Appalachia and the Opportunity for Impact
December 17, 2021
Despite the uncertain times predicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity to leverage assets, spur innovation, and achieve potential across Central Appalachia remains constant. Here at TFA Appalachia, we are laser-focused on a bold 10-year goal: By 2030, twice as many students in Central Appalachian communities will achieve postsecondary readiness and success, indicating that they are on a path to economic mobility and a future filled with possibility.
As part of our 10-year goal strategy, we are gearing up to launch an exciting new alumni leadership opportunity: the Central Appalachia Alumni Leaders (CAAL) Fellowship. Through this Fellowship, we seek to keep already-rooted alumni leaders here in our region and will invite additional alumni from across the country to come join us. The Fellowship will empower top alumni talent as bold leaders across systems, including healthcare, higher education and school school leadership, business and entrepreneurship, technology and telecommunications, and more. Fellows will develop and act on personal theories of change as motivated community leaders, growing deep roots in Appalachia and shifting national narratives to the power, possibility, and potential of our region.
In preparation for the Fellowship launch in early 2022, we sat down with Michelle and Bobby Martin-Sullivan, alumni of TFA Appalachia who have since transitioned out of the classroom and into community roles, to chat about their long-term goals and impact in the community they now call home.
You were both TFA Appalachia corps members, coming to us from outside the region. What were your long-term plans when you joined the corps?
Michelle: I wasn't really sure, to be honest. I was hoping to gain real world experience and leadership skills in grassroots organizing so that I might be able to get some direction about where I wanted to put my energy in terms of future career plans. I was kind of looking for a home and had spent most of high school, college, and the year after college moving each year.
Bobby: When first joining TFA, I was placed in Memphis, Tennessee and my wife was placed with TFA Appalachia. My initial plan was to complete my two year commitment and then apply to law school in order to go into international law. After serving for a year in Memphis, TFA approved my request to transfer to Appalachia to be with my wife (fiancée at the time) on the condition that I renew my two-year commitment. When moving to Kentucky, my long term plan was initially the same: complete my two-year commitment and then apply to law school. Shortly after moving, those plans changed.
What changed or solidified those plans?
Michelle: I really fell in love with the Allen Central community (#thanksAmyHalbert) and felt like I had an actual impact with my students, thanks to my administration letting me build the Spanish program.
Bobby: Those long term plans were changed after moving to eastern Kentucky and being welcomed by such a wonderful community. The role of the community at the school at which we taught was incredibly strong, and everyone welcomed us with open arms. Colleagues took us on tours of the area, we were welcomed into the school staff, we were invited to sports games, we were invited to spend the holidays with friends in the community, and much more. In this way, community members not only made us feel welcome but also made us feel like we had a family of our own here in Kentucky. Within a year of moving here, my wife and I made plans to root ourselves in the community. Since then, we have bought a house and raised two kids here.
What keeps you in Eastern Kentucky today?
Michelle: This is the place where I have come-of-age as an adult and built my career. I have gotten so many opportunities to work with different community members and see my ideas come to fruition with a little hard work and a lot of network building. This is also the place where we are raising our young children and we have built a support system here (that started very early on in the classroom and continues today).
Bobby: What keeps me in Eastern Kentucky today is the strength of community I mentioned before. People here are unbelievably welcoming and the culture of a strong, small-town community is something that is really unmatched in big cities or in suburbs. When you become part of the community here, you really and truly gain a family.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about moving to the Central Appalachian region?
Michelle: If you can dream it, you can do it with community buy-in. Relationships are everything here and once you have made genuine, trusting relationships, you can really make an impact. Think about what you want in your day-to-day life-- we have several big cities in the area, lots of mid-sized towns, and even more tiny rural communities. Each community prides itself in its history of extreme resilience and its contribution to the country as a whole (most prolifically through coal mining throughout the 19th and 20th centuries…if you are moving into a former coal area, do your homework and learn about the history of coal mining from many different perspectives).
Homeownership at a young age here is extremely possible and the cost of living here is generally low, which means you can knock things off your bucket list! (grad school, paying down debt, raising chickens, starting a family, etc.). Mortgages are cheaper than renting in many locations, so seriously, consider buying a house if you foresee yourself staying for a while.
I am not going to sugar coat everything here-- it is hard raising kids without family support in our area; we live in a childcare desert (in rural Eastern Kentucky), childcare prices are not compatible with most folks’ incomes, rural living means potential long commutes to childcare services, which can be tough with work expectations, depending on the employer. Most families with young kids here have grandparents/aunts/uncles who are able to pitch in and help fill gaps-- not having that family support can be tough anywhere, but particularly here in an area that is so family-focused and so widespread geographically (traveling in and out of the region to visit family can be a very long journey with kids), it is particularly salient. That said, this is a wonderful place to raise young kids-- plenty of outdoor space, really great public learning centers (our libraries are pretty amazing!), so many fun, family-oriented farms to explore!
Bobby: If you are moving to the region, come into it with an open mind. There are a lot of negative portrayals and stereotypes about the region that are promoted widely in all forms of media; just like all stereotypes, they are not accurate and they gloss over all of the wonderful things about the region. If you are moving to the region, also do what you can to jump into the community. Go to sporting events, try all the local restaurants, make friends in your workplace, take people on their offers to show you around. Doing both of those things will make you aware of the culture of community here that itself is just as beautiful as the mountains in which it resides.
If you are a Teach For America alum looking for an opportunity to join a robust team of seasoned leaders across all sectors and industries who are driving toward collective impact in our diverse mountain communities, the CAAL Fellowship is for you! Be on the lookout in January 2022 for additional information and application for the Central Appalachia Alumni Leaders Fellowship.