Voices: A Letter to Our Young Folk

By Todd S. Hawley & Adam Jordan

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Photo courtesy of Appalachian Studies Association

There's a voice that I can hear sometimes out here on the mountain
When it's dark and the sky is pouring acid like a fountain
And the memories like coal dust stain the window of my eyes
So ask them no more questions, they
can't sell you no more lies

— Sturgill Simpson, "Voices"


To every single voice spouting oppression, there is a chorus of voices responding in justice-laden opposition.  Sometimes, that chorus can be a little hard to hear as the voices of the oppressed are often filtered and hushed by the powerful.  Right now, at this moment in history, we hear a collection of voices who refuse to stand by while voices in power belittle their passion and filter their message.  There is a connectedness about the voices we hear now that we couldn’t love one single ounce more, and that we sure could not ignore. These beautiful voices are Southern and/or Appalachian, smart, young, and fiery.

We’d be remiss not to point out that right now teachers all over the South and Appalachia are walking out for their students.  Teachers are refusing to provide their professional services until they are fairly compensated and their students are adequately funded. Walkouts in places like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma are maintaining national media attention. We stand by and fully support these teachers of our region, but this month, we want to bring some attention to some voices that you might have not yet heard in the larger media outlets, but will be dang sure glad you did once you’re done reading.  You see, teachers help guide young brains with brilliant voices and headstrong positions into directed, change-focused citizens. Some find this voice in high school, as did Parkland High School's Emma Gonzalez. Others find their voices on the job, in college, graduate school, or early in their careers.  Either way, these young citizens of our democracy are weary of the status quo right now, and they're loud. They’re also empowered with education, a sense of purpose, and a sense of urgency. This month, we want to tell y’all about a few groups that embody democracy and that personify the very reason we need professional teachers supported in transformative public education.

In April, we had the chance to attend the 40th annual conference of the Appalachian Studies Association. ASA is a collective of academics, activists, artists, storytellers, musicians, and many others with a stated “commitment to foster quality of life, democratic participation and appreciation of Appalachian experiences regionally, nationally and internationally.” The powerful young voices we heard at this conference still ring loudly in our minds. In Friday night's opening session, we were introduced to High Rocks Education Corp., a nonprofit organization working to educate, empower, and inspire the youth of West Virginia. We sat and listened as, one by one, the youth on stage stood up to tell their stories of resilience and tenacity, challenging every comfortable adult in the room to move far away from their safe and comfortable academic spaces. From stories of being born addicted to opioids, to stories of being LGBTQ in Appalachia, to making sure we all knew that corporations were at the heart of the opioid epidemic, these students had something to say. We listened as they challenged everyone to ask them direct questions, continuing conversations via Twitter using the hashtag #IfYouAskUs. And when people asked, they responded with poise, brains, and fire. The conference was off to a powerful start. It looked as if nothing could stop this progressive tide of good times.

And then J.D. Vance came to town …

If you are unfamiliar with the name, Vance is the author of "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis."  While the title may give you the impression Vance is an expert on all things Appalachian, don’t be fooled. His book tells his personal story, which is an important one, of growing up in Ohio being raised by his “Meemaw” and experiencing the pains of a mother who struggled consistently with the grip of addiction. If Vance had stopped there, all would have probably been fine, but he did not. He proceeded to project his single experience onto an entire region of people, broad-stroking and blaming along the way with an ill-informed, meritocratic narrative of “personal responsibility.”  As counter-narrative voice Elizabeth Catte, Shenandoah Valley resident and author of "What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, put it, “Men who shirk employment and women who lack the appropriate amount of shame for their illegitimate children populate the world of ‘Elegy.’” (p. 60).  As many of you with Appalachian roots may have just felt, Vance’s work is infuriating to many of us who call the region home. So, it comes as little surprise that when Vance showed up to speak as an expert on the opioid epidemic, he was met with some pretty fiery young folks.

In a small, packed room on Sunday morning, Vance stood up to speak. When he did, young, powerful people across the room stood up as well to purposefully but peacefully turn their backs in conscientious objection. Intelligently, they questioned Vance’s credentials along with his intent, singing Florence Reece’s union anthem, “Which Side Are You On?” Vance, to his credit, was not disrespectful and made an attempt to answer the questions he was asked.

But that wasn’t enough. These folks weren’t being fooled by kindness and patience. They’d done their reading, they’d made their notes, and they knew whose side they were on: Appalachia’s. They were members of two particular social justice oriented groups: Y’ALL and The STAY Project (@STAYproject), both of which are worth checking out.  Y’ALL, a subcommittee within the Appalachian Studies Association, stands for Young Appalachian Leaders and Learners. Y’ALL seeks “to facilitate connections and relationships between young people in Appalachia, provide opportunities for professional advancement and training, as well as encourage lifelong scholarship and activism in the region.” Based on Sunday’s display, they are accomplishing those goals. The STAY Project (Stay Together Appalachian Youth) is a youth-led movement for social change with a mission statement that declares, “As young people from Central Appalachia, we are connecting across our region to make our home communities places we can and want to STAY.”  It was obvious that STAY was doing just that, empowering young people to fight for their homes.

Groups like Y’ALL, High Rocks, and The STAY Project personify all that is wonderful about this movement of people who are categorized as Millenials, Gen Y, or Gen Z.  They also personify all that is possible with transformative, justice-oriented education. Their passion and their commitment are moving. For advocate Elizabeth Catte, it was moving enough to cause her to climb on the seat of her chair to powerfully exclaim and make sure everyone knew the incredible value of the folks in the room who were pushing for an inclusive and just Appalachia.

While it should have moved us all to join Elizabeth — screaming the importance of supporting these people — unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Most folks, like us, sat silently, overtaken by the moment. We’d come prepared like academics, with questions and citations, but those weren’t the tools needed for the job. In reflection, we regret not switching gears, but are thankful for the associated guilt that has pushed us to move and think about ways to combat the deficit narratives of our region expressed by powerful voices such as Vance’s and to combat the voices of power who ask young, justice-oriented folks to hush.

You see, we learned from these young people. We were moved by them. Educator and activist Paulo Freire once said, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless is to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”  The more  we don’t stand up and link arms alongside Y’ALL, High Rocks, and The STAY Project, the more we side with the powerful. The more we tell our teachers to “get back to work” and end their strikes, the more we side with the powerful. The more we call young folks with brains and voices “kids” and share generation-shaming memes on social media, the more we side with the powerful.

Ironically, Vance’s presentation at ASA was titled “Are We Losing a Generation?” While we do not downplay the intent of his title and the reality that we are losing too many people to opioid-related deaths, we can’t help but realize that the answer to Vance's question lies in building a democracy where all voices are heard and matter.

When we don’t support teachers, we are threatened with the loss of a generation.

When we tell young people to hush when they say something that makes us uncomfortable, we risk losing a generation.

When we tell teenagers and young adults who have felt the boot of oppression to “hush while the man with the money speaks,” we risk losing a generation.

Focusing on the history and cultures of our places is vitally important. However, a backward view of our region is not the heart and soul of this movement of Appalachian your people. Their movement focuses on issues of social equality and inclusion. The movement is looking forward, not backward. The current movement thinks, for example, that the mountains are majestic, but that what's more majestic is having everyone in those mountains treated with justice. If we are not purposefully focusing on that in the classes we teach, in the communities we reach, and in the words we write, then we aren't tapped into the soul of Appalachia or the better South we long for.

If we fail to tap into that soul, we undoubtedly lose a generation.

We must stop asking questions of those who have proven untrustworthy, just to be told more lies. Instead, let’s listen to fiery, smart folks on the move. Let’s listen to the young.