Reflection on Appalachia's Bright Future conference | Kentuckians For The Commonwealth

Reflection on Appalachia's Bright Future conference

Meta Mendel - Reyes is a member of KFTC's Steering Committee and former organizer with the United Farmworkers Union. She teaches at Berea College and is a mentor to students and community members alike. She shared this reflection on the Appalachia's Bright Future conference, held April 19-21, 2013 in Harlan, Kentucky.

"In times of transition, process really matters." - Brendan Smith, ocean farmer

A spirited plenary session is a long way from a coal miner's pitch, but they are connected. The people at the conference believe, against heavy odds, that there is a bright future for Appalachia and for that coal miner putting his faith in a dying industry. The conference on Appalachia's Bright Future envisions a transition to an economy beyond coal that can lift up the region and create a brighter future for the coal miner and environmental activist alike.

Who are the faces of transition? At the conference, they were the young journalist who wants to stay where she grew up, the grizzled coal miner who envisions a better life for his children and grandchildren, the researcher documenting the decline of coal, the local entrepreneur creating a small business, the organizer trying to identify and develop grassroots leaders, the community leader trying to bring miners and environmental activists together.

What are the lessons of transition? From the coast of Newfoundland, Brendan Smith tells us that "in times of transition, process really matters." Change doesn't come from the outside in, but from the people rediscovering themselves through shared decisions. From the former tobacco fields of Kentucky, Martin Richards suggests building on the culture of community that grows from shared work in industry. The successful move from tobacco shows that, in transition, there is always a "moment of change, created by opportunity or crisis." From the Arizona desert, Wahleah Johns shares the importance of a mutual relationship to nature in the recovery of stolen resources. The Navaho quest to reclaim their water parallels the Appalachian struggle 2000 miles away, to regain the legacy of our pristine streams.

What are the principles of transition? Vision, leadership, process, community. Without imagining a better future, how can we undertake the hard work to get there? A "culture of leadership in place" (described by Justin Maxson) makes it possible to identify and develop the grassroots leaders who will not tell us what to do, but point us toward our shared goal. We need inclusive, transparent, and accountable processes, because how we get there shapes the future, for good or ill. Community is the goal and the means - what sustains us on the journey is our love for each other, which goes beyond paychecks. As Brendan Smith says, "We have to feed our families, but also our souls."

What can I do to help Appalachia transition? It's time to undertake the difficult conversations. Take the risk to talk with co-workers, neighbors, even family. It is not going to happen unless the "us" and "them" become a "we." At the conference, participants practiced those conversations. Stepping on to the stage was scary but also invigorating, learning how to walk the talk. And we are not alone. As everyone sang together, "It's been a long time coming, but I know, the change is gonna come."


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