One of Build it Up West Virginia’s program coordinators says it best when he describes community development in West Virginia: “I eat more hot dogs than any other vegetarian I know.” Some of the things that make organizing in central Appalachia so special are also what makes it so frustrating. The above quote from Joe references the fact that much of what you do here is centered around food. Church dinners, little old ladies inviting you in for cookies and tea, going to do a presentation in a school and being “treated” to school lunch- it’s all building community through FOOD. And if you are a vegetarian, then just prepare yourself emotionally to get used to the taste of a slaw and chili hot dog- to not eat this delicacy is considered blasphemy and will get you tossed out of a community meeting faster than anything else.
We’re trying to create a local economy here not based on Walmarts, not based on Citibank, and not based on coal. There, I said it. Jenny Totten, a native of West Virginia, hates coal. I hate what it does to our kids, I hate what it does to our future, I hate what it has done to this beautiful state. I hate that I can be openly honest about this at a national level, but I cannot go to my maternal grandmother’s house and say this. My family is employed by the coal industry- myself, my dad, and his mother are the sole greenies in a family full of Patriot Coal supporters.
So, what do these two seemingly unrelated vignettes about life in Appalachia have in common? Sometimes in order to get what is best, we’ve got to shed our identities and find creative ways to work together and make a difference in the lives of West Virginia youth. In large urban centers there are 10-20 programs aligned that have similar goals, even similar resources; some of you may even get together for trainings! Joe and I presented at the Create WV conference last fall about our program, and it was groundbreaking. This was a conference dedicated to building strong local economies in our state and I kid you not- every single person in the room was amazed that we were doing this. I think that’s when it hit me- this is the only program of its kind in this state. Sure, other programs do empowerment, other programs involve farming, other programs place kids with caring adults… but we do all of this and more.
This has led to some pretty creative and pretty weird partnerships over the past three years and some pretty amazing ones looking forward- when you’re trying to change the world, the first thing you don’t do is say no to somebody else who wants to do the same! We’ve worked with everybody from beekeepers to whitewater rafters. Our kids have worked on community gardens in churches, community gardens in school yards, and community gardens at local nonprofits. We’re getting ready to work with a land grant university. We take food from anybody who will donate it- even those families most affected by the economy here. Because let’s face it, the coal miner is not evil- he is amazing. He is providing for his family in an economy where jobs that pay this well do not exist in this state- it is up to us to educate the next generation that this is possible without coal.
And here is where it gets a little fishy- our participants are the sneakiest kids ever- we do NOT march into Logan County, WV and say “we are going to destroy your coal economy!” Come on now, that is just bad development practice! Instead, we march into Logan County, WV and say “Come with us for the summer, get paid, have a blast, and do some good while you’re at it. We believe that you are capable and want to learn- you just have not been given the tools to do so.” What parent could argue with that? What COAL industry parent could argue with that? “Hey, my kid’s wandering around the state and farming this summer!” How innocent does that seem? And yet, we are teaching these kids the skills they need to create a vibrant diverse local based economy- right under the watchful eyes of their parents. When we look up at the next few generations and they are living sustainably off the land, getting all they need from local businesses, and coal is dead as we know it… there will not be an outcry, because we’ve created this as an optimistic solutions based movement. Nobody can say anything about employment through coal when everybody is getting all needs met through other means- take a minute to think about it.
And that will be a beautiful day indeed- maybe we can talk about it over hot dogs in my grandmother’s backyard. I leave it up to you to bring the vegetarian weenies and chili though.