trappings, doctrinal literalism, sectarianism, and power structures that are associated with institutionalized religion.

Appalachian spoken word artist Kirk Judd performs a poem called “The High Country Remembers Her Heritage.” In it, Judd says,

            My people was music

            They throw’d down roots

            And growed up families

            And stayed

They stayed.

They stayed during a time of self-sufficiency. They stayed during a time before industry. They stayed, forged new ways, forged new traditions. They stayed. We are not in an entirely dissimilar situation today. If we are to stay, we have to Adapt. Transition. Change.

The place I grew up loving and being loved in is hurting. But it isn’t just my place. It isn’t just my people.

I was so moved by each and every one of my fellow partners while on this tour. The immersion into this kind of work is what my soul has desired, yet my path was a little longer than others.

To evoke change, to witness change within myself and others, to spend my time with compassionate people, to learn about people power, to love more and deeper than ever before, these are the things of which I will measure the rest of my time on Earth.

Orientation and Learning Tour

Orientation and Learning Tour Blog

By Ricki Draper


On June 15, 2018, as we began the first day of the AppFellows orientation, news continued to break about families being ripped apart at the US/Mexican border. On June 18th, as we loaded the 15-passenger van for a whirlwind 6-day tour of our host sites across Central Appalachia, people gathered at detention centers across the country to protest family separation. 

While the world weighed heavy with these and other inhumane acts of state violence, our AppFellows cohort visited vibrant community centers, museums, gardens, and non-profit centers across Central Appalachia; meeting and visiting with the network of people and organizations that make up the 2018-2019 AppFellows program. 

One day as we discussed the enormity of climate change and white supremacist violence, my good friend and mentor, William Isom, asked, have we lost the luxury of doing the slow, long-term building work we so believe in? His question played through my head as I sat in on a brainstorming session about new community projects at the Big Ugly Community Center in Southern West Virginia, while children played on the playground outside. I thought about it while teenagers showed us community gardens they helped start in Marion, North Carolina and while we learned about the transportation system the Marion Community Forum built and maintains. I keep thinking about it as I approach the water crisis in Martin County, Kentucky, where I will work for the next year. 

As I become overwhelmed with the state of the world and question my position in it, I come back to the imperative “battle while we build”. I believe that we must take care of each other through crisis, the crises of poisoned water and capitalism and the crises of anti-immigration policy, mass incarceration, and police violence. Taking care of each other involves resisting repressive forces while also building community infrastructure and networks of support. Community organizing can be the most effective response to disaster, and those already doing the work in place are often in the best positions to respond.  

The Learning Tour strengthened my conviction in place-based organizing. We had met many of the hosts and partner organizations during our orientation at Highlander, but it was significantly different to see the hosts at the sites. There was a sense of comfort and pride as people welcomed us in, pausing in their day to introduce us to their work. Each of the Fellow projects are embedded in and tied to place. Visiting each site allowed us a glimpse into how people are engaged in their places as they respond to both local and global political, social, economic, and historical forces that together make a place.  

I am also strengthened by the conviction of the AppFellows cohort and wider network and our collective desire to build better worlds. I hope that our desire to ground our work in justice manifests itself in action this year, and that our work finds viable points of articulation with broader movements for justice.’s to a year of earnest listening, learning, and building, while also humbly pushing, stretching, and battling. I’m excited and grateful for the opportunity to work with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center and Martin County Concerned Citizens this year, and I look forward to reporting back on our work soon!     


Parts Of Me Come And Go

Parts Of Me Come And Go

by Katie Myers

          Our bodies are sore from sitting and listening this week.  My mind and body disconnect sometimes when I’m tired like this.  At school they called it attention deficit disorder.  With my hands in my lap and my butt in a seat, my mind gets up and takes a walk.  I’m in Tennessee, leafy, damp Tennessee; but my mind is in sun-baked Arizona, where thousands of innocent families are being held in detention camps. I have just come from two months out in the desert, working in solidarity with border crossers; the dust kicked up by Border Patrol trucks still catches in my throat, and the silence of the Sonoran night sky hums in my memory.  But I’m here now, and I have to focus.

Clearfork Community Institute photo display, Eagan, TN. Photo by Katie Myers.

Clearfork Community Institute photo display, Eagan, TN. Photo by Katie Myers.

           We’re sitting in Hemphill, Kentucky.  One of our hosts is telling us his story.  He didn’t mean to tell it, it just came out.  We’re always asking people to stay in Appalachia, he says.  He says, I wasn’t ready.  He says, I’m not ready.  He says, maybe I will never be ready.  Parts of me come and go, he tells us, bending forward, head thrust out before his body, speaking into his hands. Parts of me wander out into the world and then wander back home, my mind and my heart and my ears and my mouth, all spread between the place I live, and my once and future place. His is one of the many tales we’ve been told, during our orientation as Appalachian Transition Fellows.

            We’ve been told fantastical tales this week. Fairy tales, even, some beautiful and some sordid. There’s one about a Newport, Tennessee drag queen.  She has a name from outer space, a name that gives birth to stars: Nebula.  She performs in the town of Newport, Tennessee, where she gleefully points to the church she went to as a child and shrieks, elated, I grew up over there!!

            There’s another fairy tale to be found in the town of Big Ugly, West Virginia.  Some kids in the area, I was told, made up a creation story about their home: that a drunk giant, dragged home by his wife at night, carved the deep holler with his toe.

Mural painted by children in the Big Ugly Community Center, Big Ugly, WV. Photo by Katie Myers.

Mural painted by children in the Big Ugly Community Center, Big Ugly, WV. Photo by Katie Myers.

            Then there’s the sordid ones: the kind that academics tell community members sometimes in the course of their research, saying, This is for you; I’ll bring it back to you when I’m done.  The stranger makes a promise: the stranger leaves, gets a PHD, and never returns. Or the kind that self-styled job creators tell.  “This manufacturing plant will bring a hundred jobs to your community!” though it’s another story once the plant opens. Or else, a well-intentioned organization smoothing over the rougher parts of Appalachia, smoothing over truths of hardship and pain, to tell a story about what they call “the greatest place on earth”: a made-up land that exists only in pamphlets and powerpoints.

           In the mountains you have to backtrack sometimes to get where you’re going: South to Pikeville to get north to Charleston, east to Bristol to get northwest towards Harlan.  In Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, we drove a ways down a dirt road and gave up and turned around.  People that live around there probably take that road; it’s the quickest way between Morristown and the Clearfork Valley.  These roads aren’t on a map. But they will get you there if you can find them and you have the wheels to take you.

            If you don’t have the wheels, turn back and take another road: that way is longer, but there’s no shame in it. There’s no shame in taking the road you’re equipped to take, or coming back with the right wheels next time. To think about what parts of us and what parts of history we are taking to the future, what we need to remember of the struggles of the past, to accept  history as it is, without denying or dwelling on it. There’s no shame in stopping to think as we talk about “transitional economics” and justice in our places, stopping to think about what do we mean? And who are we giving power to? And who are we taking it from? 

            That day we got stuck on the dirt road and turned around felt like a blessing. The rain had just stopped and a rainbow was following us over the ridgeline.  “We’re the gayest cohort ever,” we said, with a laugh but also with pride: how lucky are we to have one another, when we know full well how it feels to be alone? In the middle of so many parts of us coming and going, in between history and memory, we have each other to hold onto.  Between us we can parse out some truths, or sides of the truth, and carve a path forward. Parts of us are scattered throughout this place and we are collecting them, as quick as we can and as slow as we need, so that people here can come and go whole, as they please.

Rural West Virginia in rain and fog. Photo by Katie Myers.

Rural West Virginia in rain and fog. Photo by Katie Myers.



Alice Beecher - Charlottesville


The sweat pools on my hands and threatens to erase the jail support number written on my thigh. The air is thick as cotton. I can still feel the teargas stinging my tongue and lips, can still see the white t-shirts and hip hair-cuts of the hundreds of Nazis marching through downtown Charlottesville. The governor of Virginia has just announced a State of Emergency, effectively cancelling the Unite the Right rally before it officially begins. Confederate flags battle with a banner that reads “SMASH WHITE SUPREMACY” in the flat blue August sky of the Shenandoah. Scattered empty water bottles and respirator masks litter the streets. I can still hear them shouting “We Will Not be Replaced” over and over in horrific chorus, can still see the heads of black clergy bowed in prayer, can still see their white knuckles burning into the bodies of my screaming friends.

  For a moment though, we are not running or screaming. We catch a reluctant breath. Local organizers lead a march past Justice Park, and community members honk in solidarity as we chant “Charlottesville We got Your Back We Got Your Back We Got Your Back!” To our surprise, at an intersection we are met by hundreds of other counter-protesters carrying Black Lives Matter and IWW flags, a welcome contrast to the seas of white nationalists who poured down these same roads just hours before. For a moment, it feels like we’re winning. I catch myself spitting out a laugh as we talk about how well we blend in with the UVA preppy-chic in our strategic “Chad and Becky” bloc. The rally is shut down. White supremacists have lost a platform, once again. The pavement trembles against our feet and my bones relax. This ritual feels familiar, this march like every other march I’ve ever been on, feels almost comforting in comparison to the anachronistic nightmare of the morning.

    Then there is a sound that is something like gunfire, something like limbs cracking. I happen to be on the sidewalk of the intersection. I run into a side street. The chants and singing collapse again into screams and confusion. I see a scattering of empty shoes, tattered banners. The sun shines like a belt buckle.

   “Someone got hit” my friend from East Kentucky says, face plastic and panicked with tears. The cops cars role in, the sirens begin their low persistent moan.

                My friend rushes to provide medical support for Heather Heyer. The police pull him away from her as he is doing chest compressions, despite the fact that no EMTS are nearby. My hands grow hot and sticky and the air smells like rust. My friend from Kentucky is crying on the sidewalk, her leg twisted and broken from the trampling crowd. This moment feels like loss.

                But what I realize, in the days afterward, when my world becomes a flurry of anxious text messages and the country erupts into stormy rhetoric, is that this was in fact a victory. That the Left was attacked that day in Charlottesville not in a moment of weakness but a moment of strength. That the politics of the neo-confederate, white supremacist alt-right are at their core reactionary, regressive, envious even.

 At the moment James Fields hit Heather Heyer with a car in Charlottesville, we were singing. There were masses of us. Despite our ideological and tactical diversity, on the street we supported each other, praying clergy working in tandem with militant black-blocs, medics and legal observers ensuring our safety when the police would not. Blind to the institutional power whiteness already affords and eager to claim victimhood, the far-right craves the comradery and collective resilience we have built for ourselves on the left, despite centuries of oppression and violence. Naming multiculturalism rather than capitalism or state oppression as the enemy of freedom, neo-nazis parrot and distort ‘identity politics’ to fetishize heritages of whiteness. They want our solidarity. They want our power.

                These reactionary politics parallel and are informed by Trump’s rise following both the Obama administration and the development of the Black Lives Matter movement. Blaming both the neoliberal elite and racial demographic changes for the weakening white American middle class, white nationalists and Trump supporters locate hope in an autocratic return to 1950s, neo-confederate populism. 

     But there is only so much power in reaction, in nostalgia for a history both brutal and imaginary. True power rests not in nostalgia, but in faith. In a vision for the future that presents something better than what this fucked up, extractive, colonial world offers us. We gain strength not by pacifying our radicals and catering to the center, not by the Hilary Clinton-esque “unity” preached by mainstream Democrats, but through solidarity. Solidarity means collective struggle that respects a diversity of tactics, from punching Nazis to prayer to potlucks. Solidarity means honoring the leadership of people of color and the legacies of our ancestors who fought fascism in America and the world over. Solidarity doesn’t mean erasing our political differences, but strategically acting in coalition as the moment calls for it. Solidarity means addressing the economic conditions exploited by the Nazis and developing our own anti-racist/anti-capitalist movements for the social redistribution of wealth. Solidarity means recognizing the power that is inherent in standing on the right side of history, in sacrificing personal comfort for the survival of our fellow human beings.

                The left tends to wallow in a narrative of weakness, of loss. I’ve even heard friends become so nihilistic as to say that winning isn’t even the goal, that going for wins in these times is to promise the impossible. But what I realized from the horror in Charlottesville is that neo-nazis have nothing on the gravitational pull and power of Black Lives Matter and Queer liberation activists, of antifa and DSAers, of indigenous and immigrant-led struggle. In the words of Assata Shakur, repeated like a prayer by activists in the shivering twilight of the blue hills of Virginia: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom—It is our duty to Win. “


                This past week, at the annual Highlander Homecoming at the center in New Market, Tennessee, we remembered how to sing. I was honored and privileged to gather and break bread with organizers, healers, radical educators and revolutionary artists from across the various landscapes of the South. After leading us to braid our hands together in the same holy, powerful chain our movement ancestors have woven together for centuries, we sang “Which Side Our You On” with some of the original SNCC Freedom Singers,  our voices echoing in the glittery twilight of the Smoky mountains. This felt like liberation to me. This felt like power. 

Although I grew up in the northeast, for most of my adult life I have lived in rural towns in the Rust Belt and Central Appalachia. Confederate flags spring up on car decals and bay windows all over the towns I live and work in—but so do “No Hate in my Holler” t-shirts and ‘Goodnight White Pride’ stickers. The Traditional Worker’s Party, the KKK, and other neo-fascist organizations are actively trying to recruit working class white Appalachian people into their organizations, promoting white nationalism as the answer to crippling de-industrialization and systemic poverty. While much noise is made in the media about “backwards hillbillies” and “Trumps supporters who deserve to die if Medicaid gets cut”, I don’t often read about the everyday work community members are doing to uproot racism in the mountains. Or the fact that very few members of the local community in Pikeville, KY where the TWP hosted a rally this April, showed any kind of enthusiasm for the Nazis coming to town and in fact organized their own counter-event. The narrative that working class Appalachian communities are responsible for the current rise in white nationalism, or even the ascension of Donald Trump, reflects a misguided and factually inaccurate narrative with long historical roots. (

Coastal elites have consistently scapegoated Appalachian people for the racism that pervades every corner of American society and geography. While neo-confederate and white nationalist sentiment certainly exist in Appalachia, so to do movements to abolish prisons, challenge the police, and create democratic and inclusive communities. Where I live in Eastern Kentucky, we host a weekly radio show connecting the families of prisoners to inmates, run an active campaign to prevent a prison from being built on a mountain-top removal site, and host rallies and dinner table conversations centered on challenging racism and upholding the movement for black lives. Additionally, the narrative of “white racist hillbillies” erases the many communities of color that have made their home in the mountains for centuries. Affrilachian (or African American Appalachians) were in fact the first non-native people to settle in the Appalachian Mountains. (Check out Will Isom’s research on Blacks in Appalachia to learn more!)  

While confederates, the KKK, and neo-nazi groups have always tried to recruit from the rural working class, it is important to recognize that these groups maintain their centers of power elsewhere, and that Appalachia has a long history of defecting from both confederate and white supremacist causes. During the Civil War, West Virginia split from Virginia in rejection of the confederacy and many counties in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina voted against secession. During the dramatic “mine wars” of the turn of the century, the UMWA was one of the first unions in America to demand that black workers be paid the same wages as white workers. This is not to absolve Appalachian communities from responsibility for the pervasive, ugly, systemic and interpersonal racism that does exist in the mountains, but to challenge the national narrative that explicit white supremacist groups are solely organized by the southern, rural working class. Richard Spencer and the National Policy Institute (which sponsors the white supremacist American Renaissance policy think-tank) are slick, white collar, wealthy politicians. The “western chauvinist” Proud Boys draw on upper-middle class frat culture to build their racist base. Even the purportedly “socialist” Traditionalist Workers Party has roots in Indiana and the upper Midwest. And let us not forget that Trump himself hails from the urban-northeast megalopolis of New York City.

Most importantly, resistance to white supremacy exists and is powerful in the hills and hollers of Appalachia. Counter-protesters overwhelmed Nazis not only in my home state of Massachusetts but deep in the coalfields of Pikeville, Kentucky. The question that remains in the aftermath of these demonstrations is how do we use these impressive displays of solidarity to leverage actual power?

In the everyday, long-haul, economic transition work I do in Hazard, Kentucky, community leaders are working to build bridges between diverse populations of black, immigrant, and white working class folks to develop a collective vision of what we want our future to look like in the mountains. This means hosting celebratory potlucks that highlight the cuisines of Syrian, Indian, Mexican and other populations that are an essential piece of Hazard’s community fabric, while spurring discussion about the complexities of Appalachian identity and what we can do to make Hazard a more welcoming place for all people. This means hosting poetry workshops with black community leaders centered on defining and re-envisioning home. This means ensuring that city development ideas must recognize and respect the economic and infrastructural needs of everyone up and down the holler, regardless of class or race. 

In Appalachia, I believe that we need to draw strength from traditions of militant direct action and multiracial struggle against corporate enemies, from coal mines to Walmarts. We need to build a locally owned, dynamic solidarity economy that values the health of workers and the environment. We also need to do the slow, intentional, long-haul work of unseating centuries of structural and institutional racism. The work to resist prison expansion as a form of economic development, to advocate for single-payer healthcare, to fight gentrification and address environmental racism. That work has been happening for years before this most recent display of white brutality and it will continue now. If we are to actually prevent white nationalism from taking root in the mountains, the urban left must support and respect these ongoing campaigns and struggles in the rural south.  

As Highlander Director and fierce change-maker Ash-Lee Henderson so often says, “The South’s Got Something to Say!” It is high time that everyone across the country

Alice Beecher - Community Led Development vs. Gentrification

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was asked to help facilitate a poetry workshop for the congregation at Common Bound Ministries, one of the historic black churches in Hazard. Along with Hazard native Emily Hudson, we led a room full of grandmas, babies, young people, and teenagers in writing poems about what the concept of home means to them, using an exercise developed by Kentucky poet laureate George Ella Lyon. Many of these people had grown up in Hazard, some had left and came back, some moved up from across the mountains and found themselves in this little city.

  The process of writing and sharing these poems as a group made me think of what it means to define ‘place’ as a collective, along with who is invited to evolving conversations of what a place becomes when industry, development, and time change the landscapes we call home. In Appalachia, the loss of a thriving coal industry and efforts towards “just” economic transition have provoked questions about what regional identity means without this infamous industry. However, the homogenization of Appalachian cultural and geographic identity by mainstream media has already historically erased the complexity of the stories and identities of people living in the mountains. Until the 1960s, many academic journals formally defined the world “Appalachian” as ‘a white person living in the rural mountainous region of the eastern United States’.  Frank X. Walker, founder of the “Affrilachian Poets” sought to challenge this racist, narrow definition by giving a platform to black poets with roots in Appalachia.

Why is it so important that a plurality of voices be involved in the communal defining of any place, and particularly of Appalachia? This collective storytelling matters because it is so easy for those who are awarded structural and political power to determine the economic and infrastructural future of given localities in times of transition. When “home” gets taken away by processes of deindustrialization, corporatization, environmental destruction, and neoliberal capital flight, too often it is only the owning class or political elite that are invited to “imagine” the future of cities and rural places. Often, this translates to city officials and financiers supporting economic development efforts that have the effect of dislocating low-income residents.

We need to start having a conversation in Appalachia about the difference between gentrification and community controlled economic development. Contrary to popular opinion, rural gentrification DOES happen in this country, and does happen in Appalachia, with Asheville, NC and the surrounding towns/cities as the most prominent example of this phenomenon. Gentrification is dangerous because it is a false solution to unemployment and post-industrial recession. The displacement, rising housing costs, and increased policing that so often accompany the creation of elite “creative economies” do not represent a “just” transition from extractive industry. They simply replace extraction economies with exclusive, expensive, tourist enclaves. Without community control over both industrial and downtown/main st development, the story of a place becomes one that is told only by economic and political elites, not by the diverse communities who are deeply rooted in the area.     

When I talked to the poets at Common Bound Ministries about what they imagined the future of Hazard would look like, they emphasized a vision that reflected a desire for both growth and continuity, for the physical and economic spaces they call home to become more vibrant but to remain stable. Everyone wants more jobs and prosperity, but no one wants to be rendered expendable as a result of development.

Alice Beecher - Justice in the Just Transition

               At the recent AppFellows regional gathering in Benham, KY, after spending the day scheming, dreaming, and arguing over what it means to create a “just transition” in the Appalachian economy, we emerged from the conference room to visit the Kentucky Coal Mine Museum. At the Coal Mine Museum, we heard two former UMWA miners talk about their experiences both fighting for the union and fighting against mountain top removal. Then, climbing up a narrow flight of stairs to the roof of the museum, we were met with a fleet of solar panels glistening in the early mountain sunset. This image, which has been both ridiculed and celebrated by pundits commenting on the irony of installing such “green infrastructure” on a museum dedicated to the history of the infamous fossil fuel, illustrates the complexity of the regional debate around “Just Transition.”. According to a PSA about the project I heard on the radio, the solar panels were installed mostly to save money on utility costs, not to make a political point.  But the image made me wonder— if the coal industry is fading regardless of political intervention, and people in Appalachia are forced to consider economic alternatives regardless of their personal ideologies, does it matter whether or not our communities and our allies agree with our views? Additionally, to what degree does the mainstream media erase nuances in Appalachian political thought, making the installation of solar panels on a coal museum so surprising to outsiders?

               I have met many retired miners who are both dedicated friends of coal and fighters of mountain top removal. That “contradictory” stance comes from deeply felt economic realities, and represents a positionality I wish more of our political leaders would respect. The danger, however, in allowing for and embracing such ideological diversity, in making the tent of ideas that exists under the ‘Just Transition’ framework as wide and open as possible, is that a wide tent also makes room for projects that bear an eerie resemblance to the exploitative mono-economies we are supposedly “transitioning” away from.

Take the proposed federal prison in Letcher County, KY, for example. The proposed USP Letcher would take $444 million of federal money to build a maximum security prison on a reclaimed strip mine, in a country that incarcerates a higher percentage of its population (in particular, people of color) than  any other country in the world. But because this prison will bring relatively higher paying jobs to a county in deep economic distress, I’ve anecdotally heard many refer to the prison as a step in the right direction for East Kentucky, if not explicitly a “just transition” away from coal.

               This raises the question of whether or not we are working to push forward the collective education of our communities—specifically, collective education around power and structural violence. If we want to move away from the kind of industry that once paid miners in script and forced children to work for 18 hours a day in dangerous and back-breaking conditions, why would we support an industry that produces billions of dollars in profit for essentially unpaid labor—and relies of structural racism to justify this practice)? While I do not believe in activists self-isolating into ideologically pure subcultures that refuse to engage the people we are supposedly organizing, I think there is an immense danger in allowing terms like “Just Transition” to be appropriated and diluted by the power elite. And I believe we have a duty to be vigilant about recognizing when conversations around economic transition in Appalachia intentionally and unintentionally exclude people that will be directly impacted by whatever economic future happens in the mountains. [jh1] 

               Directly after the regional gathering, I attended a separate, larger conference about economic development in Appalachia.  While the conference introduced me to [jh2] many exciting projects and ideas, I believe [jh3] there were fewer than five black people present at the entire event, and few if any participants I met [jh4] were currently working in the manufacturing or service sector. It is less than surprising to me, given these demographics, that the keynote speaker of thesaid conference was an enthusiastic advocate for capitalism as a way to “get things done and create social change”—a statement that was met with applause and affirmation by most (if not everyone) in the room.  Similarly, when I have attended more local gatherings about economic development in eastern Kentucky, there are very few people of color present, and rarely any attendees who do not work in professional non-profit or government sectors. Where are the Dollar General and Walmart workers at these meetings? Where are the unemployed young people struggling with health issues or addiction? The jargon-heavy language used in such spaces is exclusive and alienating, even for many people who have had access to college education like me.

               I believe a diversity of ideologies, strategies, and tactics will be necessary to build the new world we want to see in Appalachia and across the country. But I can’t quite come to terms with the contrast between environments like The Highlander Center, where we talk about collective liberation and critiquing the machine of capitalism,, and events like the East Kentucky Leadership Conference, where aluminum plants and military drone launch pads are promoted as innovative steps forward for Appalachia. Does the term “Just Transition” really mean anything at all if such contradictory visions for the future can be encompassed within it? Is it still useful, however, to embrace these spaces of contradiction and political tension?  In Appalachia, there is a growing consensus that we need to work with the Trump supporter and the tree-hugger alike if we want to build any kind of real political power. I think it is deeply important to organize a base of diverse backgrounds and political persuasions, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get the world we’re fighting for if we prioritize networking with business owners and politicians over creating community with workers and unemployed people. I think we need to think critically about the term “Just Transition”—who defines it, who implements it, and who ultimately remains in power when the framework is applied.

Hope Hart - AppUpdates via photos!

Our Communications AppFellow Hope Hart, based at Appalshop, has been visiting each of the Fellows and documenting the work they are doing in their host communities. Check out this excellent album of photos to see the work and places our AppFellows are becoming embedded in!