A word cloud created from workshops and panel sessions at the conference show the prevalence of positive thinking and themes. Courtesy of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth
I had never been to Harlan County. Sure, I’ve heard the songs, seen the movie, and know the stories, but nothing compares to being there, driving the Kentucky back roads, stopping in local shops, talking to folks.
It’s beautiful country, especially in April with the redbuds blooming and the bright greens of spring blushing up the mountainsides. It’s a friendly place – people went out of their way to make me feel welcome.
It also has more than its share of economic troubles. This is coal country, after all, where big companies haul out the black rock and most of the profits along with it. Harlan County and most of the surrounding counties have a poverty rate in the range of 20 to 28 percent.
This is not news to people living here. They know it, they live it, and they are looking at a million different ways to change it, to create Appalachia’s Bright Future. This was the name of the three-day conference in Harlan, hosted by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth a few weeks ago. It brought together more than 200 people from eastern Kentucky and beyond for an extended conversation about creating a just economy in the region. There was much discussion about what that even means, and while attendees each had a slight variation, several common themes emerged:
1. There is no silver bullet. There is no single industry or company that will turn it all around. Which is a good thing, most agreed, because a root cause of the region’s woes is being too dependent for too long on one industry.
2. There is no magic wand. No one is going to come in “from the outside” to rescue Harlan, or the rest of Appalachia’s’ coal country.
3. It’s about “leadership in place.” The future lies in nurturing home-grown entrepreneurship. Unlike a generation or two ago, young people today want to stay here, and many people who moved away want to return. This profound sense of homeplace was evident throughout the conference.
4. It’s about community and resilience, improving the quality of life and opportunity for everyone, collaborating with neighbors down the street or two counties over so that all can benefit.
5. It’s also about honoring coal miners and their families, those who have sacrificed in untold ways to help build our nation and power our modern lives, who deserve all the opportunity and benefit of a “just economy” as well.