There is a hopeful story in Appalachia far different from its national narrative. It is a story of transition from a shrinking coal industry to new economies built around farming and farmers markets, solar not coal power and arts communities. It is a story of change by and for Eastern Kentuckians.
WHITESBURG, Ky. — Stories of Appalachia have been told over and over again for more than 100 years – often of families mired in heart-wrenching poverty that spans generations – collectively shaping the nation’s view of this lush mountainous region.
In the 1960s, Appalachia’s story was told as part of the War on Poverty, featuring black-and-white photographs of coal miners and their families sitting and standing somberly in mountain hollers. Today, another version tells of uneducated residents who voted against their own interests and for President Donald Trump.
These stories feed the nation’s periodic fascination with Appalachia. Every once in a while, the national media has focused its lens on the region’s small towns and mountains, creating stories that haven’t always reflected reality and splashing those stories across national newspapers, magazines and the network news.
These stories are invariably incomplete at best and damaging at worst.
A sense of hopelessness can permeate stories of Appalachia. When the story of a place is relentlessly about its lack of hope – what it’s missing – it can create “a sense of fatalism, particularly in rural places, an assumption that nothing can be done,” said Lyndsey Gilpin, editor-in-chief of Southerly, which covers intersections of ecology, justice and culture in the South.
Appalachia’s flawed narrative is like an infection. It eats away at what families need, said Mimi Pickering, an award-winning filmmaker based in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
“They are just saying these people are poor because they deserve to be poor. They are lazy, dumb, shiftless. That all feeds into not providing the resources…that folks in the region need. Defund the public schools, defund the Food Stamp program, the welfare program,” Pickering said. “If you make people seem pitiful, helpless and hopeless and unwilling to help themselves it is easier to say: ‘I don’t want to invest in those people.’”
There is a different story in Appalachia, a hopeful one about the region’s transition away from a coal mining industry that’s been shrinking since the 1990s. In Eastern Kentucky it’s known as the Just Appalachian Transition, and it’s about families and organizations building new economies around farming and farmers markets – solar not coal power, arts communities and coal camps. It’s change by and for Eastern Kentuckians.
“Making sure that those…things that are popping up in Appalachia are done by people who live here,” said Gilpin, who lives in Eastern Kentucky’s Knott County. “Ideas are created by the people who live here. The work is done by the people who live here. The people are paid for the work and the money raised from that work stays in the community.”
Solar power and farmers markets are silver BBs residents cite when talking about how the region can move beyond coal mining jobs now only trickling through their green mountains. They need silver BBs because there is no silver bullet for the problems Eastern Kentucky faces – a poverty rate that can reach more than twice the national average, a scourge of opioid addiction and an economic future that’s cloudy on a good day.
“It really is going to take smaller efforts that are entrepreneurial and innovative, and people working together, creating things, like the whole chain that’s necessary to have a local food kind of industry,” Pickering said. “Through small efforts here and there, we can rebuild the economy.”
In the middle of this transition sits Appalshop, a creative hive of award-winning filmmakers (including Pickering), journalists, actors, actresses, organizers, activists, podcasters, photographers and even a recovering corporate banking lawyer. Together, they have been telling a richer and more accurate story of Appalachia – its undeniable natural beauty and poverty, its economic booms and busts, and its coal-covered past and future – for the last 50 years.
Unfortunately, their stories too rarely make it beyond the Appalachian Mountains. How many, for example, have read about doctors in Eastern Kentucky who prescribe vegetables and fruit to their patients for pre-diabetes and diabetes? It’s part of the region’s pioneering “farmacy” program.
Appalshop was born in a used tire storefront in 1969 as a War on Poverty program, but it’s work became a reaction to how the War on Poverty told the story of Appalachia, according to Rachel Garringer, public affairs director at Appalshop’s radio station WMMT. It was another example of how stories were often told by outsiders who wrote about families needing to be saved, and the saving and solutions typically came from outsiders.
“Defining Appalachian culture is often a top-down process, in which individuals with power or capital tell us who or what we are,” Elizabeth Catte wrote in her book “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.”
Appalshop has been working to flip that dynamic and balance of power for half a century from its recording studios and offices in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
“It often feels that rural people don’t get to tell their own story. If they have ideas of what should be happening those are not taken seriously,” said Ada Smith, Appalshop’s director of Institutional Development. Her family has lived in Appalachia for hundreds of years. “Those of us who live here know those (national) stories are not true…This is a place that should be invested in.”
Sometimes Appalachia’s families seem invisible.
Coal miners are leading characters in Appalachia’s national story. But others – LGBTQ families from its cities and towns, women who led its labor battles, people of color (including African American coal miners) and immigrants – often are not even bit players.
“Those are the voices that are left out,” Southerly’s Gilpin said. “They have been since the beginning, and they continue to be.”
If we want to hear the story of Appalachia, we need to listen to those voices and to all of the region’s families and storytellers.
They are from there and of there. They’ve been telling their story for more than 100 years.
As good a place as any to hear Appalachia’s story is Black Sheep Brick Oven Bakery and Catering tucked in the hills of Letcher County, Kentucky.
The bakery sits on a one-time coal-mining camp that became a school, both now closed.
The wood-fired bakery is the type of smaller business that could replace a slice of disappearing coal mining jobs, which show little sign of returning.
But it’s also a grassroots response to the opioid epidemic gripping the region; the bakery only employs people caught up in drug court. And it is home to the Hemphill Community Center, where people gather for traditional music, dancing, quilt making and to just connect.
At the bakery, customers don’t have much interest in fighting over politics most days, according to Herb E. Smith, a filmmaker whose family has called Letcher County home since the 1800s. Politics is number eleven on a list of ten things they worry about, he joked.
Instead, they worry about resurging Black Lung Disease, about mountains, streams and water supplies degraded and polluted by years of mining, about ever-present opioid addiction, and, of course, about the death of coal mining jobs. Only 145 of those jobs were left in Letcher County in the first quarter of 2019, according to Kentucky’s Office of Energy Policy.
When diners talked politics on a May afternoon at the bakery, it lacked the bitterness and anger that light up cable news shows. There was a resignation that all politicians lie, and a desire to understand how they can tackle their community’s problems together. Some diners voted for President Barack Obama and others voted for President Trump. Some voted for both but would have voted for Senator Bernie Sanders had he made it to the general election.
It is a safe place where everyone can talk politics without prejudice, said Gwen Johnson, a powerhouse behind both the bakery and community center.
The community center “yokes everyone in the same direction. It goes across political affiliation,” Johnson said. “That’s a difference in our culture. Far left and far right, I don’t fall out with them.”
The community center is a spoke in the Letcher County Culture Hub, more than twenty community-led organizations dedicated to building a better economy and future for the region.
“Letcher County Culture Hub is a good example of putting aside political differences and really talking about and really recognizing how much they share together…and how much they really want to rebuild their communities,” Pickering said. “That is different from the national narrative: hopelessness and helplessness and addiction.”
Once you spend time in places like the Black Sheep Bakery, talking with people like Gwen Johnson, you begin to see the opposite, Herb E. Smith said.
“[There’s this] kind of truly amazing resilience to the place, real commitment to solving these problems,” Smith said. “We also realize there is a really rich culture of people who really care about a place maybe more (now) than most of the country. Families have been here for generations and they really don’t want to leave.”
Now the challenge is to tell the nation those stories of commitment, solutions and community.
“We need to tell more stories that are sustainable, stories of folks who are starting initiatives that are going to last a long while,” said Mountain Association for Community Economic Development’s Ivy Brashear, whose job is literally to shift the narrative. “How we are trying to build a different future here, in terms of building better communities.”
Paul Nyhan is the storytelling and partnership manager and Janelle Choi is the program officer for the Midwest at Marguerite Casey Foundation. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.