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Speak Your Piece: Father’s Days



I met Rick Bragg once. I’d spoken in a basement at a conference at East Tennessee State where he was the headliner. A buddy asked if I wanted to meet him. I don’t have a lot of heroes. I’d read “It’s All Over but the Shouting,” the book about his mama. And I’d pored over Bragg’s New York Times dispatches from the Haitian holocaust. Stunning accounts of evil, blood in the streets, courage and sacrifice. They read like campfire stories.

That night there was a wine and cheese quadrant marked off in couches and chairs in an open hallway. I waited in line there for my introduction. Just in front of me was some book club person who asked him what he’s working on now, the kind of direct question polite people don’t ask.

Bragg said when he was writing about his mother he’d sworn he’d never write about his daddy (who was a drunk and mean). But he said recently he’d noticed that his dad’s pals were getting up there, and if he was ever going to sit down and talk to them, that this was the time. Then he paused and said, “And … ”

I just blurted, “And there’s nothing better than being in the presence of old men.”

He looked at me as if astonished, pointed, and said, “That’s exactly right.”

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My dad was no Joan of Arc. He thought being a good citizen was taking out the garbage, paying most of your taxes, and not parking in front of the fireplug. But he did this one thing that no one saw coming. It would be gilding the lily to say he turned down a bribe, or even that he refused a kickback. He just did the right thing because he didn’t like a guy on the other end of the transaction, and I’ve come to see the public good in that.

My father sold furniture in my granddad’s store. He maybe made a hundred bucks a week. Before that he sold tires and appliances at the Firestone’s and made less. The only civic organization he ever joined was the Jaycees, and I am pretty sure that was because his boss at Firestone’s, George Roach, was the club president. The odd snatches I remember about his time in the Junior Chamber of Commerce is mainly that Dad went to the meetings on Tuesday nights, that once Mom proudly told me when he’d been elected second vice president, and on a night when he missed a meeting several men showed up at our house with a caged goose that Dad, no matter the cuss words, was compelled to keep till the next Tuesday meeting. Meaning I had to look after that goose. And it was tush-hog vicious. They say birds don’t have teeth, but this one had saw blades. It would go after a finger with a marksman’s precision. (Why would a thinking person ever want to be a Jaycee?)

It was a hard time in East Kentucky, but we were not bad off, certainly not by coalfield standards. There were kids I went to school with who would knock on the door Saturday mornings with a note pinned on their shirt. I’d get Mom, who’d unfold the note, go to her pocket book, and pull out something for the family. That was poor. You’d see a little boy wearing his sister’s hand-me-down coat. That was poor. Price of coal fell to $2 a ton, wildcat strikes, massive layoffs. We had a car, a house, and Dad had a job. We were taught never complain.

I was in the second grade, maybe third, when we got a new car. A lemon and white Plymouth with fins. Everybody said, “Sharp.” (Before then Dad drove a 1951 humpback coupe out of some Broderick Crawford movie. It had a floorboard pedal for the starter. It had survived the ’57 flood but had retained faint smells.)

People on our street rarely got new cars. Neighbors would stop in just to talk about the color. They would reach inside the window and rub their hands across the seat covers. And in the very first week my grandfather asked to drive it to the furniture market in High Point, North Carolina.

That Sunday evening I was in my pajamas watching TV when there was a small knock on the door. I ran to open it and it was my grandfather, hesitating, with a little Band-Aid on his chin. He looked at my dad and said, “I wrecked your car.”

I was crushed, yet Dad did not hesitate for an instant. “But are you OK?” he said and rushed to my grandfather, reached for his arm. (We are not huggers.)

I have been puzzled ever since. How do you know what’s right to say or do in the moment you get? Maybe salesmen know it, but not most of us.

Dad was always trying to launch a second business. First when we lived in Florida he picked up wind-blown coconuts and sold them to gas stations on the tourist routes. Later he came up with more successful enterprises like a Laundromat, a dry cleaners, and selling ice machines to liquor stores and convenience marts. But early on, he and his life-long friend, Joe Pat, decided to become Realtors. That meant passing the test and getting a real estate license from the state. For months the two of them read prep books and quizzed each other at night. And when they passed the exam, they started running ads in the paper.

I don’t know if they planned to get rich, but I remember Joe Pat talking about living in Texas. He said everybody there with any money at all had an air-conditioned car, so when he would drive up to a motel or a business he’d roll up his windows a half mile away, no matter how hot, just so people thought he had money. For Dad then, we were living six people in a two-bedroom house, and I think he just wanted to get a bigger place.

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When I was a kid and people asked what I was going to be, I’d say a senator. Not a doctor or an astronaut. I liked politics. I read JFK’s “Profiles in Courage.” I handed out cards on Election Day for city commissioner and governor. My grandfather would take me to his breakfast club every week to talk politics with the opinionated shopkeepers (who hated the Kennedys) and our mayor who made false teeth for a living.

My dad thought it was funny that I wanted to be a Republican. No one in his family had ever voted for one. He even got me a ride to the inauguration of Louie Nunn, the first GOP governor of Kentucky in 30 years. And when the Secretary of Transportation pick was a local guy, that was good for me, because like a lot of the shopkeepers, he thought I had potential. The secretary even entrusted me to tell my dad that they were going to need a real estate agent to do property evaluations along the route for new Highway 15. Before I had a driver’s license, I was making deals.

So here is the sticky part. I never heard it from Dad. My mother told me that my dad was selling an empty warehouse that belonged to a great aunt and uncle who lived in Florida. The secretary wanted it for his business, but $10,000 cheaper than the going price. In the negotiations with my dad, the work for the state on Highway 15 and the price of the warehouse were not arm’s length. And then Dad got called a lying son of a bitch. A hillbilly will stub up on you, and that’s that. He and Joe Pat split the partnership, and Joe ended up with the new highway contract. According to Mom, Joe Pat did well enough to air-condition all his stuff.

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My last year of college I told my mom I was against the war. Not all wars, just the one in Vietnam. I told her I had made up mind not to go, not to head to Canada, rather I wanted to go to prison. She did not hesitate, “If that is what you want, I will stand by you.”

I did not fill in my student deferment for the Draft Board. I just went back to college at the University of Kentucky. My lottery number was 51. They were not going to miss me. One day I get a call from my dad 120 miles away. He said the woman from Selective Service had gotten in touch. He thought it strange that the board had not yet received my college deferment.

I told him, “Right, I decided not to send it in.”

My dad never hit me — mostly we just joked or he would grab my shoulder — but when I crossed the line he’d say either one of two things: “Are you an idiot?” Or he would say, “Have I raised an idiot for a son?” But the way he would say it, sounded like eeediot.“You sign that thing now, and send it in.”

I folded like a cheap suit. The next year they quit drafting boys. Neither of us ever mentioned it again.

Dee Davis is president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. He lives in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

This story was originally published on the Daily Yonder.

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Groups Say Smart Reclamation Of Mine Lands Could Be “Appalachia’s New Deal”



Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia. Photo: Courtesy CVI

From solar farms in Virginia to a green energy subdivision in Kentucky, a new report by a group of regional advocacy organizations highlights 20 ready-made projects across the Ohio Valley that could give abandoned mining operations that were never cleaned up a second life, and create new economic opportunity across the region.

In the report, released Tuesday, the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, which advocates for high-impact mine reclamation projects throughout Central Appalachia, says innovative mine reclamation “could be Appalachia’s New Deal.”

“This report marks an important step as Appalachia citizens continue to re-imagine and work toward a future of sustainable and healthy local economies, where young people can find meaningful work and stay to raise their own families,” Adam Wells, regional director of community and economic development with Appalachian Voices, said in a statement.

Courtesy Ohio Valley Mushroom Farm
Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) at an Ohio wetland.

Virginia-based Appalachian Voices is one of the members of the coalition. Other organizations include Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, Coalfield Development Corporation in West Virginia, Rural Action in Ohio, and Downstream Strategies in West Virginia.

Projects highlighted in the report run the gamut and include proposals to use acid mine drainage in Perry County, Ohio, to create paint and a proposal by a West Virginia wholesaler to build a livestock processing facility in Kanawha County.

The region has struggled to clean up thousands of abandoned coal sites since the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund was created in 1976. State and local governments have sometimes struggled with how to find new uses for old mine sites, and some high-profile projects have fizzled.

In the report, the authors argue, well-planned reclamation projects can spur economic development and offer best practices for how they should be proposed. Those include selecting appropriate locations near infrastructure and ensuring redevelopment projects are environmentally sustainable and financially viable over the long term.

Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia. Photo: Courtesy CVI

In recent years, Congress has boosted resources available for that effort. Beginning in 2017, more than $100 million was appropriated for the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program. Many of the projects highlighted in the report have applied for funding through the AML Pilot Program.

But another federal effort has not been passed by Congress despite bipartisan support. The “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More,” or RECLAIM Act would accelerate reclamation of abandoned mine lands by dispersing $1 billion of Abandoned Mine Land funds over a 5-year period with an eye toward economic development.

Combined, the report’s authors say, the 20 projects would require about $38 million of investment but would generate more than $83 million in economic output as well about 540 jobs to the region.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource

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Sports and Storytelling: ‘More a Unifier than a Divider’



A rusted field goal post and practice equipment sits on the practice field outside Municipal Stadium in Portsmouth, Ohio. Photo: Jack Shuler

When we launched our religion vertical, we said, “because religion is community” in Appalachia.  When we talked about a sports vertical, we said, “because sports is religion” here. It is a topic that transcends the playing field —  and brings many of Appalachia’s stories into focus – from the political to the economic to the cultural. Former ESPN sports editor Keith Reed and Pittsburgh native promises a complicated look at the region through this prism.

— 100 Days in Appalachia


Many people are going to see that 100 Days is launching a sports vertical and question it, thinking we’re now bringing them scores and draft updates, but that’s not exactly the goal. What is your vision for our work in this field?

I’m fascinated by sports as a cultural connective tissue. The games themselves are competitive entertainment, but how we consume sports gives us a great opportunity to examine where and how we live. There are so many examples, but the sports economy is a great one. You can tell a community’s priorities based on how it spends its money. Well, in the U.S., we spend billions of dollars every year on sporting events and related items and infrastructure. Professional team owners are mostly plutocrat billionaires. Big time college athletes are indentured labor to millionair coaches while generating billions of dollars for institutions under the guise of amateurism. This says a lot about where American priorities are, even though I’d guess “sports” isn’t the first thing that comes to people’s minds when you say, “Appalachia.”

We’re designing this vertical with that kind of context in mind. Everyone has instantaneous access to scores, stats, trade rumors and fantasy updates in their pockets. What they don’t have  that we can provide, is a way to pull back the curtain to see where sports is a barometer on where communities stand with regard to race, wealth, public policy and cultural understandings and divides. That’s where we come in.


Much like religion or food, sports is such an integral part of communities not just in Appalachia, but around the world. What is it about your life experience that makes it such an important topic to you?

Almost every kid has a sport they grew up playing, or watching or at least a team their parents loved. I grew up in Pittsburgh loving the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. I played basketball. I still start or end most days with a boxing workout or exercising with a group organized by a friend who’s a former NFL player. I even coach a team in a women’s kickball league. My sons both grew up playing sports: football, track, wrestling, rugby.

So sports have been a major part of my personal life and I know how influential that can be. In your formative years, you might meet someone you never would have encountered but for the basketball court or football field. Whatever differences you have, you put away because you need your teammate to help make you better and help you win. Coaches can be enormous positive or negative influences. For elite athletes, sports can be life-changing or life-saving. I’ve seen sports across all those transformative aspects, and I believe most people, regardless of background, will be able to relate to those stories.


100 Days in Appalachia’s goal is to take back the narrative people on the outside looking in have created for our region and show the true diversity of this place. How will this vertical expand upon or support that mission?

Sports stories are almost perfect for creating a geographic and cultural sense-of-place. In two well-written paragraphs, I could contrast the atmospheres at a UVa basketball game and a Tennessee Titans game and you’d gain an appreciation for how different a college town in the hills of Virginia is from urbanized Nashville. The populations, infrastructure and community priorities and needs in those two places are very distinct, and that will show up in their sports fans.

One of my favorite stories I’ve ever edited was for ESPN the Magazine, for the very first “One Day-One Game” issue. We sent a bunch of writers and photographers to Houston to cover a Steelers-Texans game, and there was a piece about tailgating and how Steelers fans were exporting this white, working-class ethos and culture common to formerly immigrant communities with them. All those people moved in the 70s and 80s after the steel mills in Pittsburgh closed, and now there’s a diaspora of Pittsburghers living in other cities and following the team from stadium to stadium. A lot of what you see in some of the characters in that story, which I believe we did in 2011 or 2012, showed up at the polls and in the rhetoric around the presidential election in 2016. That tailgating story, about an old-school, blue-collar Pittsburgh guy who talked funny and drank a lot of beer, was a canary in the coal mine.


Rivalries in sports and the divides they create can be almost even more intense than the divisions created by our current political climate. How can storytelling and journalism in this area bring people together?

I think sports fandom, especially rivalries, are more a unifier than divider. Think about that kid who meets somebody from across town on the basketball court. As adults, they may move to different parts of the country, have different levels of education and income, but they keep up with each other over social media and they find common ground in their rooting allegiances. There’s no easier way to get people who’ve grown apart or who have very little else in common than sports trash talk.

I’m a Red Sox fan who lived in Boston and wrote about the team, who dated a Yankees fan.  I’m a Pittsburgh native who’s lived in every other AFC North city, plus Boston. I have friends from Baltimore, Boston, Cincy and Cleveland — all these cities that are supposed to be “rivals” because of sports. Yet, sports is the thing that brings us together. So I think our storytelling can be an entry point for lowering some of the polarized rhetoric from other parts of our lives and engaging one another as fans, and then as people.


What is the potential impact you hope to see?

I don’t have any agenda besides finding and telling good stories. I’ve never done a geocentric, hyper-regional sort of journalism project like this before, so I’m happy to explore what that looks like. I’d like to give opportunity to some talented, young and hungry writers with a passion for telling interesting stories and seeing where those stories lead. That could mean something investigative centered around college athletics or it could be something more fun and interesting. At this point, I just want the storytelling to be good and well-received.

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‘If We Can’t Mine Coal, What Are We Going To Do?’



In this excerpt from the book After Coal, documentary filmmaker Tom Hansell describes how his media work in the coalfields of Central Appalachia led to a different understanding about what might come next for coal communities.

“EPA = Expanding Poverty in America.”  

See also: BEYOND COAL: Appalachia and Wales. Jim Branscome reviews Tom Hansell’s book “After Coal”

This statement is written in three-foot-high letters on a banner stretched over a bandstand in a public park in Pikeville, Kentucky. It is June 2012 and I am just starting production of the After Coal documentary. The crowd around me is dressed in the reflective stripes of mining uniforms or in T-shirts reading Friends of Coal and Walker Heavy Machinery. I am documenting a coal industry-sponsored pep rally before a public hearing on new water-quality regulations proposed for mountaintop-removal coal mines.  

The speaker onstage is speaking proudly of his family’s heritage in the coal industry. He concludes his passionate statement with a question: “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do in eastern Kentucky?” 

Good question. As a filmmaker who has spent my career living and working in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and documenting coal-mining issues, this is an important and difficult question to answer. My earlier documentaries Coal Bucket Outlaw (2002) and The Electricity Fairy (2010) were intended to start a civil conversation between workers in the coal industry and other community members about a shared vision for good jobs, clean air, clean water, and a safe working environment. However, the conversations almost always broke down as soon as someone pointed out the obvious: the coal industry had long been the only model of economic development in the central Appalachian region. More examples of what life after coal might look like were desperately needed to move the conversation forward.  

As I struggled with the haunting question “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do?” the image of Welsh mining villages rising from the ashes left by the coal industry captured my imagination. I thought that if I could just learn a few details about how Welsh communities made the transition, then I could identify specific solutions to help coal communities in Appalachia. However, I quickly learned that the secret to life after coal was not that simple. …  

The author (holding the boom mic). (Photo provided.)

On my own quest for solutions, in 1990, I began my career at Appalshop, a rural, multidisciplinary arts center located in Whitesburg, Kentucky—the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields. From my young and naively privileged perspective, moving to eastern Kentucky was an act of opposition to the materialistic consumer-driven world. I had a goal of living self-sufficiently, fulfilling my needs with what I could make or grow, and buying as little as possible. And, as an aspiring environmental activist, the clear moral lines around the issues in the Kentucky coalfields, especially strip mining, were appealing. The battle call of union songs such as “Which Side Are You On” charged up my little post-punk heart.  

However, my experience at Appalshop quickly taught me that the struggles of coal communities were not as simple or straightforward as I had imagined. Working as part of this artistic collective, I produced radio and video documentaries and taught community media workshops. As a young artist and activist, I quickly absorbed Appalshop’s mantra of providing a platform for mountain people to speak in their own words about issues that affect their lives. I attended hundreds of community meetings: school board, the fiscal court, mine permit hearings, and union meetings. I also documented dozens of direct actions where citizens blocked roads to stop mining, took over government offices to protest the lack of enforcement, and set up picket lines to enforce union contracts.  

Retired Welsh miner and labor leader Terry Thomas (left) meets retired Kentucky miner Carl Shoupe (right). (Screenshot from the documentary, After Coal)

My experiences working on the front lines of the environmental justice movement in Appalachia gradually developed my understanding of the complexities of how culture, place, and politics had shaped the situations I was documenting. I witnessed firsthand the incredible power of community to support people as they faced threats against their homes and families. As a result, I expanded my ideas about self-sufficiency from an individualistic vision of each person taking care of their own needs to a larger vision of individuals living in symbiosis with their neighbors and the natural environment—community self-sufficiency. 

Participating in cultural exchanges at Appalshop also provided me with valuable lessons. Meeting artists from the mountains of western China and rural Indonesia opened my eyes to some of the universal challenges faced by regional cultures in an increasingly globalized economy. I hoped that an international exchange with another coal-mining region such as south Wales could identify resources and strategies that would help Appalachian coalfield communities create a future beyond coal.  

The process of creating the After Coal documentary took more than five years. During that time, I learned to stop looking for concrete solutions and start supporting an ongoing conversation about how to create healthy communities in former coal-mining regions. International efforts to address climate change make this challenge especially intense for coal-producing regions. As our economy shifts from fossil fuels, how can we ensure that places where fossil fuels were extracted do not continue to bear an unfair share of the costs of extraction?  

I believe there are as many solutions for life after coal as there are residents of mining communities. I hope these stories from south Wales and central Appalachia will inspire people to discover solutions that work in their home communities. 

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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