Op-Ed

How to help Eastern Kentucky prosper? ‘It’s time to be a little more Appalachian.’

These Kentucky miners blocked a train. They said they’re here to stay.

Out-of-work Blackjewel miners blocked a train hauling coal July 30 in Harlan County and continued their protest into July 31.
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Out-of-work Blackjewel miners blocked a train hauling coal July 30 in Harlan County and continued their protest into July 31.

With the election coming up, it’s important that we recognize who political promises are being made to. If a candidate makes a promise to “Bring Back Coal”, they are not speaking to the miner in the shaft, even as they shake the miners hand. They are talking to the companies, and telling them that there will be subsidies, relaxed regulations and tax breaks.

When the candidate says they will cut taxes across the board, they aren’t talking to the paycheck to paycheck worker, they are talking to the rich, the elite, the CEO’s. Campaigns aren’t run for the people who walk into the voter booths and cast their ballots. The candidates don’t have to work at all to win your vote, because they can give the American people lip service and write narratives that don’t apply to them.

A great example of this is Appalachian Kentucky. A majority of Eastern Kentucky counties voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Many people cited in interviews that his stance on coal as an energy source, his tax breaks, and promises of bringing businesses back to US soil resonated with towns that are ravaged by unemployment and addiction as more and more coal companies pull out of communities.

Contrary to what stereotypical archetypes would have you believe, the people of Appalachia are not dumb or ignorant. In fact, Appalachian Americans know the fallacy of government protection and assistance better than just about anyone in the region could, with a history of failed FEMA involvement, and plagued by politicians and celebrities coming into the area and staging charity attempts. There is a reason that a common belief across the US is that Appalachians are toothless, uneducated, barefoot hillbilly’s, and that reason is because it makes for good press.

Millennials growing up in Appalachia have seen the reach of the stereotypes, thanks to advancements in the internet and technology, and were told growing up that their best chances at success were outside of their communities. These kids went to school to be told to do well and move away. The impact of this kind of thinking, a sort of sinking ship approach to the local economy, can be seen in the negative population growth of many once populated areas in Eastern Kentucky.

It isn’t just the old trope of kids wanting to move to the big city, its a systemic problem of not investing in the future of the community. This ingrained belief that the future lies outside the county line is why Trump won the areas that have been hit so hard by his misguided policies. The people of Appalachia aren’t voting for the Appalachia that could be, they are voting for the Appalachia they knew before, with hope that it can be revived and renewed.

Coal isn’t the answer and neither are the empty promises of a man who couldn’t mark Appalachia on a map. The only hope for Appalachia, for millennials, for the generations that follow, is to vote for ourselves as a community. That communal living that millennials are doing out of necessity sets the tone for the America, and the Appalachia, that we should be voting for. Taking care of your neighbor, providing for the family that cant put a roof over their head or food in their stomach, giving your seat to the infirm, and helping cultivate a culture of kindness.

Appalachia isn’t the armpit of the US, but indeed should be the example. If we invest in ourselves, and provide the same level of care to the future generations as we do to the corporations that leave us behind, then Appalachia can prosper again. But only we can save ourselves. It’s time to return home and take care of our neighbor. It’s time that we make sure everyone gets fed, and that no one goes hungry. It’s time to be a little more Appalachian.

H.E. Kniat is a writer and activist from a small farm in Kentucky.

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