Attending the Appalachian Regional Commission meeting on “Transforming Appalachia” was a mixed bag. More respectful than I remember urban do-gooder conferences being, it was still painful.
The chirpy moderator who opened the panel on opioids couldn’t pronounce Appalachia as natives do, nor understand why her question “how can we bring hope to such a despairing region” brought a hiss of breath intake from half the crowd.
But then at lunch Gerry Roll, a foundation director out of Hazard, KY, said that we own our problems without allowing them to define us. Some of the ARC staff looked startled.
This isn’t a rural-specific conference, but Gerry also said even at her most despairing and poor in Kentucky, she’d never felt as lonely as she did living in poverty in an urban center. And part of the new respect I’m seeing for Appalachia is recognizing that Central Appalachia in particular has social networks and pathways that create community cohesion in ways other places can only imagine. A lot of heads nodded.
One of the parts I loved/hated was the “Brights Spots in Health” segment. The ARC had put out a study call a couple of years ago, for places that defied the odds with better health outcomes than their social determinants suggested they should have. A big takeaway from this presentation is that ARC now recognizes and factors into its policies that Appalachia has at least three distinct cultural regions: Southern, Central Coalfields, and Northern.
Southern Appalachia tends to have a lot of bright spots, defying the odds more than Central or Northern. In fact, Mississippi is confounding everyone. While the rest of us might even count it good if we just don’t get worse at the same rate as last year, Ol’ Miss down there is getting BETTER. Not just getting worse slower: getting BETTER.
Is it the water? No one knows, but there’s a study headed to find out.
If I had to guess, they’re going to found that Southern Social Cohesion is a barrier to more than just people who don’t fit in. Maybe it keeps out germs. Yeah, no. But maybe it applies its forces for good as well as evil, encouraging church members to exercise together, teaching kids to plant gardens and eat the fruit thereof….
Whatever it is, I’ll all for it, because the hate part of that “Bright Spots” event was when I started crying as the project director outlined the stats for “diseases of despair”: alcoholism, drugs, and suicide. I pulled up a picture of our friend Jessee on my phone, and held it through the rest of the presentation. When the ARC presenter said “and we have to keep in mind these are people, not stats, and how do these surroundings affect the lives of those living in them” I thought about Jessee’s wife Destiny giving away a kidney, and cried quietly there in my seat, watching the stats roll by.
C’est la vie, as we say in Wise County. Except maybe not. The past doesn’t have to control the future. One of the points the presentation hammered was that all the bright spots had a few commonalities: someone who started an internal catalyst of organizations coming together; a coalition; resilience; and some recognition of/fighting against substance abuse issues. The internal part was key; they may have brought in experts, and they certainly brought in funding, but they started within the community and identified their own assets.
This is different from other places I’ve heard do-gooders talk about Appalachia. They are listening. This is good. We were listening too. Working together is something we’re pretty good at, here in Wise County.