Youth in Appalachia: Conversations from the Living Room to the College Classroom

Youth in Appalachia: Conversations from the Living Room to the College Classroom
Olivia and Gavin ages 4 and 3 at their childhood home in Big Stone Gap. Photo courtesy of the author's family.

My brother Gavin’s feet hit the floor at five in the morning while I’m still asleep. An hour later he merges onto 54 from Big Stone Gap, Virginia to his job at a welding fabrication shop in Norton, Virginia. His lunch in the passenger seat as he chases the sun rising over the valley.

I have this mental picture, but I’ve never actually seen it. It’s my idea of what his world may look like, a young Appalachian man on his way to work, just how I pictured my father when I was a child.

Four hours later and 200 miles north, I’m walking to sociology class at a private university, where I’ve picked up some understanding of the world I wouldn’t have otherwise. Here, I read books, write papers and make educated guesses about people like my family that I left in Big Stone Gap.

They call this the “rural brain drain,” when Appalachian youth leave the region in search of higher education or better opportunities.

You hear it often, growing up in the Coalfields: “if you want to make something of yourself, you gotta leave.” That advice always left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s backhanded and ungrateful to those who stay and continue to work in Appalachia.

In the midst of a massive economic downturn caused by unchecked mountaintop removal and the mechanization of the coal industry, workers like my brother and our father face impossible odds in a dwindling job market. They are the ones who maintain our roads, teach our children, and care for our sick, despite unsatisfactory economic conditions.

These are skilled workers in trades, healthcare, or in the coal and service industries. What message do we send them when we focus so much on those who leave?

Many of us who grew up here want the same thing, regardless of where we are now. We want to see our loved ones in the region.

We want fair and sustainable transitions that will diversify the region’s economy and create opportunities for this generation of workers as well as the next.

That is what Appalachians are talking about all across the region. From the living room to the college classroom, young people know what they need in order to thrive in Appalachia.

And these conversations must not be the sole province of academics, businessmen, and politicians. We must make room for all Appalachians to make their voices heard, especially for those youths who never left. No change can be good for Appalachia unless it is built by them and for them.

How do we make those who stay a priority in these conversations?

We must stop judging the worth of young people solely on their choices to stay or leave, and start focusing on making Appalachia a place where we can all thrive.

To do so, we must first change the narrative. Let us no longer see Appalachia as a place of “untapped potential” and its youth as resources to be extracted. Rather, let us respect the talent that is already here, without demanding or placing excessive expectations on outside credentials.

Yes, it’s important to support those who left to pursue education or other opportunities. For some of us, that too was a life-changing decision. I have received countless opportunities since my time in school, but finding support for myself as someone who left to attend university must not come at the expense of those who stayed. We must not abandon the very people who hold the communities at home together.

Some groups are already working in this direction. I am a member of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project (STAY), and we’ve had many conversations with young people across the region over the years.

Groups like ours work to uplift the voices of all Appalachian youth by building networks where each member is valued for what they are, not for what they should or could be.

More work like this is needed. Work that gathers all walks of Appalachian youth into the same room and starts conversations about what our communities need. In these spaces, we share our stories of our lives, sing songs of our heritage, and hear different reasons people have stayed. Further, we look to create a community that makes staying in Appalachia easier despite the challenges that exist for young people in the region. We must create more spaces (political spaces, social spaces, interpersonal spaces, business spaces) where all Appalachian youths have a say in shaping our common future.

Each day, my brother Gavin finishes work around the same time that I finish my classes. When I call to see how he’s doing, we swap stories of stress and joy. A contractor was pleased with the skid he’s worked on the past couple days; I got a B on a paper with points to be earned back for revision.

As I walk back to my dorm room at the foot of Tinker Mountain in Roanoke, I imagine my brother driving to our childhood home in Big Stone Gap. Our daily lives couldn’t be more different, but we are both proud young Appalachians, and we both deserve a seat at the table.

Olivia Lowery is a community organizer working in central Appalachia and a senior at Hollins University. She loves murder ballads, storytelling, and cats.

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