People who are poor should be central in SOAR leadership


Robert W. Shaffer (photo from Lexington Herald-Leader)

Former War on Poverty anti-poverty worker, Robert W. Shaffer has some advice about how to improve upon past efforts at economic transition in eastern Kentucky: Let people who are poor have seats at all tables where decisions about the future of the region are being made.

From Shaffer:

Poverty statistics will once again be used to bring millions of dollars to Eastern Kentucky to be spent by those who are not poor. What is never considered is the enormous price poor families pay to produce these statistics. They are, after all, the expert witnesses. Who has a greater stake in SOAR’s success?

It makes common sense that poor people should have seats at the table where decisions are made about how those funds will be spent.

But it is an open secret that many in leadership do not want poor people to acquire the confidence to participate at the highest levels in programs designed to enable them to rise out of poverty.

The Shaping Our Appalachian Region Initiative has been key to shifting the overarching conversation about transition in the region, and has helped bring in millions in federal investments. However – as we’ve written about previously on this blog – the entire initiative has a long way to go before all eastern Kentuckians are equally represented among it’s leadership and participants.

As Shaffer points out: “SOAR’s present leadership consists of the one percent of the population accustomed to controlling all federal and state funds available to the region. The executive board includes bank presidents, chief executive officers, coal operators and attorneys — the same kind of professionals who have led all previous efforts to rebuild the region.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with those kinds of folks being on the leadership committees of SOAR, or any other effort aimed at helping eastern Kentucky’s economy. What we – and many others who are part of this transition movement, including every day Appalachians who live and work in eastern Kentucky communities – are advocating for is more representation from all of eastern Kentucky’s diversity – especially those who are poor, the people perhaps with the most to gain from an economic renewal in the region.

If we are to help eastern Kentucky rise above and power forward well into the future, we must seek out the wisdom of those among us with the least amount of political power. It is perhaps their voices that are most important to this movement. Leaving some among us behind because they have low income is not an eastern Kentucky value, and it should not be the way we move ahead.