“Hell’s Not Far Off” by katie myers

 

This man is the only born and bred Sevierville man in the room.  This happens to him often, I imagine; as a lifelong Democrat and progressive, spaces that give him a sense of belonging are few and far between.  The Sevier County progressives’ meetup that we’re at is mostly a social club, though many of its attendants work hard in their own ways to grow the East Tennessee left.  There are few enough in it that people travel from all over the county, and sometimes as far as Jefferson City and Dandridge to be there.  He’s quiet but sturdy, on the older end of middle age, like many in the room, with overalls on and creases in concentric circles around his head like he’s spent his life smiling impossibly in all directions. He can tell you the history of this place in the way that no one in this room can and people where he grew up simply won’t.  Sevier County, land of rollercoasters and mountains and flowers and moonshine? He has the dirt on it.

            He’s got no interest in tourism, no particular need to smooth things over with the Chamber of Commerce or the arbiters of Christian values and staunch morality, or, especially, to to keep Dolly Parton’s secrets.  Oh man, does he know things about her. He has it on authority that Dolly Parton’s boobs are at least 80% real, since the other women in her family have big boobs too.  He knows that she comes incognito in a wig to visit the Partons (an old, sprawling family) up in the hills, and nobody bothers her but everybody knows.

            He can tell you when and why the jobs left. He can pinpoint the exact moment where neoliberalism wiped away the GM parts plant from the side of the Little Pigeon River, and all the men who’d proudly said they wouldn’t let no union take their jobs were, suddenly, out of a job. The plant reopened in Mexico, and suddenly those guys said it was the Mexicans’ fault. He shakes his head.  No, he says, it wasn’t.  He says the plant is gone but the metals deep in the water remain.

            He says he used to look across the Little Pigeon and see a shivering glow on its surface, light thrown from fires on the banks of it.  Don’t look too long; men in white hoods are there, burning crosses, guarded by a sheriff with a square jaw.  Used to be hard to get a job without the approval of the Klan.  They ran roughshod over Sevier County, a long time ago, firebombing integrated schools, businessmen and police officers playing their game of violent dress-up, pretending that their actions had any ceremonial value greater than that of children pretending to be knights.  He lowers his voice.  They're still here, for sure, for sure.  Sevier County racism does’t just disappear like that.

            These things are all probably common knowledge in the county; I don’t doubt it.  But very few people will talk to you about the Klan.  Dolly Parton?  Sure, everyone and their mother is related to her somehow.  But the land of rollercoasters and mountains and flowers and moonshine, the land of the Dixie Stampede (called Dolly’s Stampede now) and the Hatfield McCoy Dinner Feud and fireworks and cuddly stuffed bears and country diners, over the music of the nightly summer concerts and festivals, I imagine somebody who thinks often about such things can still hear an echo of thundering hooves and see the shiver of flames.

I was once a coal miner's wife By Kandi Workman

Tonight I watched Blood on the Mountain for the first time.

 

I’m a West Virginia UMWA coal miner’s daughter. Granddaughter of coal miners. Both of my parents came from coal camps in Mingo County, and my granny’s house was adjoined to an old mining bathhouse that my papaw converted to a workshop. My dad said his great, great uncle used to own all the land up Pigeon Creek, from Delbarton on. Said taxes ate him alive and a coal company bought almost all his land, except Curry Hollow, if memory served him rightly.

 

When I was growing up, I swore to the moon and stars I’d never be a coal miner’s wife, no way, no how. Strikes. Layoffs. All that dust and dirty buckets and heavy boots. The scares. Dad was covered in 1997, when I was 18. A version of him survived.

 

I got married when I was 19. A buggy boy at Black’s Foodland turned factory worker in Nitro turned water pipeline layer doing a federal job in Cabin Creek turned coal miner by the time he was 21. The money called to him, and like a receptive lover he went. He just couldn’t say no. I became a coal miner’s wife, and neither of us was ever the same.

 

Jeremy eventually went to work at Revolution, the Massey mine in Boone County, WV, near where we both grew up. He was a Massey “member,” terminology pointed out in Blood on the Mountain that was used to create a false sense of place in a surf-like system. My family went to the Massey clinic in Madison, a medical facility established by Massey, and our visits were paid with Massey money. We attended Massey Day in Logan several times (all hail Massey). We even played with Massey bucks, an incentive program in which employees could accrue points and purchase items from the Massey catalog, anything from clothing to guns to toys to vacations, it was in there.  We even owned the Masseyopoly board game (a gift from the company). That’s not a joke.

 

Money was good. Better than good. Jeremy took classes and completed an apprenticeship and  received his underground electrician cards. A decade later, by the time we separated, Jeremy could bring home $8k a  month during a time-intensive work month, seven days a week at 12 hours or more. Revolution was not family-friendly, and he couldn’t say no.

 

I admit I’m still heavy with guilt when I think of the end of my marriage and the demise of the traditional Appalachian family Jeremy and I had created. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t his. I know this now. However, in the beginning of the end, from admittance to acceptance, I blamed it on him, inwardly, as I performed the “it’s not you, it’s me” bit. He was an insecure man, I thought, and I knew hearing his wife say she wanted to end a 13 year marriage wasn’t going to forge his self-worth. I wanted to verbally own all the blame and guilt, gladly and willingly, if it meant I could get out of the dark hole I lived in day after day. 

 

I didn’t understand it then, didn’t understand why he couldn’t say no, why I was raising my kids on my own, why I had become his maid and cook and personal shopper, among other things, except his friend. Why did he want so badly for me to become friends with his mining buddies’ wives? Ugh. Like, you’re in a hole with these guys more than you’re with your family, and then you want to spend all your free time with them (he couldn’t say no), and choose their wives as my friends because I have no freedom  to go out and make my own? An almost inescapable numbness settled in.

 

Tonight I watched Blood on the Mountain for the first time.

 

Denny messaged the other day to tell me Merry Christmas. He was Jeremy’s section boss when we split. Him and Jeremy used to ride together, third shift, so he’d be at the house every evening and every morning. When Jeremy’d get to talking hateful, Denny’d look at him and say, “Now, Pup, you shouldn’t talk to your ole lady that way. She’s a mighty gracious, lovely woman, and if my wife did half as much as she does for you, I’d be pampering her every day and she’d never have to take out the trash.” Of course, Jeremy never got it. He’d say, “She’s the toughest woman I know. Stronger than a man. She can handle it.” But I couldn’t.

 

Denny’s mom died the other day, and it makes me wonder what his thoughts are about life now.

 

Tonight I watched Blood on the Mountain for the first time.

 

I watched my life play out before me, the parts I understood and remembered, parts familiar and friendly, and the revelations of things known but not seen. Living here in Southern WV is very much like not being able to see the forest for the trees. So much of what went wrong in my marriage went wrong because my then-husband was being exploited and made to think that he had the good life. No, scratch that--he was made to think he had the best life. He couldn’t say no.

 

One Sunday morning, mid-Dec in 2010, I woke up, went downstairs, and sat at the kitchen table. The house was quiet. I was so much in my head, mood-flat, teeter-tottering with suicidal flashes of images that I would wish away immediately. I thought, yet again, “Is this the life I’m going to live until I die?” Jeremy came down, smiling, all the kids still in bed. Maybe I was crying, I think. Not sobbing-crying, with sound and theatrics, but the kind of cry when tears melt from the slits of your eyes with no emotion attached to them because the emotion is tucked 300 feet deep somewhere inside, and the tears flow from that swollen well. He asked what was wrong. Calmly, without a shift in emotion, I told him our marriage, our life, was wrong, and I wanted a divorce. Then, with a spark of joy, I became elated and smiled because I had spoken that truth to life. I laughed. I laughed in the midst of his pain and humiliation and fear and immediate sense of abandonment. The laugh of recognition.

 

His words to me were, “But our life is perfect.”

 

Tonight I watched Blood on the Mountain for the first time.

 

 

 

 

On Perfection in Organizing BY katie myers

            Democratizing resources is not a one-size-fits-all activity.  You can occupy land (though at some point, you might be violently expelled from it); you can steal game and ginseng, take water that isn’t legally speaking yours. 

            But the internet isn’t like that.  It’s not a natural resource; quite the opposite, though of course it is made from natural resources. But the content itself, the signals transmitted between homes and data centers….insofar as anything created by humans and made by earthly materials is not natural, it is not natural.

            Let’s explore its history for a minute:

            The creation of the internet was preceded by other  forms of data transmission: telegrams, for instance, and phones, where two places were connected by means of electronic data transmission.  However, these means of communication were not secure and could be easily disrupted. Eventually the US Department of Defense developed a system called ARPANET, which was designed in the Cold War era as a surveillance tool that could outlast a nuclear war and improve the ease and speed of military decision-making.  This is the uncomfortable truth behind a lot of the technology we use.  Combustion, electronic communication, flight - large technologies are developed by the state, in conjunction with private industry, on the backs of the global working class, often to wage war and hoard resources that in turn go back into the technologies themselves.  Copper, silicon, gold, silver.  Coal, oil, gas, rubber.  These were taken from indigenous people on stolen land, these made people sick and are still making them sick. They power my laptop and my phone and the data centers and factories that make them possible.

            These are all difficult realities we counted with when working on rural broadband.  It isn’t possible with things as they are to wash your hands entirely of pain and anguish.   We can try to be good and try to be ethical, but ultimately, if we hang back and try to make everything perfect, our dreams never become reality.  I’ve seen this happen in the places I work in: discussion upon discussion upon discussion, always hampered from action by the perfect blocking concern.  Years and years of it, and not one person’s life changed.  And then I ask, what is ethical?  To tweak everything until it works the way we want it to, or to take action and then learn from experience?

            There are troubling questions about every piece and parcel of organizing work. What we are doing is affecting people’s lives, or hopes to, and often we must be careful not to make promises that we cannot deliver.  In my experience, communities are often more hurt by lack of action than by wrong action - the sense that you came and promised and left, without leaving a trace or a trail to follow; that you did not talk about your work to the community, did not include them in it, and when it predictably fell apart, you went on to other things. 

            This said, and I am speaking for myself but hope I am speaking to experiences shared by other organizers, there is no such thing as perfect work. There just isn’t.  There is the doing and the not doing, the trying and the not trying.  The internet’s roots are in unholy and awful realities, but people need it to do anything in the world as it stands right now, to reduce the harm that capitalism inflicts upon them.  To fight for a free and open internet is to damage the power of corporations like AT&T and Comcast and the Silicon Valley tech lords, and we can also make anti-colonialism a part of our work so that we can explore many kinds of liberation at once.  We did not choose the world we were given, but we can choose to grow and learn from our circumstances, We choose to do the work as kindly and thoughtfully as we can, but we have to go forth and do it, to craft and create with the tools we have, in hopes that someday there can be new tools to work with.

I am already here by Olivia Lowery D'amato

I get worn down easily. I wake up cranky on a Monday and quickly fall into the cycle of “this isn’t going to work,” “I don’t know what I’m doing, I feel like someone else should be doing this,” or “I don’t see how doing this is going to change the state of things.” I feel like a majority of mental space goes towards talking myself down from these feelings.


I recently realized I have to believe in this work as much as I want others to believe in it. I mean, I feel like I’ve believed in this work for a long time but it’s taken me awhile to realize how much of these anxieties is founded in doubt. We have to work to see the world that is possible ourselves if we expect to bring others along with us. If I do not see this world that’s possible in the places where it already exists and believe that it can happen on a larger scale, how can I look into the eyes of another person and tell them that I know we can get there together?  

Gramsci said, “to tell the truth is revolutionary.” And I’ve realized since thinking hard about my doubts that I have a lot of truth to share. In communities where people don’t know whether or not their children are being exposed to toxic chemicals while playing outside during recess, people stand up and demanding accountability. In prisons across the country, people are suffering consequences for demanding humane treatment. In workplaces, kitchen tables, streets, and churches around the globe, people gather - kind of like I do when I see my App Fellows cohort - to heal, strategize, and disrupt. These are the places where it’s happening. My truth is: I am one of many and this is already happening. I am already here, I might as well roll up my sleeves and help out. I am already here, I might as well trust those around me. I am already here, I might as well trust myself.

"The Need for Local Arts and Culture Activities and Venues in Central Appalachia" by Kandi Workman

“There’s nothing to do here” is an all too commonly overheard statement in my southern West Virginia coalfield region. When I think of economic decline in the coalfields, as with many Central Appalachian places, the arts, culture, and social recreation venues were (and are) the first to dissolve. In my county, Boone, there used to be dozens of small coal camp communities that were fairly self-sufficient, equipped with grocery stores, mechanics, hardware stores, restaurants, and a maybe a bowling alley, theater, or a dance and music hall. This is no longer the case. Access to local entertainment and social venues is nearly nonexistent, and in some places, they don’t exist at all.


The availability of social venues and access to local entertainment can help free families of a small bit of financial burden as they seek enjoyment when times are tight. In many cases, families can only participate in free or really low-cost activities--it’s their only option. According to the Child Welfare League of America, in West Virginia in 2015, 180,000 children lived below 200% of poverty.

Storytime...
Then: I vaguely remember as a small girl, maybe 4, walking into the bowling alley in Madison, down Spars (Sparrows) Creek. Dim lighting. Smoke. A bright child’s playroom with colorful toys off to the right, where my dad ushered me in while he went to talk to someone. It was the first and last time I was ever in the place, circa 1983. Not long afterwards, the bowling alley was boarded up and closed down.

In the late 80s and 90s, the closest bowling alley to my family was at Garrett’s Fork, next to Chapmanville, about a twenty minute drive from my home. Doesn’t seem that far from Madison, but when I think about the hollers beyond Madison on Rt. 85, folks traveled an hour to an hour and half to go to that bowling alley. It was an all day affair, just as it is now. The Garrett’s Fork bowling alley closed down sometime around 2000, and the nearest bowling alleys today are at least an hour away from Madison.


Now: It’s not often the average parent in rural Appalachia can afford to take their kids to do activities like bowling, movies, trampoline parks, ice skating, or escape rooms. These are great ways for families to engage with each other, but they’re not always practical; they are, in these parts, a luxury, much like fabric softener or shampoo that’s not Suave. Of course, there are creative ways to get around some of the financial challenges. On the rare occasion when my kids and I see a movie in a theater, we generally go on $5.00 Tuesdays, and sometimes we skip popcorn. That’s $20.00 for 4 on a Tuesday versus splurging $55.00 for tickets and popcorn on a Saturday. Realistically, though, this still isn’t possible for many families.


Let’s talk about bowling in 2018. The cost to let my kids participate in this activity is one thing, but the added travel expense and feeding my family during an extended outing outside of our town more than doubles what I would pay if we had a local bowling alley:


Bowling:  Family of 4 (if something was available locally)

$40.00     2 games each, shoe rentals

Total:       $40.00

Bowling:   Family of 4 (32 miles away)

$40.00      2 games each, shoe rentals

$20.00      fuel (64 miles roundtrip)

$15.00        packed lunch and drinks

Total:        $75.00


Bowling:  Family of 4 (32 miles away)

$40.00     2 games each, shoe rentals

$20.00     fuel (64 miles roundtrip)

$30.00     “cheap” dining out and buying drinks at venue

Total:       $90.00


So, why is it important to have accessible local entertainment and social venues?
Access to local arts and culture events contributes to family and community engagement and helps build social skills in young people, all of which can increase youth academic success. Accessible local entertainment can be seen as a supportive relationship to the community just as much as an avenue for entertainment. Access to local entertainment and social venues gives youth and families opportunities to engage with others to learn new skills, strengthen talents, and share their skills and talents with others in their community.


Although West Virginia has lots of great stuff to offer, the state possesses a notorious reputation of collecting bad stats (so sorry for going here). This is nothing new for places of poverty. One of the most jaw-dropping stats, though, is about children’s home life during an addiction epidemic. Fifty percent of children across West Virginia do not live with their biological parents, and in some counties, that number skyrockets to around sixty percent. Economic decline. Poverty. Foster care. Kinship care. Single parents. Grandparents raising grandchildren. Great-grandparents raising great-grandchildren. When people are struggling to keep the lights on and food in bellies, social recreation isn’t always a priority, let alone an option.
Think about that.

photo by Layla

photo by Layla

 

 

Now, meet Layla and Isaiah.                                                                           


Layla and Isaiah are two young musicians from Boone County.

 

 

 

photo by Layla

photo by Layla

 

Layla, 17, is homeschooled and lives with her dad, uncle, and beloved pets. Layla is interested in getting an education in linguistics and international studies, and would love to have a career teaching English abroad. Currently, she can speak Russian and will soon start learning Chinese.

Like many young folks, Layla would love to see more support around the LGBTQ community in southern WV.

personal photo

personal photo

 

 

Isaiah, 21, works a full-time job and lives with his maternal grandmother, great-grandmother, and two younger siblings. He’s interested in music as a career, and dearly loves sharing his talents with others. Sadly, Isaiah’s home recently caught fire and was destroyed. No one was injured, but nonetheless a traumatic experience. 

Layla and Isaiah have their love of music in common. Their talents are their strengths, and they have used their strengths as a way to cope during challenging times. Layla and Isaiah share something else in common as well--neither of their mothers are present or active in their lives, and these absences are directly related to substance use disorder in West Virginia.


In spite of these missing figures, Layla and Isaiah have been generously loved and supported by their families. Single parenting, in Layla’s father’s case, and kinship care, as with Isaiah’s grandmother, are crucial topics when discussing the support needed during the recovery and healing of families and communities during an addiction epidemic. Do these nontraditional families have what they need? What do they need to thrive, not just survive? What systemically needs to change in order to meet the needs of all families and youth who are struggling right now and for the next decade? These are difficult questions with no real solutions in site.


However, there are actions that community leaders, residents, and volunteers can take in order to ease the burden of this crisis and provide some support that will help encourage productive adulthood for many youth who need extra support.


One way to address this is to provide healthy social environments and access to local entertainment. For example, a few of us have committed to hosting an open mic night the last Saturday of each month in Madison. This is a small step, I know, but I’m hopeful it’s a step in the right direction. When young people like Isaiah and Layla get up on stage and share their stories, their talents, their fears, and their hopes, and they have people actively listening to them, it strengthens their connections to community and helps them find value in being a part of a group. Creating that safe space, securing long-lasting relationships, having a growth-mindset--these are just a few of the actions that will help transition us into a new Appalachia.

"Rattlesnakes and Rants about Nature" by Morgan Pennington

dj&morgan.jpg

A few weeks ago I was in Knoxville and some friends took me for the first time to a huge second hand bookstore when “Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia” caught my eye. The book has on my reading list after a friend said my family’s hometown of New Hope was mentioned a lot. I am not much of a reader, but over the past few quiet days in the valley I have really enjoyed sitting on my porch and digging into the book while listening to sounds of the holler. I think the book struck me because of the connections to my family roots but also the new places and people in Central Appalachia I am growing to know that were mentioned, several the hometowns of new friends I've met. Wildly enough, the book wasn’t the only place where venomous snakes have entered my reality recently. On the way back from spending an evening with a good friend in Duff, TN wading in the creek by their home, driving on Campbell County backroads, and sharing a meal together over watching Shameless with his mama, I spotted a big ole timber rattler in the middle of the road.

snake.jpg

I swerved to miss it, and slammed on my breaks kicking up the white dust that completely and constantly covers my car. I whipped around to check it out and after snapping some shots I threw a rock near it causing it to turn around and slither off back into the safety of the grass. The encounter with this snake brought up thoughts for me about peoples relationship with land and creatures and how stereotypes around caring about nature or land are oftentimes harmful. As someone who has been involved with conservation and environmental education I think a lot about how this relationship is so much more complicated than is often discussed in these “granola” spaces. I think about how a dear friend of mine went to a highly praised environmental education camp in elementary school, and they told me that their first reaction was “what are these white people going to do to me in the woods?”. I reflect on a conversation I had recently with another fellow about how often only certain ways of enjoying nature are praised but that there are so many ways people appreciate and enjoy the “outdoors”. I think about how the community I am in enjoys nature. People go four-wheeling, fishing, and hunting. We sit on our porches, we barbecue, we swim. Vicki Terry, a Woodland Community Land Trust member that was very special in the Clearfork Valley, was working to build an outdoor kitchen and campground before she passed, so that she, her family, and others could enjoy the treasures and tranquility of Rose Ridge Retreat.

Outdoor Kitchen at Rose Ridge Retreat, for Celebration of Life for Vickie Terry

Outdoor Kitchen at Rose Ridge Retreat, for Celebration of Life for Vickie Terry

The other day I enjoyed touring a local woodworker’s garden and work shed and having conversation over a tasty water melon that he grew along with squash, green tomatoes, and cucumbers that he graciously shared with me. I feel like enjoying the outdoors if often framed or praised in a very exclusionary way that centers wealthy, white, able-bodied people. I also see a lot of paternalistic patterns of discrediting the local knowledge and intimate relationships with land that communities have. An elder in my community talks about how exchanges between “professionals” that work with land and local people needs to be a two-way street where the expertise of community members are honored and centered, rather than discredited. I think about what happens when this doesn’t happen. In Uniontown, Alabama waste water spray fields were installed on two separate occasions, costing millions of dollars, while community members with generations and ancestors of farmers and sharecroppers in the community knew that the soil would not hold the water. Because their expertise was not honored, they continue to live with fields sprayed with human waste that sits on top of the soil. I also think about how my comrades in Birmingham, at the foothills of Appalachia, are organizing a Community Land Trust but their work struggles to be seen as environmental while they are literally using regenerative urban agriculture to grow food for their community and restore polluted and deserted land while resisting gentrification. Who is framing what is and isn’t “environmental” work? Framing what is and isn’t “real” ways to enjoy nature? I’m not sure how rattlesnakes brought me here, but I think we need to recognize the complex histories and relationships with people to the “outdoor” environment and honor local knowledge, and the ways in which different groups of people use, enjoy, restore, and reclaim land.

"Land reform can't happen without abolishing the prison industrial complex" by Lill Prosperino

Land reform is a global issue – and a particularly complicated one in Appalachia, where there is so much inaccessibility surrounding knowledge about who owns the lands, who owns the mineral rights, what issues exist surrounding taxation, and many other unanswered questions. Working on land reform in Appalachia feels so good, but it also feels slow and like I could only begin to chisel away at the tip of the iceberg in a year. When the iceberg is violent colonization, years of economic and racial oppression, classism, and unimaginable ecological destruction and extraction (unless you live here and have seen the effects of mountain-top removal, fracking pipelines, mass clear-cutting and timbering, etc) that feels a bit overwhelming at times. I think the scariest part about talking about land reform in Appalachia, is thinking about what it will take to make it happen. If folks want to lobby about land issues, or chain themselves to mining equipment, or knock on doors and have call-in campaigns, I support all of those things. If folks want to get involved in local governance, or even if they are just trying to get by and don't have a lot of time, energy, or resources to invest in political issues – all of these struggles have value and are a piece of the end goal. But I wonder if any of them bring us that much closer to what we want. Sometimes I wonder if land reform must mean the demise of capitalism – I think it probably does. I wonder when land reform is a tangible means to an end that people have access to, when people can thrive in Appalachia, when there will be reparations for indigenous folks who both left and stayed in this region, and when these things are something more than just radical ideas we talk about with like-minded friends and comrades. I wonder when we can feel safe and not afraid to look in the face of our oppressors and say 'These. Are. Our. Demands'.

poster designed by Melanie Cervantes, Xicanx artist and cultural worker and co-founder of Dignidad Rebelde

poster designed by Melanie Cervantes, Xicanx artist and cultural worker and co-founder of Dignidad Rebelde

Right now, there is a national prison strike happening from August 21st- September 9th. I am so proud of those folks on the inside for taking a stand against their oppressors and saying just that: These are our demands. I can't write a blog for the internet and not think about those folks and their bravery, strength, and resilience right now. You can read more about the prison strike here: https://incarceratedworkers.org/campaigns/prison-strike-2018.

To connect two issues for the sake of it, if you haven't already done so, I'll just say; land reform can't happen without the abolishing the prison industrial complex. Prisoners aren't messing around when they say slavery never ended – it just continued with the 13th amendment and when you hear xenophobes and racists talking about how people overseas are taking our jobs, feel free to remind them that actually, people in prison are doing what-used-to-be a lot of our jobs, usually for very little or even no money at all. Corporations you probably support use prison labor to make their products, offer their services, or otherwise funnel money from free labor to huge corporate systems. In this region, everyone talks about labor and jobs (and revitalizing these today-ineffective economies, whether they were once dependent on coal, now dependent on tourism, etc.) yet there are so many of these modern-day plantations where people work for little to nothing at all, and for most of us on the outside, it is easy to spend all our days without even thinking about those folks, who are literally locked away from society.

Read this interview about the prison strike with Kevin "Rashid" Johnson, currently serving a lifelong sentence in Red Onion State Prison, a maximum security prison in Wise County, VA, facing solitary confinement and other inhumane forms of repression for speaking out about the prison strike here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/23/prisoner-speak-out-american-slave-labor-strike

Prison expansion has impacted the region of Appalachia specifically, and a lot of folks on the inside here face a number of issues such as no access to public transportation or airports when they get out, are locked away in remote areas that make it hard for their family to visit, are in prisons with a number of inhumane environmental conditions, not to mention the vast amount of horrible, evil abuse that happens in prisons in our region. I don't have the answers to land reform in Appalachia – and I love that my job is to strategize and learn from folks about what they think the answers are. But for me, I hope we start with the prisons, or at least, we get to them pretty early on.

In solidarity with the prison strikers in Appalachia and worldwide--

L.P.  
 

"The Labor of Getting to Know a Place [1]" by Ricki Draper

[1] Dr. Brian Burke described his ethnographic field work in Columbia as “active immersion—not just ‘being there,’ but laboring to know a place,” (publication pending).

I first came to know Martin County, Kentucky through news headlines: Kentucky’s ‘worst’ water system might be only weeks away from collapse (January 26, 2018); Why One County Has Avoided Drinking Its Water For 18 Years (February 8, 2018); The water runs milky and can feel like fire. In this impoverished county, Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan may not help (February 12, 2018).

In the past couple of months, I’ve been getting to know Martin County from my front porch swing in Quail Hollow in Inez. Mickey McCoy’s grandmother grew up in this house, and Mickey remembers when the yard was filled with a large garden with beans, tomatoes, and all kinds of other vegetables that he would help harvest, preserve, and eat. Most days when I sit out on the porch, I chat with a neighbor who passes my house on the way to visit the elderly couple that lives next door. She told me that soon, we will have to drive up the road that leads to the Big Sandy Federal Prison to watch the elk that pass by there in the evening.

Inez Walking Trail at dusk

Inez Walking Trail at dusk

I am getting to know Inez at dawn when the mist catches on the mountains and at dusk when the sky colors with the setting sun.

I am becoming familiar with the Inez Walking Trail that follows the creek through town. One evening, a county employee shows me to the part of the path where endangered turtles return year after year to lay their eggs. Another evening, my dog Fiddle, and I briefly share in the excitement of a young family who spot a big turtle in the creek while feeding bread to the ducks. I tell them about the time last week when Fiddle tried to chase a group of ducklings on the water.

2016-00142 PSC Investigation into Martin County Water District. Frankfurt, KY.  August 29, 2018

2016-00142 PSC Investigation into Martin County Water District. Frankfurt, KY.  August 29, 2018

I am learning about Martin County during monthly water board meetings, while reading thousands of pages of legal documents about the Public Service Commission’s investigation into the Martin County Water District, and when combing through the archives at the Mountain Citizen newspaper office on Main Street.

I am getting to know Martin County when I buy bottled water at the Walmart in Johnson County, when I buy gas in Floyd County, and when neighbors in Martin County offer me tomatoes, corn, and hot peppers from their backyard gardens. 

Mostly, I am learning about Martin County through stories: stories of sickness; stories of corruption; stories about water leaks; and stories about high school football games, the annual Harvest Festival and family reunions.

This place, like every place, is full of contradiction, complexity, joy and grief, and the experiences of everyday life. Martin County is shaped by decades of extraction with very little investment in water infrastructure; it is also shaped by the people who live, work, and play here. Slowly, I am laboring to know Martin County and listen to its many dreams and visions for the future.

Orientation Reflection

Orientation Reflection

By Raynalle Rouse

Anxiety cycled in my stomach like the eye of a hurricane the night before the Appalachian Fellow Tour simply because it was uncharted territory for me. As an African American born and raised in an urban city, I had only become familiar with section of the Appalachian region I live. But, when its time for one to progress, life will make you uncomfortable to move one forward.

As I entered the 15 passenger van to embark on this tour I had no idea what to expect, but the Highlander staff created a safe and open environment amongst the cohort making it really easy to see Highlander will always have our best interest in mind. This formed a trusting relationship, that stands on what brought everyone to the same space, mobilizing the community. As we arrived to the first location in Cosby, TN , I noticed their was a scene of seclusion. Seclusion maybe by choice or possibly by the systems that benefits from cash poor towns. No matter the cause, I feel humans deserve the quality of life. In order for one to have all they need in a rural area they must have wealth to compensate for the large prices companies charge for service.

The organization SEAD understands the how Internet access is a necessity today and contributes to the quality of ones profession and personal life. They have hired a company to install broadband in their community. Broadband will allow the community to use satellite for Internet access instead of fiber optics underground. The new tendency we have to depend on technology will not end, I appreciated seeing an organization who understands that and aims to provide rural areas with internet access.

As we arrived to Eagan, Tennessee we witness an organization dedicated to rebuilding a strong and thriving working class in their area. One way Woodland Community Land Trust assists the community is by proving a program the assist with homeownership.  Woodland owns properties that are rented to community members with the hopes of them building enough wealth to receive a mortgage loan to purchase the property.

I noticed that a couple of the groups, though well prepared for us, did not have deep connections to the community. When members state that their communities don’t know what they need, they show there is no interest to know what the community actually feels they need to change their circumstances.

The highlight of this day for me was the Portal 31 tour. There are many families whose history in the Coal Mines appears to be none existent because of white supremacy and racism but Portal 31, in its own way, displayed the diversity in the Appalachian Coal Mining history. It also showed the evolution of mining as technology and time changed.

As members of the Appalachian Community, we are beginning to see there is no running from the drug epidemic. Maced and Appalshop have provided a space for those who want to recover from drugs to work and contribute to society. They have started a catering company and pizza kitchen, used to feed the community.

This day, Wednesday June 20, 2018 was a little challenging for me because I knew we were entering and area that despised my kind, an educated African American woman who was sure and secure about myself.  But knew I wouldn’t allow other peoples fear of me prevent me from being present and supportive of my cohort. When we arrived to Inez, KY I noticed there was no minority presence but didn’t allow that to make me anxious. Unexpected it was the actions of a local officer that interfered with my experience. Subconsciously I noticed that another fellow feared asking the officer where to find the restroom so joined her to provide support. Unfortunately for us this officer didn’t see the need to communicate with us, so he rudely shooed us away while local officials watched. Once our experience was brought up in the town meeting, we were invited too, I since us being dismissed so I eliminated all expectations. I knew the initial goal of this town hall meeting was addressing the dirty water in Inez. I appreciate the support other fellows provided when we met with host community members to discuss the ways they could support us better.

Another highlight of orientation for me was the West Marion Community Forum. With harvesting multiple community gardens, this organization is providing the community with veggies to assist with healthy lifestyles. They provide youth with a since of accomplishment because they literally get to plant seeds and watch them grow. This organization also holds forums to provide the community with a safe space to speak and share stories. 

Orientation week as impacted my life forever. I am ecstatic to create partnerships while learning for my cohort. I believe we all have something to offer and genuinely care about one another and the empowerment of the people.

 

“Just Transition” For Who?

“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.