Why Do We Need To Be Talking About Appalachia?
Recently, I attended TEDxCorbin, the first TEDx event in Eastern Kentucky as well as one of the few opportunities Appalachia has had to really take the stage and disclose its talents. This event was a step forward, a way to dispel stereotypes and break rules. As a staff member, I became very well acquainted with some of the speakers and volunteers who made it all possible: scientists, educators, advocates, and entrepreneurs who have chosen to call Appalachia their home and to elevate the region in their work. My work, however, was in social media/promotion, which means I also spent a lot of time talking to other people about the event. I found myself thinking about the stereotypes I had been surrounded by as well as the people in my life. I had to accept that some of those blemishes were truly the region’s to wear, but I also knew that the future was coming. Of that, by the end of the night, I was certain.
Why do we need to be talking about Appalachia?
I’ve grown up in Appalachia, West Virginia specifically. The coalfields with its mountains and hard-knock way of life are an Appalachian truth, one reflected within the pages of Hillbilly Elegy and the many stories passed down generation to generation. The often-overlooked truth, however, is the closeness and importance of family, the brilliant environment for long walks and big ideas, and the incredible persistence and drive of people who have survived everything. Appalachia is its own type of chili, a mixture of different types of people, just like the United States. While it lacks a certain diversity, no two Appalachians are the same. Some people, like myself, come from the first Appalachian settlers’ efforts and proudly carry the pride of a region around their heads like a crown built from the diamonds of the exploited mountains. Some are fresh transplants, getting to know the normal that comes with porch sitting on rainy evenings, picking blackberries in a sundress, and scraping by on fried bologna sandwiches at the end of the month with your family. There are proud LGBTQ+ people from both ends of this spectrum, narrating their truth to a seemingly indifferent audience, watching their local news to see a local person of power denouncing them as Ku Klux Klan equals as they are still waiting for policymakers to listen and respect their humanity. There are different religions and belief systems co-existing and worshipping their respective gods together with all of their children going to schools with “In God We Trust” and “One nation under God” plastered in their halls and their daily announcements. Different cultures no longer have to live together, as assimilation is now the presumed norm to escape the possibility of a hate crime.
Oh, wait. There it is.
What has become routine within the region is to accept the status quo, to push back on changemakers. This makes the entire area seem homogenous, when in fact, amazing ideas and diversity do exist there. The problem is that the obstacles in the way of those changemakers are societal boulders that require much strength and many hands to move. The beautiful range of Appalachian nature mockingly calls to the rest of America; it screams, “Come to me!” while the government passes laws that stunt the growth of tourism and feeds the public slogans supporting a dying industry. The citizens screaming for clean energy are labeled as extremists and driven away from offices that could bring their radicalizations to fruition. The women in the hollers who are five babies deep and ready to have their ideas shared aren’t being heard in their pleas for either affordable daycare or healthcare. Their relatives struggling with addiction and trauma are crying for rehabilitation as their faces plaster the evening news. A scarlet F for feminism rests on the chests of women who speak too loudly, barring them from executing their plans for progress, while the loud ring of acceptance reverberates in the ears of those affected by the bellows of men in seats of power who, while less qualified, can swing a vote.
This is a region poised for change and greatness, but its young people are fleeing in every direction seeking validation and freedom from the chains of generational poverty. It is generations of proud tradition acting as the ropes keeping changemakers on leashes and limiting the promotion of ideas that come from different cultures and lifestyles, which is unwise, as this is how the region can retain amazing talent, spur unique opportunities, and revitalize its small towns filled with incredible histories and charming characters.
Appalachia is ready for a passionate transition to move past outdated and insulting stereotypes and embrace radical ideas that stem from generations of mistakes and erudition. I, along with about 4,000 on and offline viewers, saw a well-received preview of that in Corbin, Kentucky. From using noodles to change the world and creating green jobs with the largest solar farm in Appalachia to making political change through poetry and social media, no idea seemed too massive or outlandish. It’s that out-of-the-box thinking, community, and authentic support that will elevate the region and ultimately provide the impact needed to preserve the mountains.