Appalachian Kentucky is a rugged, rural mountain area, densely populated in most regions, with a unique set of opportunities and challenges different from the rest of rural America.
Leaders, scholars, planners and activists inside and outside the region have erred in offering solutions for growth and change based on two simplistic and flawed premises:
■ The tremendous reservoir of natural resources and their extraction have made the region a colony for industrial America and prevented the distribution of wealth or diversified job growth.
■ The high poverty area is filled with people dependent on entitlement programs and this culture of poverty so dominates this isolated region that hope is futile.
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The first premise places the blame on coal and the latter blames the victim. These are flawed models.
Improved education and enhanced leadership at all levels are the critical components necessary to advance Appalachian Kentucky from the inside out.
We have made significant progress in both, providing a firm base to build upon.
The absence of a comprehensive research university has limited our resources to solve many issues. However, visionary presidents at Eastern Kentucky University and Morehead State University collaborate to find new ways to serve the region.
Two other projects are addressing this failure by creating access to advanced degrees and applied research.
My employer, Hazard Community and Technical College, worked with the two universities and independent colleges to create the University Center of the Mountains. Using coal severance tax as seed money, over 800 bachelor and master degrees have been awarded since 2003.
Secondly, leaders in the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation have launched the Central Appalachian Institute for Research and Development in Pikeville.
Increased access to higher education with the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, which has six Appalachian Kentucky-based colleges with 29 campuses is also opening the doors for many.
The region has many high performing schools and supporting organizations. Recently, Pike County schools led the state in test scores and other measures.
Nearly every school district in Appalachian Kentucky has an innovative program designed to meet the unique needs of its community.
Leadership in health care abounds in the mountains and contemporary writers Silas House and George Ella Lyon are building on the foundations of the late James Still and Jesse Stuart in the literary field.
Additionally, the region has produced business leaders who contribute both to the mountain as well as Central Kentucky.
The region has a blend of talented young and experienced activists who are concerned about the environment, land ownership and the growing gap between the haves and have nots.
And the coal industry has a new generation of leaders who are using their assets to create new businesses and contribute to worthy causes.
Mountain leaders are fostering a spirit of regionalism aided by the growth of WYMT-TV and organizations such as Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation and Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, which focus on expanding and diversifying the regional economy.
Our college partnered with other agencies to create a program that provides training for tele-work persons and then connects them with firms around the country so they can work from home using technology for high wage jobs.
Thus, the stars are aligned to take advantage of enhanced education and training, emerging new leaders, a spirit of regionalism and entrepreneurism, improved infrastructure and some exciting best practices in community development.
The solutions have to come from within the region and be community-based, reflecting the diversity of the communities and their varied challenges and opportunities.
To move Eastern Kentucky forward, though, the region's citizenry and leaders must have a common vision and that does not now exist. This vision must be developed by all the stakeholders and interested parties.
This means that our people must talk to each other. Persons with different ideas on coal and its future, poverty and how to decrease the gap between the poor and those better off, education and economic development must have a serious, open dialogue creating win-win situations for the region.
We can do this, the pieces are in place. Now, the people must take up the challenge.