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Students Nix Stereotypes, Entrepreneurs Seek a Future in Appalachia

Now that city-dwelling Americans are tuning in to places like Harlan County, educators, students and entrepreneurs would like to set a few things straight.

February 21, 2017

Susan Brenna

On a chilly morning in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, Geoff Marrietta (New Mexico ’01) left his home in Harlan County and drove for an hour over rain-slicked mountain roads through miles of pine forest.

He was hustling to keep an appointment with teacher Anne Kuhnen (Appalachia ’13) at the high school where she teaches in the town of Hazard, a place where unemployment is double the national rate and 12 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree.

The region-specific mission of Teach For America’s Appalachia team is to challenge its 41 teachers, scattered over 17 rural Kentucky school districts, to prepare students with the entrepreneurial skills to lead one of the most radically needed economic turnarounds in any part of America.

Kuhnen is fine with that vision, but it’s not easy to translate to her students. “The narrative I'm already tired about—and I've only lived here for three years,” she said, “is we keep being told that there's going to be these awesome initiatives” to revive the Appalachian economy in the post-coal era, like a recent state effort to extend broadband (while the rest of the country is going mobile). “But they don't start until 2020 or 2025. It's really hard to tell that to a 17-year-old.”

Kuhnen recently got the OK from Hazard High School to teach a four-semester computer science curriculum. On this day, she was hopeful that Marrietta, the founder of a local digital services start-up called Mountain Tech Media, could plant the idea among her students—some striving seniors, others underclassmen reluctantly assigned to this elective—that they could also join or start a tech business here in what used to be coal country.

Radiating energy and charm, Marrietta bounded into Kuhnen’s classroom at 9 a.m. as if entering a pitch meeting. Standing at the front of the room, he quickly polled the 25 students. How many, he asked, were planning to stay beyond high school and make their future in Hazard?

The classroom got quiet. Marrietta looked at 25 faces who looked silently back at him.

“No one?”

He tried again. What if they could work at a place like Mountain Tech that does projects like developing video game artificial intelligence? A few hands rose. What if they could own a piece of the business, a co-op where workers can buy in? More hands. What if they could earn $50 an hour? Now many hands were in the air.

This confirmed what Marrietta had told me when I showed up in Harlan County the day before. Students don’t necessarily want to leave their family roots in Appalachia, he said. But they wonder if they have a choice. All they’ve seen in their lives is loss, students told me later, when I met with them over three days in Hazard and Harlan. As the coal industry declined, every place where a kid might want to go—the bowling alley in Harlan, the stores at the mall—shut down. Downtown Harlan is a museum of ghost storefronts.

“It’s awful to say it, when this has been your home since you were a kid,” said John Brady Brock, a 10th grader in the biology class that corps member Jacob Burdette (Appalachia ’15) teaches at Harlan High School. “But I’ve seen it with my father. If you want a good job, you have to go.”

Joshua Sparks, Executive Director of Teach For America Appalachia, believes that helping students here shake their aversion to risk is foundational to preparing them to be entrepreneurial leaders. “We dream of a day when our students don’t have to leave home to pursue their dreams,” he said, “and I think that day will happen sooner rather than later.”

Geoff Marietta runs Pine Mountain Settlement School, set on 800 sloping, wooded acres in Harlan County, Kentucky. Jacob Biba

Pine Mountain

I came to Harlan and Hazard in the wake of the presidential election because, while Teach For America has been supporting teachers in rural regions since its first teaching year in 1990, the majority of alumni have worked in, and live in, cities. In the shock of the election results, it felt like a moment when city-dwelling Americans were open to hearing what the 15 percent of Americans who live in rural places are thinking.

The first surprise was taking in Pine Mountain Settlement School, a campus of century-old, timber-and-stone dormitory and lodge buildings on 800 sloping, wooded acres. The campus is an overnight retreat for visiting school groups, where kids can take classes in wildlife and ecology, crop cultivation (from seeds that are heirloom because neighbors never gave up planting them), and Appalachian culture and crafts like weaving and woodworking.

With its architecture reminiscent of the “great camps” the robber barons built in the Adirondacks, I had a feeling that if it was located in upstate New York, it would be booked years in advance. But it’s in Harlan County, a three-hour drive from Lexington and the nearest airport, where cell phone service is fickle, GPS comes and goes, and two inches of snow can close schools for a week when plows can’t get to switchback, two-lane roads.

Marrietta took over leadership of the school—where the mother of his Kentucky-born wife, Sky (New Mexico ’02) used to teach—when the couple left their tenure-track jobs at Harvard and moved into a cabin on the property with their young sons. They are among a contingent who believe Appalachia, particularly eastern Kentucky, is the nation’s most fertile ground for entrepreneurship, despite its current condition. “What is entrepreneurship but using the resources you have to create something new?” Marrietta says. “And who does that better than people who have used every resource they have to survive?” 

When the Mariettas moved to Pine Mountain, Sky started the free, daily, preK “Little School.” She runs it as the lead teacher. Jacob Biba
Family members (mostly mothers and grandmothers) come as often as they like. Sky believes it’s just as important for young parents, scattered over long distances, to have a place to socialize as it is for their young children to learn together. Jacob Biba

Everyone by now understands how the collapse of the coal industry in Appalachia is emptying towns and squeezing services like schools, which are getting smaller tax payments from companies extracting coal. But Marrietta sees another, potential source of revenue in the old-growth forests here. With the U.S. rapidly losing its wild places to development, Marriott said, “Tourism is going to happen in eastern Kentucky. People here need to be prepared to control it and benefit from it.”

Optimists note evidence that schools here can, in fact, do better to prepare their students, because some have. Rural Floyd County went from being taken over by the state for non-performance in 2005 to being the sixth highest performing among Kentucky’s 173 school districts today (as measured by statewide standardized test results).

Sky Marrietta encouraged her husband to start his tech company in Whitesburg instead of staying in Cambridge, Massachusetts, noting that citizens here have strong language skills, if not a college-going tradition (11 percent of adults in Harlan have a bachelor’s degree). They can excel at work like fusing conversational language with artificial intelligence in game design, which can’t be outsourced to people who don’t speak “American.”

But no one was talking about tech when I visited the classroom of Jacob Burdette (Appalachia ’15) in Harlan the day after I arrived. He asked his students at Harlan Independent High School to write a couple sentences describing where they hoped to be in 5 and then 10 years. I was struck by how many of his sophomores hedged their ambitions.

Chase wrote: “I want to get my own place and I see myself with an OK job.”

Sarah wrote: “5 years: hopefully finishing college. 10: hopefully making money.”

Some dreamed bigger. Caleb wrote, “Go to UTI in Tennessee for diesel mechanics. In 5 years, I see myself running a garage that’s the largest in the nation.”

The boldest plan came from a polite, soft-spoken student named T.J. Hensley, whose mother is a teacher at the middle school. He wrote, “In five years I hope to see myself entering one of two places. The first and preferred option is a theological seminary. I hope to graduate and become a chaplain in the Army. This satisfies both spiritual and personal goals. My second option is entering law school. After graduating and practicing law for some time, I hope to enter politics… I’m currently undecided about my political affiliations, but what I am decided on is that I am tired of seeing the lower and middle classes paid no mind except in election years. I desire to make the American dream reality for all of its citizens, not just 1% of them.” 

T.J. Hensley Jacob Biba
John Brady Brock Jacob Biba

The Hillbilly Label

Because I was going to Harlan County, but also to the nearby Letcher County town of Whitesburg, I was prepared to hear young people express widely varying opinions. In Harlan, 96 percent of residents are white and 86 percent of voters went for Trump (T.J. Hensley was among those who rooted  for the president-elect). Whitesburg, also largely white, is where, since the 1960s, the nonprofit Appalshop has spawned a community of “Appalhead” artists, documentary filmmakers, broadcasters, and progressive youth organizers.

I also knew that in Appalachia, I was going to hear a different post-election analysis than the one running through my Teach For America-heavy Facebook feed. I got a preview from Stephanie Devine (Baltimore ’11), a Teach For America staff member who coaches teachers in Appalachia.

Devine had said, “There is a meme that I would like to throw against a wall and break into a million pieces that says, ‘Don’t move to Canada. Move to a red state and teach kids about classism, racism, and sexism.’ That oversimplifies the work we need to do here. Appalachia’s history is full of outside people coming in, thinking that they know better, trying to fix things, extracting goods, and then leaving. Our kids do not need to be fixed or corrected or made to feel less than they are.”

She added, “The narrative going on right now perpetuates the idea that our kids cannot succeed—that they can’t be anti-racist or engage with critical ideas at the level of other kids because they’re tied to some local predisposition to … Our communities are full of people who are ready to have the tough conversations we need to have in every part of the country, but when our kids read articles like that, it deepens their understanding that other folks think they’re flawed or uneducated. It makes them less likely to engage, in my opinion. If you’re told over and over again that you’re stupid, racist, classist, and your community is never going to get better, then you’re not going to engage with people to make change, even if you yourself are hungry for it.”

Over three days, I heard echoes of Devine’s remarks in a thread of hurt that ran through conversations with virtually every student and young adult I met. That includes 19-year-old Destiny Campbell, an aspiring filmmaker whom I met at Appalshop’s youth drop-in center in Whitesburg (across the street from a distillery/restaurant serving FDA-approved moonshine).

Destiny wears a nose ring and thinks of moving away from home to the college town of Berea, Kentucky. She complains of her family members “silencing women” and telling her she should have a baby by now. She also loves her family for the skills they’ve taught her. “People here are very clever and hardworking,” she said. “They find ways to live around lack of money, like growing a huge garden every year, canning every bit of food you can, making your own clothes, your own blankets, everything.”

She said, “I’ve harvested hundreds and hundreds of potatoes by hand with a hoe” in the garden that her Mamaw ran at a senior center. Yet based on what she reads and views, Destiny believes she’s more likely to be mocked than appreciated for hoeing potatoes. She and others described feeling stereotyped, condescended to, and dismissed as the descendants of Jed Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies, or more recently the outlaws and opioid addicts in cable TV dramas like Justified (which was set in Harlan) or the lost souls among the characters in J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy.

Destiny Campbell Jacob Biba

You can hear the hurt coming even from a nonstop, upbeat personality like Stacie Fugate. Striding the hallways of Hazard Independent High School in her Kentucky-blue Hunter boots, Stacie is a senior whom teacher Luke Glaser (Appalachia ’13) has been mentoring for four years since he came to the school as a first-year corps member, when Stacie was a freshman.

Stacie Fugate

Stacie’s parents didn’t finish high school, and none of her six older siblings went to college. She is a Robinson Scholar, meaning she has a four-year scholarship (for high-achieving Appalachian students) to attend the University of Kentucky next year. She is president of the Hazard High School theater group (started by Luke Glaser), captain of the Operation Unite team (an anti-drug group), and she runs the photo sales project for the Student Technology and Leadership Program. She’s the student representative to the Appalachia Renaissance Initiative (a student senate group) and, as such, made it her civic project to become a non-voting member of the Hazard Board of Education. She plays varsity soccer. She’s a competitive debater. She works between 12 and 20 hours a week to earn money after school as a receptionist at a Hazard medical clinic. She maintains a 4.0 average.

And when she leaves eastern Kentucky for debate tournaments, people snicker at how she speaks. (“People subtract 10 IQ points when they hear the accent,” said corps member Jacob Burdette, who is from the West Virginia part of Appalachia.). Stacie’s been asked if her family has all their teeth. (They do.) The worst was when a kid at a tournament from another part of rural Kentucky, near Bowling Green, asked Stacie if she knew about YouTube. “I laughed,” she said. “I thought he was kidding. Yes, we have the internet.”

Oakley Fugate Jacob Biba

Telling a Different Story

Oakley Fugate, another of Appalshop’s young filmmakers and an equal-opportunity social critic who has documented both veterans’ and transgender issues, feels the sting of cultural condescension just as keenly as Stacie Fugate. The two share a last name but otherwise are as different as can be. Stacie aspires to be the Hazard city manager and collects prom dresses for girls who can’t afford them. Oakley aspires to make slasher films and produces plays with friends who treat prom gowns as drag costumes. But he’s just as eager as Stacie to counter the barrage of negative stereotypes, which he thinks his peers have come to believe about themselves.

“Yes,” he said, “we have drug addicts, but for every one of them, there are five people trying to help them.” Just as important as building local businesses, Oakley said, is building the capacity of local students and young adults to tell their own stories in every medium, and to tell them more convincingly than can anyone from the outside.

Rianne Kablan, a 17-year-old senior at Hazard Independent High School who was born in North Carolina but whose extended family lives in Libya and Turkey (and who speaks fluent Arabic), has what she believes is a unique perspective on overcoming bias and stereotypes. An A student who intends to study biomedical engineering in college, she believes hers is the only Muslim family in her school. She said that she’s confronted her share of bigotry and learned that you can’t talk someone out of that. “Instead, it’s about showing everybody that we can move past that. I do this almost on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

“Like when I see people who are bigoted towards me, I don’t go to them and say, ‘You know what, you need to open up how you think.’ Instead, I try to show them who I am. Just striking up a conversation with them, showing them that I can be awesome, I can be friendly, I can be smart, I’m not different. They will realize that I am not trying to admonish them. I’m just trying to be who I am.

“I think that speaks volumes to them, and it’s like a gap that I can help bridge. Realizing that I can do that and I can do good in the world, it’s made me very optimistic.”

Harlan County High School has a 500-seat auditorium where, in December, students acted in a musical play directed by corps member Justin Blankenship. Jacob Biba

Pack Your Tools

I saw those themes—storytelling blended with the power of community helping community—come together at the last place I visited in Kentucky. It was the professional-grade, 500-seat auditorium with acoustic ceiling paneling at Harlan County High School (down the road from Harlan High School), where Justin Blankenship (Appalachia ’15) was directing rehearsals for the students’ big musical production, The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Blankenship is an Appalachia native who grew up in a coal-mining family in Virginia. He put himself through college working in politics and running a congressional campaign, then went to work for Congress and later for labor unions. He hated it and applied to teach, vowing not to accept his offer unless Teach For America placed him in Appalachia.

When he arrived, he didn’t expect to be asked to teach drama full time and run the theater club. “Even growing up as a native of Appalachia,” he said, “I did not believe how many people here deeply, deeply care about the arts. It’s wonderful.”

A challenge he didn’t foresee was building sets to fill the stage of a 500-seat auditorium. Blankenship has no carpentry skills. But an interesting thing happened after he began to rehearse the student cast of the winter show. Word got around, and family members began showing up at rehearsals with their toolboxes.

Most of the volunteer carpenters were his students’ grandfathers, but a few fathers also came to build sets. With showtime approaching, four teams showed up the week before I visited. The day I was there, Blankenship’s grandfather, a retired federal mine inspector, had driven his truck over the mountains from Virginia. He was working a table saw at the side of the stage.

Because of his background in politics, Blankenship is particularly attuned to what he sees as a fleeting opportunity, in this fraught moment while the Trump administration takes office, for his students to examine their own assumptions about power and class and race, and for outsiders to think about the assumptions they apply to his students.  

“The best advice I think I would give to anyone who's either never been here or knows nothing about eastern Kentucky is to disregard every stereotype that you've ever heard,” Blankenship said. “Because it's a unique place, and it's also a beautiful place, but I'm not just talking about the mountains and the scenery. It’s the people. I've never felt more supported in my life.”

To build the sets for the school production of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Blankenship got help from parents and grandparents. Jacob Biba


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