Keeping our Hands on the Plow: A Personal Reflection on Organizing and Empowering Mountain Youth

 Even a victorious strike will have its bitter side; even dazzling right choices will be followed by murky dilemmas with no clear solutions. The coal industry in particular and the American economy in general will still be in deep trouble. … But neither can it be denied that there are moments of transcendence that are capable of teaching us, of making us feel the possibilities that reside in us, in the people around us, and in the groups of which we are or can be a part.

– Jim Sessions and Fran Ansley. “Singing across Dark Spaces: The Union/Community Takeover of Pittston’s Moss 3 Plant” (217).

Deeply moved by the events of the “festival where a conference breaks out,” “It’s Good 2 Be Young In The Mountains” (IG2BYITM) held August 13-16 in Harlan, Kentucky, I use this essay to examine critically the actions required to nourish the bonds needed for people to engage jointly in social justice work aimed at the places they live.


Friday August 14, 2015

It was easy enough to find the Harlan Civic Center, located at 201 S. Main Street in downtown Harlan, Kentucky. I followed the familiar uphill climb from my hometown where “main street meets the mountains” up through Asheville, surrounded by the blue outline of the mountains that make up the Eastern Continental Divide until the sun began to rise, somewhere near Johnson City, Tennessee. I continued along the highway into Kentucky, through Pennington Gap where the curves become a bit sharper and kudzu climbs the steep hills on both sides of the road, to a gathering I had heard about through hashtags on social media and friends connected to the Appalachian Studies movement and its abiding commitment to social justice concerns.

Officially, “It’s Good to be Young in the Mountains” was a four-day event (August 13-16), largely organized by and for people under the age of thirty living and working, or hoping to live and work, in the Appalachian mountain region. As the program’s website noted:

We want to come together to inspire each other and create unity in our region.  We want to listen to each other, learn from each other and from those with more experience than us.  We are daring to say that it can be good to be young in the mountains. We will make it so (IG2BYITM).


To say “it’s good to be young in the mountains” is a politically, socially, economically and culturally bold statement. It is not one made naively by this group, ignoring the hardships of rural or mountain communities, nor is it made flippantly, ignorant to degrading stereotypic portrayals of mountain people and culture. Rather, it is an assertion made earnestly, by those who are seeking to begin creating the world they envision, rather than waiting for it to be birthed by others through policy, programming or other measures.

We convened after lunch to participate in a “getting to know your pack” activity before breaking into workshops. The “gathering” activities focused on helping participants recognize their individual and collective potential. This idea is nothing new to those working in the field, but the deliberate care to include such efforts was radically different from scholarly conferences in which I have recently participated. Ron Eller has suggested that in order to nourish our collective spirit those engaged in Appalachian studies must

… [m]ove beyond a defensive reaction against the things which threaten us and assume a positive initiative to create a new cultural context for democratic change. Such an initiative requires that we relearn old skills and acquire new perspectives: how to talk to each other, how to share with each other, how to recover collective memories, how to discern common values out of diverse traditions, and how to connect personal troubles with social issues (1986, 150).


These large discussion groups where everyone attending literally drew images of their strengths, their “packs,” and were given the opportunity to send postcards from the event, consciously sought to engender a shared perspective and collective memory. These, of course, are a sine qua non of future common action.

Friday evening, following the first full day of the gathering, featured two performances, “Higher Ground 5: Find a Way Remix” and “West End Poetry Opera” by Roots and Wings, a poetry group from Louisville, Kentucky. The Higher Ground “remix” performed for IG2BYITM was a reworked and shortened version of a play, which is currently in its 5th installment. The original plays have been:

… [w]ritten and performed by and for the Harlan community and [are] a component of the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College (SKCTC). … The series launched 10 years ago with an original production exploring the epidemic of drug abuse in the mountains. Each installment of the series is created after students and volunteers have collected hundreds of oral history stories, which are the creative inspirations for the plays’ many scenes depicting community members of all ages and walks of life. Higher Ground 5 features more than 50 local performers, writers, musicians, and backstage crew who range from children to students to families to senior citizens (Chaney, 2015).


The play’s central themes of local (giving/sharing) economies, lay offs, pawn shops and an overall feeling of waiting resonated with my understanding of “making due” in my hometown. “Higher Ground 5: Remix” also treated the challenge of addiction (specifically prescription pain medication) in Appalachia, LGBTQIA issues and gendered roles regarding “work.” One performer in the play used the phrase “trash in 1955 is paying my light bill today” referring to the hauling and selling of “scrap (metal)” to pay the bills. These scenes have lingered in my mind’s eye and underscored an overall theme for me of the play; the need to speak truth to power and the notion that in order to move forward, those who live in the region must work together.

Roots and Wings performed their “West End Poetry Opera,” an ode to the West End neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky and its legacy within the African-American community. The performance also addressed racial violence—police brutality and the hypersexualization, objectification and subjectification of black female bodies— and the political brutality of the consequences of gentrification for that community and other small tight knit neighborhoods similar to it.

Intergenerational relationships and political violence against marginalized communities were key themes of both of the performances treated here. The independent scholar Henry Giroux echoed these arguments in a recent commentary:

Current protests among young people in the United States, Canada and elsewhere in the world make clear that demonstrations are not – indeed, cannot be – only a short-term project for reform. Young people need to enlist all generations to develop a truly global political movement that is accompanied by the reclaiming of public spaces, the progressive use of digital technologies, the development of new public spheres, the production of new modes of education and the safeguarding of places where democratic expression, new civic values, democratic public spheres, new modes of identification and collective hope can be nurtured and developed. A formative culture must be put in place pedagogically and institutionally in a variety of spheres extending from churches and public and higher education to all those cultural apparatuses engaged in the production of collective knowledge, desire, identities and democratic values (2015,N.D.).


Saturday August 15, 2015

On Saturday, I led an afternoon workshop that considered the “Pros and Cons of College.” My small group proved to be socio-culturally diverse. One participant was a 4th generation doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, another found “home” in the mountains following an upbringing in Louisville. Three undergraduates came with questions about graduate school and another was a homesteader, yoga instructor and midwife who obtained multiple degrees before returning to “stay” in the region. I contributed a description of my experiences as a first generation college student now navigating a doctoral program at a major research university. As a discussion “facilitator,” I sought to serve as an “opener” or a capacity creator, to help to make space for questions and sharing. The group’s discussion revealed a diversity of experiences and raised larger questions about the sacrifices that those who want to remain or return to the mountains must make and what “education” means within that larger context.

Saturday evening’s entertainment featured a mix of regional artists, including Sam Gleaves (joined by Tyler Hughes and Ethan Hamblin), who offered stirring three-part harmonies and typically traditional old-time instrumentation. Kevin (Howard) and John (Haywood), a duo from East Kentucky, performed songs from the repertoire of George Gibson, a historian and banjo player credited with preserving and reviving otherwise largely forgotten Knott County picking styles and connections to the music indigenous to the area. Angaleena Presley of country music trio Pistol Annies fame headlined the evening, which closed with Justin Taylor and the Kudzu Killers. The party continued at a local restaurant with Brett Ratliff’s side project, the Giant Rooster Side Show, a honky-tonk-rockabilly-esque group taking the stage and rousing the crowd with a Harlan and mining focused set. While thoroughly enjoyable on its own terms, the IGTBYITM gathering self-consciously sought to use culture and the arts as a democratic space and discursive forum, offering acts that represented the many ways in which the arts can serve as political platforms, spaces for preservation and conservation, sites of remembering and perhaps most importantly, a place to heal in unison.


Departing and Reflecting

IG2BYITM ended on Sunday, after an intense power mapping exercise and an open mic session that allowed anyone with the courage to do so to voice their opinions on the gathering and what to do next. This portion of the conference yielded two notable insights for me. First, it brought to light and acknowledged the fact that the IG2BYITM participants were not racially representative of the region. While the group present at the gathering reflected diverse political views and economic and socio-cultural backgrounds, attendees were predominantly white. Second, participant comments shared during this portion of the conference revealed that a desire and fire for change is not dead in the region. Or, in the words of the young poet who first voiced this sentiment, “now I want to write a poem about how the fire is not dead here.” She offered this remark after first sharing a previously written poem concerning the loneliness and desperate hardship of living in her hometown.

The fire highlighted and felt by the group has always been here, in Appalachia, just perhaps hidden or forgotten in some spheres. As Laura Briggs has written, “[W]e are impoverished by the loss of this memory of the political power of artists and intellectuals in solidarity with disenfranchised people. We have become embarrassed to sing ‘Solidarity Forever’” (2008, 84). In order to sing together and move forward—to carry the momentum of the weekend into our individual lives—the political power and connected histories of marginalized groups must be brought forward into our consciousness and made a practice. The pride generated through a moment such as IG2BYITM is a beginning in the process of reclaiming the memory of our not-so-distant memories of political power.  Like another African-American Spiritual made popular during the Civil Rights movement and often remembered in spaces like IG2BYITM, we must “keep our hands on the plow” and move forward, even when the fire seems dim. We must also remain open to critiques, willing to evolve beyond institutional understandings of progress and abundance narratives and remain ever willing to rewrite the definitions of purpose and hope for ourselves.

Some years ago, Alan Banks, Dwight Billings and Karen Tice (1993) offered an interesting critique of internal organizing efforts, such as the Appalachian Studies Association,[1] in an essay entitled, “Appalachian Studies, Resistance, and Postmodernism.” They sought to join the power of feminist theory with Appalachian Studies and thereby uncover, “how to think about regional identities in new and less restrictive ways” (31). These authors rejected existing metanarratives in favor of closely examining and celebrating the diversity of Appalachian communities. As I experienced a similar celebration of difference and rejection of essentialism during IG2BYITM, I found myself pondering how to regard the role of “outsiders” in a space largely inwardly driven, organized and focused. That is, I found myself wondering how “the mountains” can come to represent a good life for those who have not experienced life among them, but have instead only been exposed to derogatory rhetoric and simplistic images of these richly diverse communities? I believe in order to create the changes needed in the region its inherent wealth must first be widely perceived and respected beyond its borders. After the open mic and workshop experiences, coupled with my first few weeks back in the classroom, I was struck afresh by the need for critical regionalism and inclusion of as many population groups as possible in all efforts to consider the future of the area.

As the conference ended I found myself reflecting on the work of Peter Cannavó who has suggested that, “regional boundaries and institutions should themselves be temporary and ad hoc, perhaps based on coalitions organized around specific issues” able to mobilize and mimic the alternative structures they are seeking (2007, 243). I found myself asking what Cannavó’s insight might mean for the (re)consideration of  long-established boundaries, the process of reclaiming mountains as homes and life sources, rather than as sites of extraction and what voices might unknowingly be silenced in such processes unless those coalitions’ efforts are  undertaken with utmost sensitivity.

For those of us working in the region, these sorts of questions will not go away. Those wishing to reside in the mountains must join together to create the space to devise honest and productive responses to these concerns. For those with hope in the places we envision, IG2BYITM and the whispering of the phrase, “it IS good …” has already began to serve as a catalytic moment in the radical ongoing reclaiming and recreating of the Appalachian mountains as a sustainable and healthy home for those who want to live here.

For an additional point of view on the gathering, please see:



            Banks, Alan, Dwight Billings, and Karen Tice. “Appalachian studies, resistance, and postmodernism.” Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change (1993): 283-301.

Briggs, Laura. “Activisms and Epistemologies: Problems for Transnationalisms.” Social Text 97. Winter 2008. (81)

Cannavò, Peter F. The Working Landscape: Founding, Preservation, and the Politics of Place. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.

Chaney, Candace. “Fifth installment of ‘Higher Ground’ series broadens issues Appalachian play addresses”April 4, 2015

Eller, Ronald D. “The Search for Community in Appalachia.” Appalachian Heritage 14.4 (1986): 45-51.

Giroux, Henry. “Domestic Terrorism, Youth, and the Politics of Disposability.” Philosophers for Change. Website. Accessed May 3, 2015.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     IG2BYITM. “Why are we talking about being young?” September 9, 2015.

Sessions, Jim, and Fran Ansley. “Singing across Dark Spaces: The Union/Community Takeover of Pittston’s Moss 3 Plant.” Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change (1993): 195-223.


[1] Banks, Billings, and Tice begin their chapter by addressing John Gaventa’s remarks made at the first annual Appalachian Studies Conference, where he called for a, “more constructive relationship between activists and scholars” (283).


jordanlaneyJordan Laney studies in the ASPECT doctoral program at Virginia Tech where she teaches in the Department of Religion and Culture. Laney received her M.A. in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University (2013), B.F.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College (2010), and was a 2013 graduate of Leadership Bluegrass. She currently serves as a student-at-large steering committee member of the Appalachian Studies Association, co-chair of Young Appalachian Leaders and Learners (Y’ALL), and is an associate member of the Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) Academy for Excellence.

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