Building Our Future Together in Appalachia

Eastern Kentucky as seen from the top of Pine Mountain in Letcher County. Photo credit: Lafayette College
Eastern Kentucky as seen from the top of Pine Mountain in Letcher County. Photo credit: Lafayette College

Last week’s New York Times featured a story by Sheryl Gay Stolberg about efforts to rebuild the central Appalachian economy in the wake of the coal industry’s collapse. Appalshop is mentioned a number of times—including its origin story during the War on Poverty and its role in incubating Mountain Tech Media, a new for-profit tech company.

The article leads with the thousands of coal jobs that have been lost, the controversy over a “war on coal,” and both political parties’ attempts to capitalize on the issue. Stolberg then goes on to chronicle various ways people here are “imagining Appalachia’s future,” from tech startups to agricultural enterprises to housing renovation.

In some ways, it’s a story we’ve all heard before. But in at least three ways, she’s telling a new story — new to the Times’s national audience, if not to the folks on the ground in Appalachia — that has everything to do with the work Appalshop and our partners are doing here in Letcher County, Kentucky.

First, she resists trumpeting the One Big Thing that will replace coal in a new economy—be it broadband, tourism, or prisons. “People here often say there will be no silver bullets, but rather ‘one thousand silver BBs,’” she reports. Indeed, people here are recognizing more and more that a sustainable, equitable economy can’t be held hostage to the booms and busts of a single industry.

Dancers in full swing at the Carcassonne Square Dance in Letcher County, Kentucky

The culture hub being convened by Appalshop, where local partners work to grow a grassroots economy from the ground up, includes a community center that’s founding a catering company, a volunteer fire department organizing bluegrass festivals, an association of local retail businesses, and an old high school being turned into a commercial kitchen.

Second, it’s a story about Appalachians saving ourselves. This is no small matter. Since the ‘60s, the big story in the national press has been about people from other places — be they profit-seeking coal companies or bleeding-heart volunteers — coming in to save the poor helpless people here.

And it doesn’t feel good. “We never knew we were poor,” I’ve heard time and again from older folks in the area, “until they came in and told us we were”…whoever they were. Just a few months ago I was asked, “How is Appalshop’s Performing Our Future project different from any other project that’s going to save Appalachia?” I replied, “this isn’t a project about saving Appalachia. It’s about Appalachians saving themselves.”

An AMI intern films local artist Jenn Hesh on Main St. in Whitesburg, KY

This has always been the thrust of Appalshop’s work—Appalachians taking control of their own narrative, using media (radio, films, Internet, theater, and more) to tell our own stories and build our own future. Stolberg gets this. She tells story after story, not of people swooping in from on high to save us, but of us saving ourselves.

Finally, it’s a story about people from lots of different backgrounds and political perspectives building our future together. Yes, the story of“cats and dogs…sleeping together in the mountains” and the divide between “tree-huggers and suits” is an oversimplification, and as in any community, the reality is a lot more complicated. But this article is on to something real and important. Older volunteer firefighters may have their differences with younger tech entrepreneurs—but they all sit around the Culture Hub table together. They, and we, are all part of a growing consensus here, which Stolberg captures accurately: our future, for better or worse, is ours to make. No one will do it for us. We must, and will, make it for ourselves.

Ben Fink works at Appalshop and is an avid shape-note-singer. He can be reached at [email protected].