Let Young People Lead: Introducing the Appalachian Youth Creators Project

Hundreds of people gathered at the Black Lives Matter protest organized in Elkton, Virginia, by two local high school students in early June. Photo: Sally Dukes/100 Days in Appalachia

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve had conversations with dozens of young people about everything from activating peers to be politically engaged in politically-apathetic areas, to the importance of student voice in schools, to the urgency of the youth vote. I always try to conclude those interviews with a version of the same question: What have I missed? What do you want people to know? 

Often, I received a version of the same answer: Talk to young people; not just about them. Let them lead. 

As part of the 100 Days in Appalachia team, I am going  to do just that. 

Over the next few months – and hopefully well into the future –100 Days will be working to give young people space to think out loud, examine and amplify issues they know are impacting their identities, their communities and, by extension, their politics through the Appalachia Youth Creators project. This project will create space for young people throughout the region to take back their narrative by shaping it themselves.

Through mediums of their own choosing, including personal essays, reporting, Q&As, poetry, and photography, young Appalachian adults will unpack politics, through a personal lens. What does it mean to be a climate activist when you feel the term “environmentalism” has been corrupted by corporations who ignore protecting the water and air in your community? What’s the impact of white supremacy in your hometown, and what does it mean to be “safe?” How does police brutality, toxic masculinity, and your own relationship with religion affect how you see the world? These are all topics you can expect to see on the digital pages of 100 Days in Appalachia over the next several weeks.

As a native Kentuckian and a writer and editor who frequently has the honor of reporting on issues that shape the lives and perspectives of young adults – and who is writing a book in that same vein – I’ve been humbled by the breadth of ideas these young people have shared so far. Especially in a politically polarized moment, where misconceptions on what it means to be from “that place” persist on a national scale, their perspectives are invaluable. The nuance with which they write and create is masterful; their conviction is a lesson to all of us; their storytelling is what can help shape a new narrative of what it means to be growing up in Appalachia right now, including the role politics plays in that. 

These young people are being shaped in an era fraught with political unrest, while surrounded by almost insurmountable global issues, like climate change, that will shape the world they inherit. But all at once, they are expected to be Gen Z-ers that both save the world and care far less about things too serious for them to understand. 

But just as the youth vote isn’t a monolith, young people in Appalachia aren’t, either. Their perspectives on current events, issues they see unfolding on a local or national level, politics and how it relates to their senses of self, and what it means to be from somewhere, are nuanced and important. They deserve a space to reflect and grow.  And this is their space.

We’re excited to begin today publishing the work of young people in Appalachia in a concentrated way. But if you’re a high school or college-aged Appalachian reading this, it’s not too late to share your voice. Send us a pitch here and make sure you mention it’s for the Appalachian Youth Creators Project. 

In the meantime, I invite you to read below the bios of some of our first contributors, and thank you, in advance, for reading and sharing this work.

Yours,

Rainesford Stauffer


RaJon Staunton (he/they) is a West Virginia-born poet from Beckley, West Virginia. They are a junior at Marshall University, where they were the recipient of the 2020 Wallace E. Knight Excellence in Writing Award for Poetry. Their poems can be found and are forthcoming in Parentheses Journal, Teen Vogue, Hobart, and elsewhere. In their free-time, RaJon enjoys reading sci-fi novels and baking. 

Brook Smith is a 17-year-old high school senior living in Floyd County, Virginia. She enjoys writing about and engaging in politics and wants to major in Political Science in college. She is also a member of the Appalachian Youth Climate Coalition, an organization committed to organizing for climate justice in rural Appalachia.

Christian Shushok is an 18-year-old writer and organizer from Southwest Virginia. He is interested in poetry, mountain politics, and southern and Appalachian cultural issues. He is a lead director and founder of Appalachian Youth Climate Coalition and is currently a freshman at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. 

Béla Williams is a current high school sophomore from Southwest Virginia. As an organizer with Appalachian Youth Climate Coalition and the Sunrise Movement, he is passionate about telling stories, writing, and how diverse issues influence our region.  

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