We Are Kentuckians Reflections | Kentuckians For The Commonwealth

We Are Kentuckians Reflections

To cultivate relationships between Jefferson County and southeast Kentucky KFTC members and facilitate a knowledge exchange around local organizing work, 15 Jefferson County KFTC members (JCKFTC) traveled to southeast Kentucky during Memorial Day weekend for the We Are Kentuckians KFTC Member Exchange. Below are two members reflections on this transformative experience. 


In a time when many of our perceptions and expectations are conveyed and created virtually, a physical, person-to-person engagement can represent a radical act. Our trip to Southeastern Kentucky revealed to me its hills, trees, water, and most importantly people, in a capacity that cannot be accurately expressed through an intermediary. Their struggles became my cause, their humor my laughter, and through these and our other connections I felt I had found a second home in my home state, another place where people always knew things could be better than they are.  
-Ross Pusateri

The KFTC member exchange to southeast Kentucky was a very valuable experience for me. I feel it is so important for Kentuckians to come together to build relationships and understand the various issues that are affecting us in all parts of the state so that we can be more informed citizens to more effectively organize and advocate for a better state. This exchange allowed me that opportunity. I was surprised to notice more parallels between the issues in Eastern Kentucky and Louisville than I expected, and I very much valued the experience and insight the members and organizers in the eastern part of the state were able to share with us that can help us more effectively organize in Louisville.

My main takeaway from the trip is that policy in Kentucky and nationally is affecting Kentuckians in many similar ways. It is wonderful that we have technology to connect us, communicate, and share ideas with members across the state, but nothing replaces face-to-face interaction and relationship building. Sharing experiences, ideas, and fellowship is the foundation of building a stronger and more organized community, and I’m very grateful to have gotten that opportunity through KFTC. I know our chapter and organization as a whole is stronger because of this opportunity, and I look forward to continuing to strengthen these relationships as we build a better Kentucky together.

-Teresa McGeeney


I am forever thankful for the trip with Jefferson County KFTC to Letcher and Harlan County. This trip filled me with love, kindness, knowledge and barbeque in all the ways I needed. What was most reassuring about our journey through the mountains was that although our landscapes are strikingly different, our fellow members in Southeastern Kentucky are standing up and fighting back against the perils of capitalism in effective, meaningful ways. Seeing the difference between the natural beauty of the Black Mountains juxtaposed with the very active strip mining occurring seemingly everywhere we went was a bold reminder that industry doesn’t discriminate based on geographic location. Naturally occurring waterfalls and man-made ponds made our eyes full and satiated.

My heart was full and satiated by building the relationships with my fellow Jefferson County members, bonding with organizers like Tanya Turner and Ada Smith, as well as being surrounded by African American people during homecoming in Lynch and Benham Kentucky. There seems to be a statewide assumption that black folks only reside in the cities like Louisville, Lexington and Paducah. The tiny mountain towns, however, have a rich and celebrated history of being places where African American families have rested their heads for generations. I loved spending time with my country cousins over this weekend, and I can’t wait to come back as soon as I can, hopefully when the leaves transform the rolling mountain landscapes into mounds of burnt orange and yellow.

-Pam Newman

I had a terrific Memorial Day weekend with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in southeastern Kentucky. I would be the first to say that I’m a city boy—I prefer concrete to green pastures, Saturday afternoon brunches, and 24 hour convenience stores on every corner. South Eastern KY was probably the most nature that I’ve consumed in a while but this city boy loved it. I hiked (YES Hiked) to a waterfall, I paddle boated on a pond, and even though I didn’t go all the way rustic by staying in the cabins my hotel had spectacular mountain views. What else can I say about Eastern KY? It was one of the prettiest places I have ever visited, the people are the salt of the earth (genuinely, some of the nicest people that you can encounter), and I would go back a million times.

-Andrew Winston

I enjoyed our trip to eastern Kentucky. The people of Harlan and Letcher counties were welcoming and eager to share their story with us. We saw firsthand the destructive nature of big coal and the devastation of mountaintop removal. Meeting with people in the community, we saw the things they are doing to help the economy of their towns. we can help by continuing to grow kftc to become a political force in Frankfort, lobbying for change.

-John Hurle  


As I prepare to write this reflection, I wish I could do it sitting outside on the porch of a rustic cabin, or better yet, sitting in the cabin’s backyard, where I would have a better view of the mountains.

For me, southeastern Kentucky is not home. It felt like an escape, a place to experience nature’s immense beauty virtually uninhibited by noise and light pollution, or by constant cell phone usage. As much as I long for it right now, as many times as I, being a writer, will desire peace and beauty in my surroundings, southeastern Kentucky will not feel like home.

It will always, however, feel like something worth fighting for. I stand with the residents of Harlan and Letcher counties not only because I want to be able to enjoy their home for many years to come as a writer on retreat, not only because they, too, are Kentuckians, but primarily because I am tired of capitalism, greed, and exploitation running things. I am tired of them manipulating and dividing people. (My favorite moment of the trip was when Mike Caudill and his son showed us the mountainside devasted by stripmining and said, “Obama didn’t do this.”) I am tired of them exploiting the poor. As Federico Garcia Lorca said, “I will always be on the side of those who have nothing and who are not even allowed to enjoy the nothing they have in peace.”

Lorca’s quote most accurately encompasses my view, but I can’t quite say the people of southeastern Kentucky have nothing. True, 80 percent of Benham’s residents live below the poverty line. True, jobs are scarce, and as Mike said, the best ways to make money—mining, government assistance, and drug sales—disincentivize education. True, most people who could leave the region have left. But those who remain have history. They have pride and dignity. And they have those mountains.

-Mariam Williams


Traveling to Benham, Lynch, and Whitesburg was an amazing and uniquely KFTC experience.  The terrain of Southeastern Kentucky is unbelievably beautiful.  I had only driven through a couple of times, so I had no idea of what it is really like to be in a valley surrounded by mountains covered with a diverse forest.  The people we met, almost all KFTC members, showed unbelievable hospitality.  We were welcome in people’s homes, fed, and taken to amazing places that showed Southeastern KY is a place steeped in its unique identity.

It was not hard to be inspired by what KFTC chapters are facilitating in Southeastern Kentucky.  In Benham, a locally owned energy board allows the residents to finance their energy saving upgrades with the savings these upgrades earn.  Homeowners keep 20 percent of the savings, 80 percent go to pay off the improvement.  If an improvement will pay off in 15 years, it is eligible.  In Lynch, a city with two roads and four rows of houses, people with ties to the coal mining town celebrate their long history with a yearly reunion that brings people from all over the country.  The Lynch Southeast Kentucky Social club keeps local history visible with pictures from the past and provides the forum for community events including the yearly reunion.  In Whitesburg, Appalshop provides an outlet for the local perspective with a multi-media facility.  We sat in on their weekly hip-hop show and listened to shout-outs to people incarcerated in Central Appalachian prisons.  While we were there, we watched a deeply moving Appalshop documentary about the displacement of people from Southeastern Kentucky across the nation as the coal industry became increasingly mechanized.

Seeing what KFTC membership looks like in such a different context has helped me appreciate what it means to be a member.  KFTC organizes the diverse interests of people who know better than to let large money interests, economics, and their experts ruin everything.  Amazing KFTC members volunteer innumerable hours to make things happen because they know it’s a good idea.  Local work situated close to the problem happens in local chapters, and then the macro problems, like bad incentives to companies and a tax structure that holds back low income families, becomes a common state-wide issue.  Whether you live in Louisville, Lynch, Benham, or Whitesburg, the problems are more similar than different.  I’m glad to see firsthand there are intelligent, dedicated, and motivated people organizing under the KFTC banner building the kind of future we deserve from the grassroots.  

-Ryan Fenwick

This is who we are. Conscious folks in the land of coal, we carry the banner of Kentuckian with our brothers and sisters, and protect the commonwealth we call home.

From Louisville, we told stories of our efforts to confront the forces of gentrification and displacement in the oldest African American neighborhood in the state. From Lynch, we listened and learned how a dedicated group of people broke free from the restraints of corporate control and created a publicly owned power utility. Together, these stories of victory and struggle united us on a common ground I never before knew existed.

A scorched mountainside, stripped of trees and toxic to all who surround it, changed the way I understood the politics of coal. Anyone in Louisville can flip a light switch and in the same breath proclaim their love for the Appalachian Mountains. For me, the hum of a light bulb reminds me of the pockmarked earth, the spoiled watersheds, and the suffering therein. But then I think of Appalshop, Benham $aves, and all those who sacrifice to build a better future. Then I am filled with hope.

The guys and gals of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club, who tore up the dance floor Saturday night and still managed to bring the swag on Sunday morning, taught me the meaning of community. Friends and relatives, near and far, gathered in Lynch to celebrate a common heritage and work toward a common future. And I am forever grateful to be part of it.

-Elijah McKenzie


The Member Exchange to Eastern Kentucky was so rewarding! The connections I made as an organizer, a passionate individual, and as a Kentuckian are invaluable and have really reshaped the way I understand the relationship between community and spaces. There were so many personal and social justice stories that ran side by side with the struggles we face back at home in Louisville. What made this trip so successful was the fact that all parties involved were drawn together by our relentless and ardent battle to protect and revitalize our homes. This trip was a series of fellowship activities where we all had the opportunity to share, process, and appreciate the work going on across the state. I had the opportunity to learn from people who built their own park without a dime from the city. I had the opportunity to learn from people who connect families to their loved ones in prison. I had the opportunity to learn from people that had to know the law better than the lawmakers to keep one foot ahead of coal profiteers. Not only did I get more tools and resources to add to my own social justice tool box, but I also cultivated new relationships and gained more clarity about why I do what I do.

-Jesscia Bellamy 

We wondered if place existed.  We couldn’t help but be curious, one group of members from a place called Louisville traveling in a Ford Transit to another place called Lynch, called Benham, called Whitesburg.  We had heard of these places before.  However we all expected place to collapse – the antiquated view that difference and identity could be contained within a boundary, in a landscape, in a name is comforting but distressingly out of touch with the reality we know. We expected space a suitable substitute. Yes, with space we can imagine the many KFTC chapters around Kentucky in a similar struggle for justice. We can imagine our ecological impact on Black Mountain from multiple scales – the clearing of millions of years of decayed particles on a hillside, to the fire burned coal powder producing steam to turn a turbine to generate our energy, to the barges piled with coal floating down the Ohio on their way to export.  We can imagine fifty years of reunions of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club meeting in the surrounding industrial cities: Dayton, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit.  No doubt there is power for us to hold on to in these imagined spaces.  We can cast off from a restrictive view of urban particularities and rural particularities (place) to a more unified Kentucky (space) – unified in our mobility, connected in our fluidity of identity, and shared in our concern for the shifting ecologies in which we now see ourselves enmeshed.  But to our surprise, we found that place did exist (contrary to my theory class in college) though not in the way we all once thought of it. Member Mike Caudill demonstrates how he impersonates Santa Clause every December by simply letting his glasses ride on the tip of his nose all the while we stand next to a dried out pond turned swamp because the coal company did not reclaim the land by properly allowing for water drainage.  Mariam walks across a maintained family cemetery on the edge of a mined mountain top with two metal rods hanging loosing from her thumps – she is dowsing for the remains of loved ones buried underground.  Ada presses play for an R. Kelly song on WMMT radio that was requested by a woman for her lover who is locked away in Red Onion prison across the Kentucky/Virginia state line.   These are places -many, many places. We cannot deny the uncanny and monstrous dimensions places hold. Especially as we think about the non human places – the springs of mountain fresh waters making their way to the Kentucky River, the bare rock that is sprayed by the coal company with a synthetic mixture of soil and grass seed, rays from the sun.  It is not the solid embodiment of person as citizen from a place.  But rather closer to millions of places now overlapped in history, memory, difference and energy.   I am embodying a different place as a member here in Louisville.  And my place will be forever overlapped with the places I came in contact with in Eastern Kentucky.

-Michael Poindexter


i swim in the archive of memories,

vibrations move across waters.

waves carry words, sounds

spoke in tongues that taste like home.

arabic cassette tapes, on car

rides moving bodies from one

place to the next. anxiety loosens,

lushness becomes abundant.

you forgot how much green soothes your soul.

how you need less spectacle and more spectacular.

how trees and seeds and bees where some of your first teachers.

tracy chapman's voice echoes

‘round mountain curves, talkin’ bout a revolution.


pulling up to the lynch colored public school,

you smirk, the culture of white supremacy

is nothing if not overt in the south. Tbh.....

you prefer it that way, it is easier to confront and

is deconstructed through relationships,

sometimes over potato salad.

homecoming tastes like the concessions

made to our decolonial diets, potato chips,

oreos and dairy, cuz the sharing of very little

to make room for a few more,

is not something you reject.

the lynch school has been reclaimed and renamed,

now the Eastern Kentucky Social Club and the diaspora is coming home.

Babies teaching us, relearning us, unlearning us, how to play.

Swings, and monkey bars and merry-go-rounds

where you've been warned not to lean back.

all set to the backdrop of a ball tournament,

where 1983 is the year coming outta speakers.

this is what home feels like.


benham saves! and so can you, cuz

If we each do a little, then we got this.

in benham there is no social diffusion of responsibility,

they know the social is their responsibility. When towns decrease

from thousands to a few hundred in the course of thirty years.

you gotta come together if you're going to survive....

but what if you want to thrive?

you give power back to the people, literally,

they own they energy, and you engage in radical acts

like enlisting the petticoat mafia to build your infrastructure,

because they understand that capitalism and patriarchy

are what caused this predicament,

even if they never use those words.

this is what comm(unity) looks like


you had forgotten what the world

looks like without them city lights,

the only sounds you hear are exhales

as you take in expansiveness of the universe.

you're waiting for starlight. fireflies rise from the canopy,

signifying to the stars. evening is when they engage in dance.

movement of earth beneath our feet.

an old cat is orchestrating the music,

and we two steppin’ in harmony.

this is what building looks like.


church can look different,

sometimes its our sunday finest

listening to old preachers, sermons and singing.

for me it is early morning capoeira in wet grass,

where play becomes productive, become protective.

its the sun on my face and shoulders,

selfies proclaiming that i love the skin i’m in.

the sounds of the world instead of the noise in my head.

the wisdom gained from conversin’ about

visionary fictions and future imaginaries,

sharing knowledge like seeds, what lessons

can we carry from here? will they grow

in louisville? understanding that mountain top

removal and gentrification are not worlds apart.

the divine looks like mountain trails,

leading to headwaters, waterfalls where you drink

in the pristine, providing thirst quenching healing.

its like the magick conjured by strangers,

card tricks and creating multiplicity.

they become a salve that soothes

the stress, people let themselves become,

themselves not just their titles. where evening

ends with libations and fyres. the power of naming

and laughter.

this is what the sacred feels like


you wake in the mountains,

exhaling dreamsscapes.

building looks like biscuits,

watermelon,  muffins, casseroles,

and all the things, and then coffee.

it would seem like excess if you

didn’t know the social conditions around you.

a family welcomes you into their home,

this is not the carefully curated image

of Appalachian mountain poverty that

(neo)liberal values want you to see.

it is families whose histories run deep,

they love the land, can tell you about its scars

you learn new words like, narrs….which is a

point where the road grows narrow and turns

become treacherous. they show you juxtapositions,

coal company degradation vs the earth, you hike

through the open veins where mountains used

to exist. you see signs of life, flowers and deer,

whose rhythms have been disoriented by the

repercussions of colonial mentality.

companies who disrupt the dead to turn a profit.

you leave in a fury of hugs and promises that

if you ever find your way back, you are always welcome.


Appalshop is a possibility model, creating

resonance along radio waves. amplifying voices,

connecting and trans(communicating). you see

the power in cultural production, Hip Hop from

the Hilltops becomes a life rope for bodies

incarcerated behind prison walls. Calls from Home,

allows people to  transgress the barriers of walls.

mothers call sons, lovers express the intimate

over airwaves, homies remind you that you’re not forgotten,

isolation dissolves for three minutes or less.

you talk about prison abolition and restorative justice.

evening ends in more fyre.

this is what connection looks like….


-Sarah Zarantonello



Memorial Day.


Last night,

around this fire,

the revolution was won.


Flames danced upward into the dark sky,

a bright sun at the center of a constellation,

of lightning bugs filling the canopy.

We are a galaxy.


Last night, the night the revolution was won.

We were protected by these ancient hills.

We told stories, compressing space and time,

folding over our histories and dreams.


Our path was laid out so clearly.


The problems of power, the police, the violence carved into the land.

All became so laughably exposed as spectacle and dissolved.


Yes, last night,

we realized the absurdity of being governed.

We are mountains!

And like mountains,

we embrace a refusal to govern.  

Instead choosing to follow one another's slope,

lean into one another's swerve.


Yes, last night, here, around this fire,

the revolution was won.


But now it's morning,

and we see that even the daylight is colonized.

Now it's morning,

and the coal trucks barrel down the steep roads

with increasing frequency and speed.


No doubt, recovering the time lost, on our day of memory.


-Jared Zarantonello