Appalachia’s Bright Future

Hywel Francis – Wales

With a range of guest speakers traveling from all  over the world including Hywel Francis, a Labour Member of Parliament for Aberavon, Wales, UK, Wahleah Johns, member of the Navajo (Dine) tribe near Black Mesa, AZ, as well as attendees  such as Alexa Mills from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s C-Lab Radio Project, one might think the economic development conference held in Harlan, Kentucky was organized by local political and business leaders, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

Wahleah Johns – Black Mesa, AZ

The funding and organizing efforts for the conference titled “Appalachia’s Bright Future”came instead from local and regional residents whose organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth bore the brunt of the costs in both time and money. It was folks who, when meeting resistance through political channels, took it upon themselves to rent the Harlan Conference Center and work towards an economy in Appalachia that is not controlled by the coal industry.

The hurdles KFTC seeks to overcome seem enormous. Many local, state, and federal political figures have deep ties to the coal industry, even those with constituencies outside of the coal producing regions. KFTC’s resolve remains undiminished however, and many workshops were held throughout the three day event including one I was asked to attend entitled, “Workers Perspectives on Appalachian Transition.”

The workshop focused upon the Appalachian worker, at one point asking the room to frame the wonderful attributes that make the Appalachian workforce one of the best in the nation. The summation concluded that Appalachia is comprised of hard working, proud people with great wisdom, love for family, and a dedication to the job they have (and doing it well). The people of Appalachia, our friends, family, and neighbors, were placed on high as they always have been, and yet, when I was looking at the list of attributes that had been created, my mind drifted to another conference room within a coal association public relations firm. It would have been a room filled with men and women in expensive business attire, and in that room, the people were constructing a similar list, a list I knew deep down inside would not be used to help Appalachian people, only to extract more from them.

Not only does the coal industry extract coal from the ground, it also seeks to extract labor from coalfield communities. In either case, the object is not preservation, it is profit.

AP Photo/Bristol Herald Courier, Allie Robinson

Some might say, “Well that’s just business.” Many coal miners realize these facts and agree to the terms with each shift they pull in the mines. It is a sacrifice coal miners are willing to make to obtain their portion of the American dream that has often been denied to the people of Appalachia. If only they could understand the detriment of such thinking and realize how much they are being manipulated and exploited.

As the group discussions moved on, the point was made that before Appalachia can move forward to see an end to the out migration of family and an end to the drug abuse and poverty; the coal industry propaganda machine must be dismantled. It is the machine that tells coal miners everyday that they are sacrificing for their families and should be proud of those sacrifices, a machine that tells coal miners that their neighbors are “outsiders” trying to shut them down because they love trees more than people. It is a machine that spreads lies about a “War on Coal” when no such War exists. It is a machine that inside the innermost workings you will find  backdoor deals with politicians who profit from the coal industry, people who are willing to sacrifice the health of their constituents by undermining safety legislation and water quality standards.

I must admit that I have many doubts as to whether or not Appalachia can have a “Bright Future.” The will of the Appalachian people has been bent to the goals of an industry who has long destroyed our lives. At one time the coal industry was the “outsiders” who we Appalachians fought, –shotgun vs. machine gun–fighting to preserve our dignity and ways of life. That industry has become such a part of Appalachia that they now portray themselves as our fellow citizens and saviors, all the while trying to make those desperate for their jobs believe that organizations like KFTC, an organization that is made up of regular folks, neighbors, and loved ones, are the new “outsiders” who are hell bent on destroying the Appalachian way of life.

The younger generations  cannot see it as well as the older. Their view has been forced through a company lens, a view that shows their home and their history as having walked hand in hand with the philanthropic beliefs of a generous coal industry. Little attention is every given to the the horrible deaths and terrible indignities their grandparents and great grandparents suffered at the hands of the coal companies. The coal industry now exists within our schools through programs such as CEDARs and the Jr. Coal Academy, programs that indoctrinate our children in a false sense of heritage and understanding of the current political issues surrounding coal. Rather than being taught about Baldwin-Felts Agents and the Matewan Massacre or about the company hired machine gunners on top of Blair Mountain, or even the blood spilled in Harlan County, our children are told things such as “Today many decry conditions in the “coal camps,” but miners and their families fared as well as most working class Americans, and better than those unfortunate souls who labored in urban sweatshops or as rural sharecroppers” –CEDARS WV.

Today, while we struggle desperately to escape the poverty created by a coal economy, our children are given T-shirts and asked to make posters about how wonderful coal is to our region.

Appalachia’s future will ultimately come down to the fate of the coal industry. If we cannot shut down their propaganda machine, then we can never hope that our friends and neighbors will see the truth and fight the exploitation that plagues their lives. Otherwise we will have to wait for the coal industry to close its doors in Appalachia before we can convince everyone to move towards positive change.

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