Creative Engagement and a Moral Economy in Appalachia

Caron Atlas
April 12, 2013

Arts Policy Nexus

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

APN14- War on Appalachia

In a time of mountaintop removal, climate change, and manufactured austerity, Helen Lewis’ Rebuilding Communities: A Twelve Step Recovery Program offers a forward looking plan for revitalizing Appalachia that may be adapted to other regions of the world as well. Based on her years of experience working in rural Appalachian communities, the essay lays out how to shift an extractive economy to a sustainable economy through creative and accountable civic engagement.

From 1973 to 2003, the Appalachian region lost 62 percent of its coal jobs. Even in a significant coal-producing place such as Harlan County, Ky., coal now makes up only 1,200 jobs in a county of 30,000 people.  The coal jobs that exist come at a cost that includes damaged land, polluted water, and the lack of a tax base when profits leave the region.

In Appalachia power, politics, culture, and economics are all interwoven, often in such a way that props up a structure of inequality. “Political power in Appalachia has historically been connected to economic power all the way back to the coal ‘company towns’,” said Judi Jennings, executive director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women. “Economic power makes its own politics. School superintendents and coal companies have power because they can give people jobs, or not, but neither are elected power.”

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies and a Hazard, Ky. native, writes, “Today Appalachia is regarded as the poorest part of the country, especially so in those areas that were blessed with rich deposits of coal. So how does the very richest become the very poorest? Not by accident. Not without a plan. Not without a story.”

Lewis tells a different story. In a time of increasing inequality she calls for a “moral economy” for all. A moral economy values sustainability, strengthening local resources rather than depleting them. It develops people and creativity and looks out for future generations. It considers the long-term outcomes of development and asks “development for whom and for what purpose?” The transformation to a moral economy requires a cultural shift and a dismantling of a system that supports extraction. It requires a perspective on economy that goes beyond producers, consumers, and profit margins to one that includes equity and sustainability. Like participatory democracy, it also requires active participation. The aim is for imaginative action that disrupts power relationships and creates shared benefits.

I recently returned to Appalachia, where I had lived for ten years, to write about the Network of Ensemble Theater’s MicroFest. As part of that essay, I identified examples of Lewis’s twelve transformative steps in action.

Mobilize, organize, and revitalize; Strengthen your organization.

Two key organizations—Appalshop in Kentucky and the Highlander Center in Tennessee – have connected culture, place, identity, community, and the struggle for social justice for decades. The True Cost of Coal, a film by Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute shows Appalachian young people recognizing the significant human and environmental costs of an extractive economy that doesn’t leave them much of a future. In another film, Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, the music of singer-songwriter and labor activist Hazel Dickens reminds people of their history and moves them to question the coal industry. With her music and activism interwoven, Dickens helped mobilize workers during coal strikes and gave families the strength to speak out following mine disasters. At the Highlander Center the Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Institute strengthens cultural organizing skills. Highlander draws on its long history of popular education to support the “strategic use of arts and culture to move progressive policies and practices with marginalized communities.”

Analyze and envision alternates; Initiate economic activity; Take political power

A historic Appalachian land ownership study drew a clear picture of an Appalachia mired in poverty while its valuable resources benefited those outside the region who did not pay their fair share of taxes. Citizens responded to the study and created the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition (KFTC) in 1981 (changed to Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in later years.)   KFTC is now collaborating with the Mountain Association of Community Economic Development (MACED) on the Appalachian Transition initiative to envision a new, more diversified, and sustainable economy for the region, recognizing this as “a unique moment that calls for new ideas and broad participation in shaping a different kind of future.” KFTC is also hosting the “Appalachia’s Bright Future” conference to seize the opportunity “to build a new economy here in the mountains—a diverse, homegrown economy good for all people.” Consistent with the moral economy, theirs is a vision of a just transition—one that celebrates their culture and invests in their communities.

Collaborate and build coalitions; Educate the community (which includes individual and community leadership development)

The Appalachian Media Institute, Highlander Center, and the High Rocks leadership program are supporting the youth-led STAY Project (Stay Together Appalachian Youth), “a diverse regional network of young people throughout Central Appalachia who are working together to advocate for and actively participate in their home mountain communities.” Not having found a place for themselves in adult-led social justice efforts, they are designing their own projects, building diverse coalitions, and contributing solutions to community needs. Their focus is on the need for communities now and in the future to have the basic human rights that all people deserve, no matter where they live, or their economic status, race, language, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or cultural background. STAY Projects’ programs are grounded in Appalachian culture and incorporate music, dance, and media.

Understand your history; Build confidence and pride; Develop local projects

“Stories build connections between people, provide ways to share knowledge, strengthen civic networks, provide the tools to rebuild communities, and provide the infrastructure, the social capital, which is essential in democratic community-based development,” writes Lewis. Higher Ground, a play coming out of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Harlan County Kentucky brings this to life. It is not only about neighbors coming together to support and change their community, it is neighbors coming together to support and change their community. Appalachian Program director Robert Gipe describes how “in the process of making plays about drug abuse, mine disasters, outmigration, and land use, we have developed a strong community organization, one that finds hope in addressing problems together in a way that celebrates strength rather than enabling hand-wringing.” The play and its performance in multiple contexts, including before the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal policy making body for the region, demonstrates how theater can build community and improve people’s capacity to engage policy.

The value of Lewis’ twelve-steps extends far beyond Appalachia. In New York City where I live, we are also facing the need to come together around renewed civic engagement and a moral economy. Superstorm Sandy exposed the city’s income inequality, racial segregation, and the fault lines in our social contract. It also revealed the strength of creative civic action. The relief work I did, organizing cultural and wellness programs in an evacuation shelter, succeeded because it brought together neighborhood volunteers, social networks, and city systems. During disasters, be they floods in New York or collapsed coal mines in Appalachia, people step up to help one another in extraordinary ways. The question is, how do we build capacity and incorporate this compassion and solidarity further into our everyday lives?  Connectivity and diversity are key components of resiliency, but it remains to be seen whether the intersections between community engagement and government will survive the storm.  The same question can be raised in Appalachia where a powerful history of civic action more often has been seen as a threat rather than an asset by local governments.

Lewis recognizes that the 12-step program “is not a straightforward staircase to community revitalization. It is more like dance steps…. sometimes you go in circles, sometimes individuals come up with a creative improvisation and you keep repeating the steps.” If our economies and our communities are complex and adaptive ecologies, our job in both urban and rural areas is to work across sectors and strengthen our interdependence. In other words, we need to learn to dance – to stretch ourselves to create a greater whole.


Caron Atlas is director of the Arts & Democracy Project, which connects arts and culture, participatory democracy, and social justice.  This blog is adapted from her paper, “Creative Engagement and a Moral Economy in Appalachia,” commissioned by the Network of Ensemble Theaters for MicroFest USA in partnership with Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts. The essay can be found on NET and websites.

[Photo courtesy of Rana X.]

Caron Atlas

Caron Atlas is director of the Arts & Democracy Project, which connects arts and culture, participatory democracy, and social justice. 

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