The Week in Appalachia: The State + Education, Ecology, and Sustainable Farming

In the last few months, I’ve received several emails from people who are either Appalachians or connected to Appalachia. Each of the letters follows a similar pattern: it begins by thanking me for this project, moves on to a story about their own project, and ends with a supportive “I can’t wait to see this.’

I love those emails because it represents the best of what I hope to accomplish with this book. I want to explore the rich, vibrant history of my family as well as connect my story of Appalachia with the larger story of America.

To do that, I want to highlight some of what I see happening in Appalachia. (As always, if you have something interesting, please send it along!) Each week, I’ll spend some time blogging about things that are related to my book thematically.

The State + Education

I just spent time in Clay County researching the history of Clay County’s education system. As the state’s system collapsed, families and communities ran more than 100 one-room schools so that children could continue their education.

The New Opportunity School for Women seems straight out of that tradition, and it’s re-opening in Berea, Kentucky.

The school’s mission:

The program grew out of an urgent need for women in Appalachia to become better educated and employed.This need gave rise to the New Opportunity School for Women’s Mission of improving the educational, financial, and personal circumstances of low-income, middle-aged women in Kentucky and the south central Appalachian region.

In the past 23 years, over 580 women have completed the School’s three-week residential program. During 2007, 794 women benefited from the NOSW’s total programs, which also include career and education outreach and counseling.

IndieGoGo: Crowd-funding a Story of Appalachia Rivers

The crowd-funding model is near-and-dear to my heart, and I suspect that this is how many young Appalachians will find their way to the larger culture. Beyond that, Appalachians need to take control over the stories of our region.

Hidden Rivers – Fundraising Preview from Freshwaters Illustrated on Vimeo.

The Roads to Nowhere

When I went to Manchester, I was struck by how openly people talked of the decaying infrastructure of the town. These conversations weren’t idle chatter. They were steeped in realism and the slightest hint of desperation.

For these rural areas, national (and oftentimes state) politics aren’t the driving force behind the conversations. Here neither party has done much, and nobody expects their town to change no matter who is in office.

That said, I’m always struck by portraits of Appalachia and its economic problems.

Lockland, which is a stone’s throw from where I grew up in Ohio, is lucky because of its access to highways:

“When I get a tenant, they never leave because the access is the best,” he says. “We’re strategically located, obviously on I-75, but also convenient to I-275, Cross County Highway, I-74.”

Most places aren’t so lucky. The Eisenhower Highway System, while great for the national economy, virtually destroyed small, rural Appalachia.

Locally Grown

In the wonderful book The Road to Poverty, which traced the economic forces in Clay County that led to the current crippling poverty, one of the main causes was the participation in a national economy at the expense of the local, sustainable economy.

Speculators in Clay County largely eschewed creating farming communities that could support the local population, and instead build “national” businesses out of timber and salt. When that collapsed, the town and county fell apart.

This idea has replicated itself in other areas, and the Appalachian Regional Commission has long sought to foster local businesses working in local communities.

The Complex History of Coal

Students Travel to the Old Coal Town of Appalachia, via The Warren Wilson Echo

I won’t pretend to be an expert on coal mining in the Appalachia region. My family dealt in other areas, and I’ve come to know that much better. However, it’s undeniable that the industry’s presence is complex for our people.

In this story, a group of college students undertakes a trip to a Virginia town called Appalachia, which is itself dying and part of a dying industry.

You may also like