SOAR still important, but second summit falls short of expectations

One week ago today, the Shaping Our Appalachian Region Initiative hosted it’s second summit in Pikeville, Ky.

If readers will recall, SOAR started with much fanfare, excitement and anticipation two years ago. Since it’s inception, SOAR has been funneling millions of dollars into eastern Kentucky through various state channels, public-private partnerships and federal programs. There have been hours and pages of media coverage dedicated to the initiative and what types of economic development and prosperity it might bring into the region.

We cannot deny the positive impact of SOAR. They are many and varied and we respect and welcome that.

However, two years later (2014 was dedicated to various working group committees gathering ideas and information through a series public listening sessions), and many of the public’s fears about SOAR becoming a space for political posturing, exclusion of viewpoints that stand outside the status quo, and tired ideas about what will bring a sustainable economy into the region seem to have materialized.

The breakout sessions at the 2015 SOAR Strategy Summit were led by panels that were filled with people doing great work and operating great programs in eastern Kentucky. They spent their time telling audience members about their programs and how they were helping the region succeed. That’s all fine and good, but what wasn’t clear in many sessions was what the panelists or their programs had to do with the recommendations or ideas coming out of the 2014 listening sessions, or the 2013 SOAR Summit. It seemed to many that these panelists were carefully chosen to not address any of the recommendations or ideas, and instead divert attention away from that, which is odd given the assumptions that the purpose of this Strategy Summit was to discuss strategies that SOAR would try to implement – strategies that we were told in 2014 by working group committees would come out of the listening sessions. Instead of hearing about those strategies, though, they were barely mentioned at all the entire day.

Time and space for questions, conversation, debate and discussion was also very limited in many breakout sessions, and nonexistent in a couple. This was very disheartening, especially since the stage was set at the first SOAR Summit that inclusiveness and open dialogue was not only welcome, but necessary to the process. It’s unclear why this time and space was not built into the second Summit, but it is unfortunate that it seemed to be an afterthought on the part of the Summit organizers. Not having that time built in creates an environment in which people feel they are intentionally being left out of the process, which in turn makes people feel powerless to have any input in the process, or as if their input will not be taken seriously. This does not serve to breed a culture of openness and honest discussion in the SOAR Initiative. If people get the sense that their ideas don’t matter to the SOAR leadership, then eventually, they will cease to be a part of the SOAR process.

In the afternoon legislative panel, on which sat several eastern Kentucky legislators, the discouragement surrounding this second SOAR Summit was deepened when, without hesitation, several of the eastern Kentucky contingent brought up “war on coal” messaging and used it to frame the loss of coal jobs and drastic decline of eastern Kentucky coal production, stating, more than once, that when President Obama is out of office, a boom cycle for coal would once again fill the hollers with prosperity.

That wouldn’t be so disheartening (this is not a surprising tactic from this bunch), except that “war on coal” messaging was completely absent from the first SOAR Summit. I don’t even think President Obama’s name was mentioned one time. At that first summit, our political leaders – state and federal and former – were all in agreement and stating publicly that coal was unequivocally and definitely on its way out because the coal seams in the region were mined out and because natural gas was on its way in. So, what happened in two years time to completely flip the script?

Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia do not have time for our political leaders to keep feeding us the “war on coal” narrative. It’s completely out-of-touch with the reality of the coal industry in the region at best, and at worst, completely irresponsible at this late stage of regional community economic development. It’s a tired message, and the fact is, people in the region are tired of hearing about all the ways we need to wait around until prosperity comes to us; we want and are ready to take action to create that prosperity for ourselves.

More than a few people walked away from the 2015 SOAR Strategy Summit either discouraged, disheartened, confused, or some combination of all three. And yet, there were some bright spots from the day. The first is that much of the real work happening at the summit was happening away from the plenaries and breakout sessions. It was happening in the halls and outside at picnic tables during lunch, where people from organizations and groups were networking and building relationships to work together. Two speakers, in particular, gave rousing speeches that were inspiring and provided hope for the future of eastern Kentucky and the SOAR Initiative: U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez and Jay Williams of Youngstown, Ohio, who spoke about the success Youngstown experienced through its own economic transition.

SOAR is still an important driver for economic transition in eastern Kentucky. It truly has put a very powerful spotlight on the region that has in turn brought in millions of dollars in investment and has vastly broadened the transition conversation in eastern Kentucky. We just hope the very real issues and concerns so blatantly exposed at this year’s summit will be considered by SOAR’s leadership, and that something will be done to address them in a manner that makes SOAR more inclusive of diverse ideas and thought, something that is so crucial to any sort of lasting economic sustainability in the region.

It’s also good to keep in mind that bi-partisan governmental initiatives like this have started and been stopped many times in the region’s past. Some of those initiatives garnered great successes, while some of them rotted on the vine. SOAR cannot, and should not, be considered nor touted as eastern Kentucky’s sole economic savior. It is a powerful tool that we can use to shift debate and open up the conversation, and place a laser focus on the region and how to make it better for the future. And that’s good and necessary.

However, it is not the sole bastion of hope for the future of the region’s economy. There are many varied groups, organizations and individuals who have worked, and are tirelessly working at this very moment, to rebuild the region’s economy from the very ground level. Some groups, like the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Appalshop and Grow Appalachia have been working for decades to rebuild that economy. Others, like the Appalachian Food Summit, the STAY Project and the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, are new to this fold, but are just as dedicated to reaching a brighter future in Central Appalachia.

The transition effort in eastern Kentucky has been in full effect since at least 1964 when the War on Poverty began. Since that time, many, many groups, projects, programs, organizations, and people have joined the effort and done their best to keep marching against seemingly insurmountable odds and challenges. And always, this movement has been broad and bold and unshakeable. Hope is powerful like that; once you have a vision of a bright future, you just can’t seem to let it go.

And this is what must be kept in mind when considering SOAR. It is powerful, yes; but, it is not the only way that eastern Kentucky’s economy will transition into being more equitable and sustainable. If one thing remains certain in this just economic transition movement, it is that is truly takes a village to raise a community.

For a small news round-up of the 2015 SOAR Strategy Summit, click here, here, here and here.