Gov. Steve Beshear, speaking recently about the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative, said this: "We know that for anything like this to be successful, the people of Eastern Kentucky need to take ownership of it."
Respectfully, I would suggest adding two words to this statement: "be allowed."
The people of Eastern Kentucky, especially the poor and unemployed, should take ownership of SOAR. But this requires leadership that will allow it.
SOAR's present leadership consists of the one percent of the population accustomed to controlling all federal and state funds available to the region. The executive board includes bank presidents, chief executive officers, coal operators and attorneys — the same kind of professionals who have led all previous efforts to rebuild the region.
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Poverty statistics will once again be used to bring millions of dollars to Eastern Kentucky to be spent by those who are not poor. What is never considered is the enormous price poor families pay to produce these statistics. They are, after all, the expert witnesses. Who has a greater stake in SOAR's success?
It makes common sense that poor people should have seats at the table where decisions are made about how those funds will be spent.
But it is an open secret that many in leadership do not want poor people to acquire the confidence to participate at the highest levels in programs designed to enable them to rise out of poverty.
In the summer of 1967, I was recruited by the Office of Economic Opportunity as a special technical assistant assigned to the Cumberland Valley, an area that included two of the nation's 10 poorest counties. OEO had defunded a grant to an eight-county community action agency led by those accustomed to controlling all government funds coming into the area.
The Economic Opportunity Act required the "maximum feasible participation of the poor" in every aspect of a program receiving a grant, including seats on the board of directors. Because the Cumberland Valley board of directors refused to comply, OEO terminated the grant.
My assignment was to reorganize the area into single and multi-county agencies, building on excellent work by the Council of Southern Mountains. When the new agencies were incorporated, funded and staffed, their executive directors formed a 10-county community development corporation, Job Start, to take advantage of a new OEO program that provided investment funds.
Half the seats on the Job Start board were reserved for representatives of the poor, selected by the poor. In 1968, the OEO approved a $368,000 grant to Job Start. Approval had been delayed until the last possible minute because Gov. Louie Nunn mounted an effort to prevent approval.
Today, this CDC, now called Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., manages investments of more than $275 million. It has worked with 625 companies to create 18,000 jobs.
There is not enough space here to tell all of the inspiring accomplishments of the corporations in Eastern Kentucky that allowed poor people to take ownership. But here is one example: On Aug. 22, 1970, the Boone Industrial Building was dedicated in Barbourville. It was built with the help of men and women trained by the Knox County Economic Opportunity Council with the support of Job Start.
Lt. Gov. Julian Carroll, participating in the dedication, referred to that building as "a cathedral to Appalachia." The ceremony was attended by 2,000 poor people. It was used by the Lawson Furniture Co. to manufacture upholstered furniture sold by Sears. In the early 1970s, Lawson achieved $2.5 million in sales. Its board was composed primarily of poor people.
In Eastern Kentucky, I often was inspired by poor men and women who demonstrated courage and determination, a capacity to work long and hard, an ability to learn skills and a generous, optimistic spirit.
People like this live in Eastern Kentucky today. They could help SOAR succeed where other attempts have failed.