Appalachia by nature is rough terrain. The hilltops and the hollers were settled by people who exemplified resilience – something we all know to be true in the hills even today. Our communities are all too familiar with floods, mudslides, and environmental degradation brought on by corporate involvement putting profit over people, sparking the battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 all the way up to the Black Jewel miners strike in 2020.
Appalachia, in many ways, finds itself at the nexus of the climate crisis and will continue to do so in the decades to come. It is because of this that Appalachia has a unique role to play in the climate movement.
The minerals extracted from our region have directly contributed to the onset of the climate crisis and rural communities like ours are likely to face the brunt of the effects.
At Appalachians for Appalachia, we support a just transition for our region’s economy that is in alignment with national strategies to combating climate change. We are supportive of state and federal programs funding large scale infrastructure projects in Appalachia to ensure our communities are more resilient and capable of adapting to an ever changing climate.
The economy in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Southern Ohio, Southern Pennsylvania, and throughout central Appalachia has been tied to the booms and busts of the coal industry for over 200 years, and while the industry once allowed our region to prosper, now, this same region, due to a changing world, is plagued with poverty, high unemployment rates, devastating health statistics, and little hope for another economic boom in a single industry. Despite national media outlets blaming any one specific presidential administration, the truth is that coal production has been on the decline for around 25 years. According to the Federal Reserve of Cleveland, coal mining employment has declined 92 percent in eastern Kentucky since its 1948 peak, which is a loss of more than 61,000 jobs, or 900 jobs per year since 1979. This decrease in coal production and employment has caused a ripple effect throughout Appalachia, forcing local economies to find new revenue streams with little to no state or federal support. Our local spending power has been drastically reduced, coal severance dollars have been cut by as much as 65%, and our biggest export has now become our population.
In addition to diversifying industries, here at AforA, we believe that economic success begins with addressing social issues and inequalities to ensure inclusivity in the region and make sure the region can reach its full potential. Part of the work we are doing here at AforA is centered around changing the narrative of the region and representing progressive ideas that will make our region open for business and economic transition for folks of all backgrounds.
In Appalachia, we know the power of a single person’s voice thanks to the Appalachian heroes we were raised on like Dolly Parton, John Henry, Hazel Dickens, and Sequoia. And because we know the power of one voice, we know how important it is to cast a vote.
The right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy, but as it stands, it isn’t easy to access – or even available – to everyone in Appalachia. And at AforA, we believe it can and should be available to all Appalachians. In recent years, voting rights have come under assault in the region by rogue state legislatures who gerrymander districts, restrict voting access, and put up barrier after barrier impeding the right to vote. AforA stands firmly against these measures including voter ID laws, restrictions of early voting, and broad voter roll purges.
We believe in restoring and strengthening the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The VRA was passed in 1965 to enshrine the promise of the 14th and 15th Amendments. It ensures that every citizen has an opportunity to take part in this American experiment by casting their vote. But that isn’t the case in today’s America, and the VRA is under threat from ill-conceived court cases and backward legislators. But at A for A, we believe in restoring and strengthening the VRA by passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Every citizen deserves access to their right to vote in free and fair elections.
Appalachians have been historically underserved by federal governments, legislation, and politicians.
This disparity is especially prevalent in Central Appalachia. Compared to non-Appalachian U.S., Central Appalachia has a shortage of healthcare providers, including 33.3% fewer primary care providers, 46.9% fewer dentists, 65.6% fewer specialty physicians, and 51% fewer mental healthcare providers.
At Appalachians for Appalachia, we believe in healthcare policies that are accessible, affordable, and available to everyone. Efforts to increase access to care and decrease barriers are essential to improving healthcare in our region. Increasing access to healthcare and mental healthcare begins with recruiting and retaining providers across the region. The efforts to decrease barriers may include increasing healthcare literacy in our region, increasing public transportation and availability of high speed Internet access, and improving cultural competency for providers. Ensuring the health and safety of our people will be instrumental in ensuring our success as a region.
Arts and culture have been less than a priority in DC for generations, but at AforA, we are out to change that. One of the most beautiful parts of the Appalachian region is the folkways of our people; Appalachia has long been a rich arts and cultural hub. From basket weaving to bluegrass, from quilting to canning, there are so many arts and traditions we hold dear and hope to pass along to the generations that follow us. We have a healthy mixture of big city concerts as well as artist co-ops that include Asheville, North Carolina, Morgantown, West Virginia, and everything in between. We believe in protecting this “natural resource” of culture, and legislators in Congress can support that mission.
We know that many folks in the creative economy experienced severe setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress should work toward solutions for folks around the country who have been directly impacted by the prolonged shutdowns and deemed “non-essential.” We fully believe that our artists and artisans of the Appalachian region are essential to our identity, our shared beliefs, and the safekeeping of them.
Appalachian schools are an extension of our homes and hearts. Teachers are not only your educators, but our friends, mentors, coaches (debate or basketball!), and our biggest advocates. Many of these folk invest their own resources to make sure their students’ basic needs are being met. They continue to invest their energy and time in their students to ensure their success in the future and through K-12. We’ve seen how this has paid off. Over the last several years, Appalachia’s rate of high school completion has steadily increased, landing at 87.2% for Appalachians 25 and older, almost level with the national average of 88%.
However, this success has not translated into Bachelor’s completion rates in Central Appalachia. While Northern and Southern Appalachia have rates within 5% of the national average, Central Appalachia has a Bachelor’s rate of 15.2%, nearly 18.3% below the national average. These statistics are not representative of the talent that exists in our region. In order to make sure all of our talent can be nurtured, we must create multiple prosperous paths after high school and take a hard look at our educational investments, reimagining what it means to be successful in the region.
With regards to post secondary education, AforA believes we need to advocate for more investment in apprenticeship programs in Appalachia. Apprenticeships are continuously being expanded by Congress, but it is up to us to advocate that we feel the benefit of that expansion as well. Apprenticeships provide non-traditional pathways to good paying jobs that do not require a Bachelor’s degree. Apprenticeships allow an individual to work in a real job while learning valuable skills for that career while also getting paid; they help build a strong foundation for an individual to succeed in their chosen career path.
In recent decades, prisons and jails, many of them privately owned and for-profit, have been developed in Appalachia under the false premise of economic prosperity – an alternative to coal mining, lumber, and mill revenue. Twenty nine Federal and state prisons have been developed in the region since 1989, but have had little impact on creating jobs or increasing foot traffic in these areas from the loved ones of those incarcerated.
Due to the prison industrial complex taking over Appalachia, incarceration rates of six Appalachian states are higher than the national rate. These incarceration rates are due to a couple factors and enforcement targets people of color. In Kentucky, Black Kentuckians are 3.2 times more likely to be in prison than their White peers in the state.
AforA wants to change the criminal justice system of oppression for people of color. We are in favor of changing this system and supporting efforts for those providing treatment for individuals with substance use disorders rather than incrimination. These include prevention efforts and substance use disorder diversion programs instead of incarceration. AforA supports the legalization and decriminalization of cannabis as a means of economic development for our region as well as a form of restorative justice for communities of color who have been disproportionately incarcerated for cannabis related drug charges.
We’d like to recognize that Appalachia belonged to the Cherokee, Shawnee, and other tribes that first called these mountains their home.
Migration has shaped every cultural and economic facet of Appalachia. From the Scots-Irish tenement farmers who migrated into the region in the early 1700s, to the Italian, Polish, Chinese and Germans who came to the region in waves during the 1800s, and all the subsequent waves of migration that followed. Appalachia is where immigrant communities sought opportunity and refuge. Appalachia’s history is rich with cultural fusion and a legacy of solidarity and resistance across different communities.
Appalachia’s greatest asset has always been its people. In order to build a brighter Appalachia we must reckon with the legacy of immigration in our own past and how that informs our future. Appalachians for Appalachia supports increased incentives for immigration to our region, legal pathways to citizenship for Dreamers, avenues for employment for undocumented immigrants, increased international student visas, increased visas to support seasonal labor and a federal immigration system that centers human rights and dignity.