What’s Appalachia For?

Though some of our politicians might disagree, we know Appalachia is more than just coal, and we know Appalachians can do more than mine it.  photo by Michael Quick of Michael's Photography de NamoursCoal is important, it’s history and heritage, it’s provided a purpose and a living for thousands through the decades, but its days are dwindling and no number of EPA permits will make our coal competitive with the price of Wyoming coal or Illinois basin coal or natural gas. There’s an old saying, “Adapt or die,” and at the Appalachia’s Bright Future conference, we heard about different communities that either heeded or ignored that adage when their dominant industry fell on hard times. The Daily Yonder today featured an excellent report on the conference and the important lessons to be gleaned from other regions. Take the example of the fisheries in Newfoundland, closed by the Canadian government after being rampantly overfished:

“The way coal companies are treating retirees now [in Appalachia] sure sounds familiar,” [Brendan] Smith [a former cod fisherman] says.  He notes that these industries don’t understand the nature of work—or what work meant to these fishermen.  “Without jobs, they gave us checks. Money is great, I love money. But we lost our purpose.  We would spend that check to buy a brand new beautiful truck, and we’d drink ourselves to death while wishing we were out on the boat.”
After the cod industry collapsed, people found replacement jobs.  They had a job at a call center selling seatbelts for pets.  “The jobs they are offering suck,” says Smith.  A proud fisherman doesn’t want to have to sell pet accessories to rich people, and a proud community—one that fueled the entire nation—doesn’t want to work over-the-counter jobs.  They think they are worth more.  They think their communities are worth more.  “We need jobs that allow us not only to feed our families, but also to feed our souls.”

Will prison jobs feed souls? (They may not even feed families.) Will Wal-Mart jobs? In Newfoundland, some fisherman looked to their own skills, starting aquatic farms. “What we really tried to do is to break down the core elements of being a fisherman,” Smith says.  “…We can work on the water all day.  We don’t have to work for other people.  We succeed and fail on our own terms.” There was a learning curve, of course, and the fisherman had to learn new skills and methods. Our miners can do the same, putting their skill with heavy machinery, their work ethic, their knowledge of the land to work on land restoration, on construction of energy-efficient homes, on manufacturing and installing solar panels.
What of the non-miners? Even in coal’s heydey there was unemployment in Appalachia was still high. Amelia Kirby, co-owner of Summit City Lounge in Whitesburg, looked to her own life to determine what her city needed. She and her husband and friends left town every weekend to get good food, drinks and music in Knoxville or Lexington – so why not create a space like that at home?
She says that having such a place give people a sense of pride.  “[It] creates a locally rooted space where people from here…are producing and sharing and appreciating art or music in the same context as other, off-er, more urban places, cultivating the idea that we are just as good as anywhere else. I think this is rooted in some pretty problematic identity issues and internalized hillbilly oppression, but I really do think that’s one of the ways that it brings energy and power to our community.” One of the tangible results of an artistic community is that the city of Whitesburg has become a destination for people in surrounding counties and states.  “I used to leave every weekend,” Kirby says.  “Now I can’t pry myself away.”
Opportunities like this abound in Appalachia, we just need to believe that the risk is worth it. The Yonder piece closes with this excellent thought: “Appalachians investing in themselves, banking their future on their own talents rather than on short-term promises from outside corporations, may not be crazy.  Maybe it has just never been tried before.”