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Kids First: Teachers Put Immigration Politics Aside To Focus On Migrant Students



“Be brave, have fun,” Jennie Boggess instructs as she leads a room full of young students at Camp Curiosity, hosted by the Daviess County, Kentucky, Public Schools.

Boggess is the development director for the Owensboro Dance Theatre and today she is preparing students for a finale performance to cap the four-week summer camp.

“The idea of being brave is sometimes difficult for kids between 4th and 8th grade,” Boggess said. “You start to worry about people who are around you, the fear sets in.”

It’s an important concept for children in any circumstance but especially so for the kids at Camp Curiosity. The camp is specifically organized for students in grades K-12 who are children of migrant workers.

Migrant students practice a dance performance for the camp’s finale. Photo credit Nicole Erwin, Ohio Valley ReSource

While the nation is focused on the treatment of immigrant children at the border, these teachers and others like them are setting politics aside to put kids first with education programs for migrant children. And program officials say the changing faces in their camps and classrooms offer some insights into the shifting demographics among migrant workers and their families.

Angeles’ Story

Boggess plays a remix of an old Will Smith hit, the theme to the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

“Now this is a story all about how, my life got flipped, turned upside down…

These lyrics are significant to 17-year-old student Angeles Escalante.

“When it says ‘upside down,’ it’s like, I come from the down and now I’m on the up so, it’s like that,” she said.

Escalante left Honduras several years ago with her mother and sister. Her two older brothers remain in a country Escalante says is fraught with violence.

“I was seven years old and I was saying, ‘I’m going to die in Honduras, I’ll never get out of Honduras,’ and look at me, I’m here!” she said.

“I was saying, I’m going to die in Honduras,” Angeles Escalante said. Photo credit Nicole Erwin, Ohio Valley Resource.

Escalante’s mother and father divorced, leaving her mom in charge of caring for the kids. A tough situation was made worse after her mother was robbed in Honduras. Escalante said her mother needed a safe place for the family so she could earn their living.

“Here, you get accepted, I’m grateful for that,” she said. “It’s so beautiful to see that someone receive[s] you, they are not looking bad at you, they’re not mean to you.”

Escalante said she lived in New Jersey for a short time and she wasn’t treated as well as she has been in Kentucky.

Changing Faces

Escalante and other students here are eligible to attend Camp Curiosity due to their parents’ work in agriculture. Students must have moved within 36 months and have parents employed in the agriculture sector.

Funding for the camp is designated for migrant students under the U.S. Department of Education’s commitment to educate all equally, through the Title 1 program which aims to improve academic achievement for the disadvantaged.

The camp’s goals are to help each student achieve reading fluency and math skills at grade level and for children to have fun through creative curiosity.

A teacher and student walk the hall in Tamarack Elementary. Photo credit Nicole Erwin, Ohio Valley ReSource.

Camp administrator Jason Powers has been with the program for five of the camp’s seven years. Recently, Powers has started to notice a shift in the makeup of demographics within the migrant worker families attending the camp.

“We used to be all Hispanic. Now our Hispanic population is more in the minority,” Powers said. “Burmese and Karen students, now that is the majority of our students.” The Karen people belong to one of the largest ethnic groups in Southeast Asia and many have fled Myanmar and other conflict areas.

Migrant education program officials in Ohio and West Virginia report a similar shift. They see Hispanic families that would routinely return for seasonal work are being replaced by non-Hispanic faces.

These anecdotal observations could be describing the early indications of important trends in the migrant worker population. But those trends might not show up in official data, at least not for a while.

Deportation Fears

Data on migrant workers in the U.S. are limited when it comes to estimating the total population of migrant workers by state.

The U.S. Department of Labor collects information from the National Agricultural Workers Survey, an employment-based sampling of U.S. crop workers on topics including country of origin and family members.

Graphic by Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley ReSource.

Survey information shows that more than 70 percent of hired farm workers are from Mexico or Central America and over 80 percent are Hispanic. More than half of all workers had children and nearly a third of those parents had three or more children.

The survey is conducted every two years with the most recent results from 2014. The changes noted by teachers in the Ohio Valley probably won’t show up in the data just yet.

The U.S. Education Department confirms a decrease in migrant student populations in recent years but could not account for changes in nationality. The Education Department pulls data from the Office of Migrant Education which show that between 2002 and 2017 the number of eligible migratory children for the Migrant Education Program declined by 11,257 students in Kentucky and 5,267 students in Ohio.

West Virginia no longer offers a migrant education program. Melanie Purkey, the senior administrator for the state’s Education Office of Quality Assurance, said in an email that the state phased out its program in 2014 because of a low number of eligible students.

Graphic by Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley ReSource.

Purkey said recent declines in participation could be attributed to fears of deportation.

“District staff have indicated that immigrant and migrant families are less likely to identify themselves for services from government agencies including schools because of fear of being reported to federal immigration authorities,” Purkey explained in an email.

Ohio’s Migrant Education Center Director Jose Salinas said the state’s number of migrant students peaked in 2001.

Migrant workers picking cabbage on a farm in Ohio. Photo credit Bob Jagendorf.

“We had a little over 6,400 kids and it’s been decreasing every year,” he explained.

This year, so far, he said the state has about 1,100 students in the program. That could change with the labor-intensive cucumber harvest approaching, but he said does not expect to see many more migrant students.

Salinas said that two years ago groups of non-Hispanic families began moving to the state to fill in for jobs that Mexican families have left behind. He said a variety of factors contribute to the decline in Hispanic workers.

“The fear that families could be deported, if they are undocumented,” is one factor, Salinas said. “But that is just a certain percentage. The entire migrant population is not undocumented.”

Kids At Risk

Migrant worker issues are more than just a job for Salinas. It’s also part of his family history.

When Salinas was young he moved across the country with his grandparents and parents for seasonal farm work. Each year, he said, they would visit the same farms and their communities. That isn’t as common with migrant families now, he said. As new families move into these new places, it can be more difficult to establish trust in the host community.

Salinas said law prohibits officials with the schools and his program from asking whether a family’s members are documented. But that might not be understood by the families. Something else Salinas says people aren’t always aware of is the age that kids can legally be put to work.

“People are often unaware that kids as young as 12 can legally work in the field,” Salinas said. That workload can make it difficult for kids to keep up in school. “There are lots of at- risk factors that these kids have to go through that can affect how they perform academically.”

He listed the many barriers children might face: Transient lifestyles, limited English proficiency, and temporary homelessness.

“It’s one thing compounded on another,” he said. “Some of these kids actually graduate from high school and you sit back and you think, ‘How in the heck did they do it?’”

Brighter Futures

Salinas said his personal experience helped him understand there are better ways to make an income. That’s just what is happening with the generation of students making their way through programs like Camp Curiosity.

Daviess County migrant students Jose Hernandez, 14, and his brother Alex, 12, hope for a chance at a brighter future through higher education.

Brothers Jose (left) and Alex Hernandez help other students translate to English. Photo credit Nicole Erwin, Ohio Valley ReSource.

“I’m aiming to be a lawyer,” Alex said. “One of my teachers told me that if I wasn’t a lawyer then I had missed my calling.”

Jacob Bryant is that teacher. Bryant is also helping at the summer migrant camp.

“Everything you say is so impactful when you are dealing with children and young people,” Bryant said, and described the characteristics he saw in Alex that made him think, “lawyer.”

“Alex is an outstanding student,” he said, and loves to talk. “And I think he really enjoys when you aren’t on the same point of view, because he loves to be persuasive in the ways he thinks.”

Bryant is also here to garner new skills of his own, teaching different grade levels and being exposed to new teaching methods.

“We have students right now that need help,” Bryant said. “And so we are here to help them and whatever those needs may be, that is what we are here to do.”

Alex and Jose also like to help by translating in class for students not yet fluent in English. The boys were born in the U.S. and their parents are from Mexico.

Jose said he is working to increase his grade point average to better his chances for college.

“I would have never known about points in high school because I didn’t know about that until Mr. Owens, he told me,” Jose said.

He says his G.P.A. is more important than following the threats of deportation from the president. “He can say whatever he wants, I don’t care,” Jose said.

Jose’s father was deported and he has since lost contact with the family. But Jose said his step-father has filled that role. “My mom was legal to come here because she had a job offer,” he said. But because of what happened to his dad, Trump’s comments make him worry.

“They’re just innocent kids,” Camp Curiosity administrator Jason Powers said of his migrant students. Photo credit Nicole Erwin, Ohio Valley ReSource.

So he is focusing on his efforts at Camp Curiosity, a place where he said teachers really care, a place where camp administrator Jason Powers says kids come first.

“You know they are just innocent, innocent kids and they’re just like anybody else, they want to get better,” Powers said. “I told them, we are here for you, that is why we are here.”

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley Resource.

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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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