Urban Appalachian Community Coalition
Do you think about the economic prospects of small towns in Appalachia?
I do, it’s a concern. Let me make a couple of broad generalizations. The issue for small towns today is ‘what is their reason for existence?’ A leader in northwestern Pennsylvania said, “Mike, we have towns all across Pennsylvania that have lost their purpose for existence and they are just kind of struggling and dying.” Blacksburg, it’s a small city, but it has purpose for existence. It’s a university town, so there are many purposes for existence. The small towns who are on the fringe of a metropolitan area have a better chance of thriving than small towns in the hinterland, which are not near anything. If they still have a major industry that gives them purpose for existence, they’re more likely to thrive—a university, a military base, anything like that. But a lot of small towns in Appalachia used to have a mill, or they used to have coal, or some other industry—shoe factories, for example. Well, shoe factories went overseas to produce cotton mills, so when the mill leaves—the mill symbolizing a whole lot of purposes for existence—then the town has to struggle.
A lot of our small towns now are trying to recreate themselves in various ways, like as a center for the arts. Johnson City, Tennessee—small city I guess—it’s both a university center and an arts center. Towns like that are thriving more, but so many of our towns, as it were, lost their mill, and are just really struggling. Like the town where I went to high school in eastern Kentucky (Beattyville) now is listed as the poorest all-white community in the United States. It used to be thriving. It sold farm equipment, oil equipment, coal equipment, all those industries. They’re not dead, but they’ve waned, so the town and the county around it have become a center for poverty. Of course with that comes the problems that go with poverty and unemployment—substance abuse, for example, and crime, which were not problems that small towns are used to having.
What does your organization offer to help?
The organization that I work for now mainly serves people who live in the big city, who have left Appalachia and come to the big city. Most of our people thrive when they come to the big city, but some end up in really impoverished neighborhoods. That’s the group that my people work with, it’s the ones who live in low-income inner city neighborhoods. Many of them came from small towns, because there were no jobs, so we work with the other end of it. But in my career, I’ve worked as a community organizer in rural and small town areas in southern Ohio, and tried to help them form community organizations around the arts, help them form social services that they need.
What would you say to a mayor or town manager so they would understand why it’s important to do community organizing?
The citizens need to be engaged, or change is not going to happen. Change to improve the downtown business district, or to improve the housing stock. There’s a role for community organizers to help city officials, county and township officials, to get people involved in civic improvement efforts. There are some good examples of towns that have done that very well, so mayors should be looking for towns that have been more successful in renewal.
What the effort is about is, ‘what do we do now that the coal is gone, now that the mill is gone? How do we keep from having every storefront in the county seat boarded up? How do we meet the new needs that are emerging, like housing for the elderly and that sort of thing?’ Some of those things can be a source of business and tax base. Government services are about the only thing, the only job categories that are growing in many Appalachian towns, [so you need to make] sure that those resources are cultivated and cared for. If you can get a junior college in your community, that’s not only a source of jobs and therefore tax base, it’s also a way to attract business and industry, because you have the manpower and women power to staff new businesses that might come to town.
If a town doesn’t have the money to go out and hire an organizer, what is the first step they should take?
Well, they could look around at the civic organizations that they already have and try to get them better engaged in civic improvement activities. Berea College, by the way, offers an annual—it’s called the Brushy Fork Institute—and they provide training for representatives from small towns on how to do the stuff that I am talking about. They will bring in examples and models of towns that are more successful in renewal, so I really recommend the program at Berea College called the Brushy Fork Institute.
When you were doing community organizing work, what did you most wish that mayors and town managers knew that they didn’t know?
The input of citizens could be really valuable in their efforts. You know, it’s easy to have the attitude that ‘well, the people are just a bother, they come and disrupt our meetings,’ but if there can be some way to actively engage more people—the ‘in’ word now is civic engagement or community engagement. That’s a word that mayors need to know and make use of. It’s a new term for community organizing, really, but the civic engagement efforts are really crucial for struggling small towns.