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Disconnected Youth in Appalachia: More Than Just the Rural-Urban Divide

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The outcome of the 2016 Presidential election exposed the general disconnect between the way rural and urban Americans view the trajectory of the country. Over the last few decades, rural Appalachian communities have witnessed economic downturns and their associated impacts in an overwhelmingly personal manner. Related to these outcomes, another type of disconnect among youth is plaguing our rural regions. As a recent Social Science Research Council Measure of America study finds, rural youth between the ages of 16 and 24 are “disconnected” – neither employed nor enrolled in school – at rates higher than 20%. In Appalachia, these disconnection rates are even higher, with counties like McDowell (West Virginia), Martin (Kentucky) and Forest (Pennsylvania) registering 45-55% youth disconnection rates.

These findings are concerning given higher rates of depression, drug abuse and suicide among “disconnected” youth, but also because our disconnected youth will soon become disconnected adults. If not adequately addressed, rural communities in Appalachia will continue to lag behind the rest of the country in significant measures, to include health, education and economic independence. There’s been a lot of discussion on the problems plaguing Appalachia, but far less discussion on addressing these problems through aggressive public policies at the local, state and federal levels. Through a comprehensive effort that better links education, infrastructure investment and broadband connectivity to our Appalachian regions, we can create the environments necessary to reconnect our youth.

It’s worth noting that none of the possible solutions or policies proposed here are revolutionary. In fact, many are described as part of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s 2016-2020 Strategic Plan. What complicates these solutions is the large amounts of financing needed to execute these programs and the need to address the diverse challenges in Appalachia in an interconnected and simultaneous manner. The Appalachian transition and the resulting reconnection of Appalachian youth, will be a long and difficult process. However, with unprecedented national attention on the region following the 2016 election, the time is ripe for local, state and federal policymakers to pursue bold actions.

Education is the centerpiece of the reconnection strategy. Our rural Appalachian communities have experienced significant school consolidations, teacher shortages and lowered graduation rates over the last few decades. To combat these challenges, Appalachian schools desperately need an adequate supply of high quality teachers to instruct on topics for which they have been trained. The Robert Noyce Teaching Scholarship, which focuses on addressing the shortage of math and science teachers across the country, is an example of the type of programs local and state policymakers should be promoting.

In addition to a focus on teachers, rural boards of education need to be better tied into local chambers of commerce and economic development offices to understand realistic local employment opportunities for high schoolers choosing to remain in the community post-graduation. It’s true that 4-year colleges are not the only route towards lifelong economic success, but as the disconnection rates show, remaining in local Appalachian communities without specific and relevant workforce skillsets can significantly limit employment opportunities. As such, career and technical education (CTE) programs should be available in all rural schools, with CTE offerings and certifications tailored to these local employment opportunities.

The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, H.R. 5587, overwhelmingly passed through the House in 2016, is a positive sign that CTE improvement is supported at the federal level. Translating this bill into success at the local level will be of critical importance.

While strengthening local opportunities through CTE is important, we must also support those choosing to leave Appalachia for college or other employment opportunities. While much concern has been made over brain drain (for good reason), Appalachian leaders should recognize that some outmigration of post-high school youth is ok if accompanied by an in-migration of experienced professionals in their early 30s-40s. The reality is that most Appalachian communities – and rural communities in general – can’t provide the type of amenities and experiences that many people in their early 20s prioritize. But, as people mature and begin to build families, priorities change. Creating the environment necessary – good schools, adequate housing, meaningful work, etc. – for these experienced professionals to return home is critical.

As opportunities for experienced professionals to return grow, a full range marketing effort that reaches out to those who have left Appalachia will be needed. In addition to outreach, local and state policymakers can further incentivize returns through financial and tax incentives, such as college loan repayment guarantees and lowered property tax agreements. Another strategy worth pursuing involves the creation of local task forces to maintain contact with youth who have left the region to encourage their assistance on local issues from afar. This assistance could involve a range of activities from publicizing opportunities and encouraging entrepreneurial investments in their rural regions with highly skilled peers to solving technical issues via the Internet. The recently proposed and bipartisan supported Investment in Opportunity Act seeks to encourage private investment in distressed communities across the country. Should the bill – or others like it – pass, Appalachian leaders need to ensure they are positioned to funnel as much of this investment to their communities as possible.

Complicating matters, Appalachian communities face unique transportation challenges given the region’s rugged mountainous geography. At the federal level, local and state policymakers need to continue aggressive lobbying efforts to receive financial support for infrastructure improvement. However, as ongoing construction of the King Coal Highway in southern West Virginia highlights, these efforts will take a great deal of time. At the local level, rural policymakers need to create and promote usable public transportation networks. Innovative urban transportation solutions should be reviewed for key lessons, but the dynamics associated with Appalachian communities will likely require solutions that look far different than those found in the city. Car sharing programs, personal rapid transit (PRT) systems (for example, see West Virginia University’s PRT), autonomous vehicles and community networked bus lines all represent areas for investment with potentially innovative transportation solutions.

Finally, interconnectivity through universal broadband Internet cannot be understated. The latest Federal Communications Commission broadband progress report shows that an alarming 39% of rural Americans lack access to broadband. The need for universal broadband in Appalachian communities is well documented, and there have been successes made in certain Appalachian regions. In parallel with efforts to continue promoting broadband for all Appalachians, local and state policymakers need to start laying the groundwork for how to benefit from broadband once it’s available. For example, telecommuting – a relatively common practice in urban districts but rarer in rural communities – instantly becomes a viable employment option with broadband access. Coworking spaces– also a rarity in rural regions – might prove useful in promoting and providing space for this type of work while also addressing the many vacant buildings scattered across rural communities.

As Appalachian regions begin to develop local workforces, infrastructure and broadband, large companies should begin recognizing the benefits of relocating some aspects of their operations to these locations, which already offer cheaper real estate and costs of living. One component of operations that organizations might find appealing to conduct in rural Appalachia is backoffice operations, such as accounting, human resources and IT. These operations can be completed from almost anywhere given adequate physical and interconnective infrastructure. As such, there’s no reason Appalachian communities can’t fulfill many of these companies’ backoffice needs, supplying many jobs at diverse skill levels.

The high rates of youth disconnection in Appalachia should serve as a warning that, if not addressed, our Appalachian populations will continue to fall behind other regions on issues related to health, education and economic development. The ultimate goal of these educational, infrastructural and broadband initiatives is to create an Appalachia where diversely skilled workforces and adequate connective infrastructure are able to lure productive businesses, entrepreneurs and investors. The process will be long and difficult, require synchronized support at local to federal levels and necessitate innovative financing mechanisms, but as productive pockets of Appalachia begin to emerge, so too will the opportunities necessary to reconnect our Appalachian youth.

Kenny Sholes is a recent graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. While he doesn’t reside within Appalachia, he is committed to finding policy solutions to the challenges in the region.

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Want to Tell the True Story of Appalachia? Join the Appalachian Advisors Network

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Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

During the 2016 presidential election cycle, Appalachia became the focus of an onslaught of national and international news coverage. Outlets parachuted into the region looking for stories that perpetuated generations old tropes of our communities. They got it wrong. But in 2020, we have the opportunity to help them get it right. 

100 Days in Appalachia, born out of that 2016 election, is calling on Appalachians to join us in an effort to provide greater context to media outlets who want to cover our region ahead of the 2020 election. So, we’re creating the Appalachian Advisors Network and we’re asking for your help to do it.

The Appalachian Advisors Network will help national and international news outlets better understand what is happening in our communities. The network will be made up of real people, doing real work on-the-ground.

Even though they’re important members of communities, we’re not looking for Mayors and CEOs– the kinds of people that reporters usually contact for comment. Instead, we want to create a network of workers, grandparents, students, volunteers– the people that don’t usually get a chance to shape media coverage of their communities, but whose feelings and insights are a much better representation of them.

As a member of the Appalachian Advisors Network, you’ll help the rest of America, and the world, better understand what Appalachia really is and the  issues, concerns, hopes and fears of the people who live here.

What’s required:

Be willing to answer a few questions from 100 Days in Appalachia each month about your life and your community in the lead up to the 2020 election.

Be willing to talk to a reporter if they are interested in covering what’s happening in the region.

Members of the Appalachian Advisors Network will receive a stipend.

If you’re interested, fill out this form.

Cell Preferred
Describe your work, study or activities in your community.

 

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Appalachia’s Deep History of Resistance

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Becky Crabtree sits chained in her 1971 Ford Pinto, suspended over a trench at a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site on her property in Monroe County, West Virginia. Photo: Appalachians Against Pipelines

Protest runs through the region’s veins like coal seams through the mountains.

When a group of Kentucky miners decided to block a coal-laden train from leaving a bankrupt mine in July, they weren’t just laying claim to missing paychecks.

The miners in Harlan County won attention across the United States for their willingness to put their bodies on the line for their beliefs. In doing so, they’re invoking the long-entrenched spirit of civil disobedience and direct action in the Appalachian Mountains. The mine wars of the early 20th century led to the rise of American unions in the 1930s and 1940s, but it’s not just coal miners who have laid claim to a history of activism.

The first day of the Harlan County train blockade, July 29, 2019, also marked the 89th day of a 24/7 protest in Kingsport, Tennessee, over a monopolistic health care provider’s move to downgrade a hospital’s emergency services and close its neonatal intensive care unit, where sick newborns are treated.

And July 29 was the 328th day of the Yellow Finch Lane tree-sits in Montgomery County, Virginia, where two anonymous tree-sitters and a small support camp block construction of a 303-mile, 42-inch wide pipeline being built to move natural gas from the fracking fields of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in northern West Virginia to a terminal just north of Danville in southern Virginia. From there, the gas would be sent on to the East Coast, and perhaps overseas.

These ongoing actions aren’t recent aberrations. In 2018, more than 20,000 teachers in all of West Virginia’s 55 counties went on strike for two weeks to secure better pay and benefits—and in the end were successful. That action inspired similar teacher strikes in Kentucky, Oklahoma and elsewhere.

In the mid-’00s, activists trying to stop mountaintop removal coal mining—a form of surface mining that uses explosives to blow off ridge tops to expose underground coal seams—regularly took part in direct actions, chaining themselves to equipment, disrupting stockholder meetings, and blocking access to mine sites and facilities.

These activists run the gamut in terms of age, class, race, ethnicity and hometowns. Women tend to be more prevalent in these actions than men, but everyone shares the frustration of fighting against a system that feels rigged, where other options are blocked, and the only thing left to do is to fight using one’s body.

New generations join the fight for their rights

The depth of Appalachia’s activist tradition can be seen in Becky Crabtree of Lindside, West Virginia. Crabtree grew up near Bluefield and went to work as a teacher in McDowell County in 1975. The year she started, local teachers, including her mother, went on strike for better pay, but Crabtree was afraid of losing her new job.

“When I didn’t sign to go out on strike, teachers I loved and respected circled my car and asked why I wasn’t going to go out on strike,” Crabtree said. “It was my first grown-up job, and I told them I had agreed to work. They explained to me I had to go out on strike, and I understood. We stood together and had to go out on strike.”

The teachers struck again in 1986, and Crabtree, now with 11 years of experience, became much more involved. By 2018, she was a substitute teacher, and she didn’t go to Charleston to rally with thousands of others at the State Capitol, but she watched the children of those who did. She also took to the streets with signs of support for the striking teachers, standing with her mother and her daughters—three generations of West Virginia teachers—encouraging car drivers to honk their support.

Rachel Campbell, left, and Davin Miller, elementary school teachers in Charleston, were among the thousands who demonstrated for better pay and benefits at the West Virginia State Capitol in 2018. Photo: Mason Adams/YES! Magazine

That summer, Crabtree also protested construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline across her Monroe County sheep farm by chaining herself to her 1971 Ford Pinto—the same car the other teachers surrounded in 1975—which was placed on concrete blocks straddling the pipeline trench.

“I had done all the things I knew to work the system,” Crabtree said. “I had been to town meetings. I had spoken at pipeline-sponsored gatherings. I spoke about it on TV. We collected petitions. We had a case lined up to go to the U.S. Supreme Court about eminent domain, but they chose not to hear it this year. We had done everything we knew to do. It was all I could do, was to put my body across the pipeline.”

Ultimately, Crabtree said she disrupted about a half-day’s worth of work by pipeline crews before she was arrested and removed from the Pinto. She was charged with obstruction, but the charge was eventually dismissed.

Taking a stand—or a sit—against fossil fuels

Crabtree’s action marked just one episode in a substantial campaign against the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Tree-sitters placed their bodies in the way of pipeline construction in Monroe County, West Virginia, and Franklin, Giles, Montgomery and Roanoke counties in Virginia. The longest-running tree-sit is near the town of Elliston on Yellow Finch Lane, where, as of September 2019, tree-sitters and a support camp have been in place for more than a year.

On the day the Harlan County miners began their train blockade, the Yellow Finch tree-sit was preparing for the possible arrival of federal marshals, because the pipeline company had asked a judge to remove them. That morning, a bulldozer roared on the opposite slope of the narrow hollow as protesters made breakfast and talked about what might happen later. The judge ultimately declined to remove the protesters, who remain in the trees to buy time while other activists pursued legal and regulatory avenues to halt construction.

Miners and their families play cornhole while blocking railroad tracks to prevent train loaded with coal from departing a mine near Cumberland, Kentucky, until they receive pay for their work from their employer, Blackjewel, which abruptly filed for bankruptcy in July. Photo: Mason Adams/YES! Magazine

The anti-pipeline movement grew largely from organizing efforts that were developed more than a decade ago to fight mountaintop removal in central Appalachia. Erin McKelvy, who works with the group Appalachians Against Pipelines, grew up outside Blacksburg, Virginia, and took part in Take Back the Night rallies with her mother, a professor at Virginia Tech.

McKelvy found another mentor in Sue Daniels, a local mountaintop removal activist who took her along on a 2004 trip to Inman, Virginia, where a 3-year-old boy had been killed in his sleep by a flying boulder blasted from a nearby surface mine. The two joined with others to plan what became known as 2005’s Mountain Justice Summer and the beginning of a protracted campaign against coal companies.

The training sponsored by Mountain Justice taught McKelvy about direct action, preparing for legal fallout, speaking to media, and the importance of centering local leaders and voices.

Direct action, McKelvy said, “is a necessary tool in the toolbox. When regulatory agencies say yes to things that are in clear violation of the charters they have to protect air, water and the environment, and when there’s so much momentum behind the sort of toxic death culture status quo, sometimes it takes physically getting in the way of those things that are destructive and dangerous to actually get anywhere.”

Making business work for communities

Numerous Yellow Finch tree-sitters cited the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016 and 2017 at Standing Rock Indian Reservation as a galvanizing moment for them. That event also has inspired other actions, including an around-the-clock protest at a hospital in Kingsport, Tennessee, that as of September 2019 stretched beyond 140 days.

Dani Cook grew up in Bristol, which straddles the Tennessee-Virginia line, but was living in Charlotte, North Carolina, when she traveled to Standing Rock and spent five days with a group of military veterans supporting the protest. The experience left a lasting impression, so when Cook learned that the neonatal intensive care unit at Holston Valley Medical Center was scheduled to close as part of the hospital being downgraded as a trauma center, she took to the street.

“When I came out here, I was by myself,” Cook said. “I had no clue if anyone would come with me. All I knew is that what’s happening here is so wrong, we just have to do something. At first, I thought that was emails and phone calls. I thought it was 450 people showing up at the [public] hearing. I thought, surely when the state hears from nurses and doctors and the community, it will do something. When that didn’t work, all I knew to do was to make it physical.”

Dani Cook of Kingsport, Tennessee, protests the closure of a neonatal intensive care unit at her local hospital by Ballad Health, a regional nonprofit hospital company. Photo: Submitted by Dani Cook

Cook stationed herself on the sidewalk in front of the hospital and started talking about the plan set in motion by the hospital’s owner, Ballad Health. Before long, she was joined by other people, and since then they’ve been a constant presence on the road in front of Holston Valley, waving signs, asking motorists to sign petitions and waving to honking cars.

“Our protest is 90 percent women,” Cook said. “We have probably eight or so men who are here. Right now, it’s four of us women and one man out here. That’s pretty much the norm.”

Women take the lead throughout history

That dynamic—of women taking leadership roles and driving direct action—appears throughout Appalachia, both geographically and throughout history.

“Women putting their bodies on the line—because that is really what they’re doing— has been a historical pattern,” said Jessie Wilkerson, a professor at the University of Mississippi and author of To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice. “They always center what I and other scholars call ‘caring labor.’ They’re really emphasizing the labor that it takes to sustain life, to take care of other people, to take care of children, to take care of the environment, to take care of their communities.”

Wilkerson’s book was inspired by the Brookside Women’s Club of Harlan County, Kentucky, which played a pivotal role in the ’70s strike whose memory has been stoked by the train blockade. That’s just one example of women taking the lead in direct action.

Ollie “Widow” Combs, for example, placed her body before a bulldozer at a strip mine above her Kentucky home in 1965, leading to her arrest and inspiring future movements such as Mountain Justice, 40 years later.

Kentucky residents also picketed over potential hospital closures in Hazard, Harlan, Middlesboro, and Whitesburg in the early ’60s. Those protests eventually resulted in the establishment of numerous community-based clinics as part of Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” programs.

“Often the story is told as the federal government swoops in and is telling people what to do, but in fact, this came from protests around Washington, D.C., and in the region because of the hospital closures,” Wilkerson said.

That action has echoes today in the Holston Valley protests.

Colorful signs adorn two tree-sits on property near Elliston, Virginia, where protesters have blocked construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline for more than a year. Photos: Mason Adams/YES! Magazine

Wilma Lee Steele, a resident of Matewan and a board member for the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, fought coal and gas companies as a landowner whose property was dramatically affected by both. She said that today’s activists increasingly connect their fights with the labor actions found throughout Appalachia’s history, such as the West Virginia mine wars, an escalating series of labor showdowns that culminated in a 1921 declaration of martial law when thousands of miners faced off against law enforcement and private detectives on Blair Mountain. That vibrant connection between the past and present, Steele said, is a good thing.

“There’s things happening in West Virginia,” Steele said. “You see communities doing something. It can be hard to see, but underneath is a wave.”

Crabtree, the teacher whose car was surrounded by striking teachers in 1975, remembered what she felt as she sat chained to that same car 43 years later, waiting in the early morning mists for pipeline crews to arrive.

“There’s nobody in sight,” she said. “Just the shadows of the trees. It’s not quite daylight but it’s not dark. It was one of the most peaceful moments of my life. That’s real important to me. There was absolutely no fear. I knew logically that no jury in Monroe County would convict me of a crime for sitting on my own land, and I was doing the right thing. It’s a wonderful feeling, of doing the right thing.”

This article was funded in part by a grant from the One Foundation. It was originally published by YES! Magazine.

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Congress Hears Testimony From Chemical Company Executives On PFAS Contamination

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The Chemours facility, formerly the DuPont company’s site, in Washington, West Virginia. Photo: Glynis Board/WVPB

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Executives from three major chemical companies — DuPont de Nemours, Inc., The Chemours Company and The 3M Company — testified for the first time to Congress about widespread contamination from the group of nonstick, fluorinated chemicals broadly called PFAS.

The so-called “forever chemicals” persist in the environment, are linked to ill health effects, and have been found in numerous water systems in the Ohio Valley.

The hearing — the third on PFAS contamination by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Environment — explored the extent to which companies that make PFAS chemicals knew about its impacts on human health and the environment and how they should be held accountable. 

“These companies with us here today have screwed up and we need to hold them accountable for doing so,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Harley Rouda from California. “I hope the people representing those companies here today will admit their mistakes so that we can all move forward and achieve what I believe is our common goal: to clean up contaminated sites, stop exposing innocent people to toxic chemicals and making sure that all Americans have clean water and clean air.” 

Concern over PFAS contamination has grown nationwide. The Environmental Working Group estimates the drinking water systems of more than 700 communities are contaminated with PFAS. Perfluoroalkyl chemicals were used to make nonstick products and are found in some flame retardants including firefighting foam. 

Company executives called to testify focused on internal efforts to address concerns over PFAS in the face of major high-profile lawsuits and settlements over contamination in West Virginia and Minnesota. All expressed support for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action plan.” The agency in February proposed a series of regulatory steps to address PFAS contamination and cleanup

Lawmakers in both parties criticized EPA for not moving swiftly enough. Congress is considering amendments to its 2020 defense spending bill that would speed up EPA’s timeline and regulate the entire class of PFAS chemicals. 

Company executives were split over how PFAS chemicals should be regulated, although none supported broad legislative action to regulate all 5,000 PFAS chemicals. 

A representative from DuPont went the farthest. Daryl Roberts, DuPont’s chief operating and engineering officer, told the House subcommittee the company welcomed specific regulatory actions, such as listing two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, also known as the Superfund law. 

“We support legislation to list PFOA and PFOS, and only those two, as hazardous substances under CERCLA. That’s further than the other companies here are willing to go today, but that’s what we believe is correct,” he said. “What we know about those chemicals is that they’re bio-persistent. That’s enough to know that there’s a clear concern for those chemicals within society at this point in time, and we feel for that reason they should be regulated.” 

DuPont no longer makes PFAS chemicals. It split off its fluorinated chemicals business in 2015 to Chemours. A representative from Chemours said that company did not support such regulation. Chemours and DuPont are engaged in litigation over the split. Chemours argues DuPont misrepresented the environmental liabilities associated with PFAS chemicals. 

3M’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Denise Rutherford, doubled down on her company’s claim that there are no negative health effects from PFAS exposure.

“When we look at that evidence there is no cause and effect for adverse human health effects at the levels we are exposed to as a general population,” she said. 

That didn’t sit well with some Democrats, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said this position goes against findings from government agencies and 3M’s own scientists. 

The federal government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says some studies in humans with PFAS exposure have shown: effects on growth, learning, and behavior of infants; an increase cholesterol levels; effects on the immune system; and an increase in the risk of cancer.

The hearing began with testimony from two attorneys whose lawsuits against DuPont and 3M unearthed thousands of internal company documents that showed both companies knew the chemicals were dangerous to human health and the environment for decades, but didn’t tell its employees or federal regulators.

Rob Bilott, an Ohio-based attorney who successfully brought a class action lawsuit against DuPont for its dumping of PFOA, sometimes called C8, near its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, told lawmakers he and his team for 18 years have funneled scientific studies from within DuPont to EPA that enumerated the health risks associated with exposure. 

In 2012, an independent panel of scientists — the C8 Science Panel — concluded drinking PFAS contaminated water was linked with six diseases, including kidney and testicular cancers.

The group looked at all existing studies and conducted new ones on 70,000 impacted community members from around the Parkersburg area. 

“This independent scientific review has occurred. Unfortunately EPA has not acted,” Bilott testified. “We have more than enough evidence.  We should move forward and protect the public.”

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