For me, shaping our Appalachian region began over a year ago with the Appalachia's Bright Future Conference in Harlan. It was hosted by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and attended by 200 people interested in developing a shared vision for a just transition in the mountains.
SOAR was adopted as a state-sponsored initiative last December with a summit in Pikeville. The initiative is prompted by the latest round of job losses in coal and related industries.
Members of KFTC have seen the writing on the wall for many years and seek to create positive change for our communities through SOAR or any avenue of democratic change available. From Appalachia's Bright Future to KFTC's New Energy and Transition or Economic Justice work, KFTC is active in bringing positive change to Kentucky.
I recently participated in a broadband workgroup session of SOAR at the Rural Development Center in Somerset. A mix of government, university, health care and telecom representatives make up the workgroup. I was the only person in the room with "farmer" as my title.
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As announced last December, appropriations have been secured to install fiber optic cable through many counties in the region. The discussion focused on the fiber network and how it will affect the specific stakeholders, and my interest seemed to diverge from others in the room.
While they talked about how the network will affect the business community, I visualized the student in a family who can't afford to pay a monthly Internet bill, or an elderly person who needs someone to make sure they are taking their meds, or a recovering addict who needs health services and medications delivered at the appropriate times.
None of these "customers" have the ability to pay for broadband services, yet providing service can pay huge dividends to our communities.
I want the SOAR broadband recommendations to include the needs of these folks who are at or beyond the end of the line. It was as if I was speaking a different language than the business opportunity this project seems designed to serve.
In the language of the book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, job losses and economic transition in Eastern Kentucky represent a juncture. At this juncture, our response could be to continue with extractive institutions that have fought over and controlled people and resources of Appalachia for 100 years. Or, we can attempt to build an inclusive democracy.
For 33 years, KFTC has worked toward inclusive democracy. We are participating in SOAR to move our commonwealth toward democracy and away from the extractive economy built on exploitation of people and our homeplace. We are not naive to the possibility that those in leadership created SOAR purely as a means of holding power and continuing current practices during times when people are visibly upset with current economic conditions and seem on the verge of action.
SOAR is an opportunity for transformative change. However, there are those who desire to keep the social order exactly as it is and will work to affirm the status quo.
This is a chance to transform our region through education and health services. Access to the Internet is essential for success, not only for business development, but to create the kind of place our youth want to live in and where everyone can meet their needs through all stages of life.