Coal Tattoo

Census Dying Counties

Over in Eastern Kentucky, a wide variety of citizens, business leaders and government officials are getting to work this morning, with the start of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, an event aimed at jump-starting discussions about how to improve the lives of the people of the coalfield region (watch live here). As the Lexington Herald-Leader explained this weekend:

The meeting Monday is part of that effort, started by Republican U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers, whose 5th District includes the Eastern Kentucky coalfield, and Gov. Steve Beshear.

The two appointed a panel of more than 40 people — mostly business and education leaders — to help guide the process. The Rural Policy Research Institute is assisting.

People who attend the meeting will be able to submit suggestions for boosting the region’s economy, and there will be panels on entrepreneurship, tourism, lifelong learning, investment in the region and other issues. More than 1,500 people have registered, Beshear’s office said.

The summit is important, but it’s a beginning, not the end, Rogers said.

It will take hard work and time to accomplish whatever recommendations it produces, the 17-term congressman said.

“I hope that it’s the beginning of a long-term effort to revitalize the economy of that whole region,” Rogers said.

The Herald-Leader’s weekend editions had a two-day collection of essays focused on these sorts of discussions. The paper explained:

No one should expect an overnight transformation. But here you can read some interesting ideas for getting started.

We solicited a variety of viewpoints, and the response was so strong we have an overflow of commentaries to publish in coming weeks.

A place and people whose back-breaking work and natural resources produced huge wealth for other places and people still struggle to thrive. Irreversible declines in the coal industry and in coal severance tax revenue have left no choice but to try something new — after 50 years of night, it’s time for a new day.

Special Gubernatorial Primary Election

Here in West Virginia, government officials have shied away from these sorts of important discussions. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, for example, flat out refused a request by citizens to put together a meeting like the one being held today in Kentucky. Gov. Tomblin wouldn’t even meet with the citizens to hear about their concerns and consider their request. And judging from the preliminary agenda I’ve seen, next week’s Governor’s Energy Summit is another in a long series of narrowly-focused meetings featuring most speakers from the coal and natural gas industries, with other points of view stuck in at the end like the afterthought they are to our governor. We’ve been fortunate to have some private organizations, including the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy and the Union of Concerned Scientists trying to push these discussions forward, but so far the state’s political leadership seems to afraid of the coal lobby to dare do much to help.

Looking over the Herald-Leader’s long list of commentaries, one that especially caught my attention was by historian Ron Eller. It’s called Imagine a Different Future:

For over half a century, well-intentioned leaders have gathered to discuss the region’s deficiencies and to promise action. Such meetings preceded the War on Poverty and the passage of the Appalachian Regional Development Act in the 1960s and the short-lived Kentucky Appalachian Commission in the 1990s. Sadly, the inequalities that generated these efforts seem to have persisted as well, perhaps because we have not learned from the successes and failures of earlier strategies or we have been unwilling to address the underlying problems themselves.

The success of this current initiative depends upon our learning from past efforts and our willingness to imagine a different future.

History doesn’t leave us with a list of specific strategies and simple solutions, but it does provide some guidance. Without question, the improvements in infrastructure and human services resulting from government investment in Appalachia over the past five decades have benefitted the region, but Central Appalachia still suffers from social, political and economic inequality that runs deeper than the loss of coal jobs or reductions in federal funding. The failure to address fundamental inequalities in land ownership, access to economic opportunity and community decision-making has limited the success of past efforts.

… Past efforts have often failed to tap the creativity of young people, women or minorities within the region. Too often development programs relied upon strategies that were narrow, outdated or served private/political interests. Despite calls for long-term planning, government and private initiatives have been short-lived and have often addressed symptoms rather than the sources of problems.Little has been done in the mountains to tackle issues of land ownership and use, environmental health, responsible governance, income inequality and political corruption.The absence of an inclusive and coordinated approach to regional development has left Appalachian Kentucky subject to the worst kind of political and economic self-interest.

The best outcome of the Pikeville gathering, therefore, would be the creation of an ongoing process to sustain democratic change in the region. Transition to a new economy demands flexibility, creativity, patience, collaboration and a willingness to accept diversity and new ideas. Defense of old guard assumptions about power and economic growth, and suspicions of outsiders and minorities must give way to widespread participation in an open and transparent process, one that brings more and different people to the table.

In the mountains, as in the rest of the world, the era of control by small groups of powerful white men is fading.

The decline of coal-related jobs is only one of many profound changes that have occurred in the mountains in the past decades. The rise of materialism, dependency and the drug problem are all symptoms of a culture bereft of its foundations. This is our real crisis, but therein lays the opportunity to reassess our values along with our political and economic institutions.

History tells us that democratic transformation is a multi-staged and ongoing process, but the first stage is the building of hope through voluntary participation in that process. Let us expect that the Pikeville meeting will not end with a conversation among the powerful but will energize deep change.