East Kentucky is a mess.
We populate the poorest and the sickest congressional district in the United States.
Our leaders are a mess. They spend more effort blaming Washington, sidestepping responsibility and covering up for cronies than it would ever take to have an adult conversation about what we face and how we can turn things around.
Here is what we know about rural places that work: People want to live there. Young people want to move there after college to be part of a dynamic community. Older people want to retire there.
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In a knowledge-based economy, workers carry their livelihoods in their laptops. They want to live in places that are environmentally attractive, have good schools and decent health care and are rich in amenities like music, art and opportunities to learn. If you have that, you have a foundation for a sound economy and for the future.
It is not roads and it is not industrial parks.
Here is what we can do:
■ Fix what we have broken. Restore the mountains and streams so that this place is better than the moonscapes we have created across hundreds of thousands of acres. Make this a destination.
■ Teach our kids as if it mattered. For every good school here, we have 10 lousy ones.
■ Wire our communities so that the promise of health reform, life-long learning, and global markets are not just what's there for other people in well-to-do cities and towns.
■ Build a true public service economy so that young and committed adults want to take part in it. Let them help fix this place in the same way that the brightest and most hopeful poured into New Orleans after Katrina to teach, build and make things right.
■ And forgive the guys who keep letting us down: the governors, legislators and muckety mucks who have fiddled as things went from bad to worse. Take them at their word that they want to do better and help them remember what they promise this time.
I heard a woman in southern West Virginia the other day explain, "You can't change the politicians, you have to change the way the wind blows." That is our job. Make some wind. Cause a storm. Those of us who live here can no longer accept the diminished prospects that come with standing still, timidly accepting what we are told.