When a friend visiting from Philadelphia compared Whitesburg, Kentucky, to Stars Hollow, all she got from us was a blank stare. Turns out Stars Hollow is the setting of Gilmore Girls: a small idyllic town, rural and intimate, yet diverse and open-minded. When our friend arrived in Whitesburg—a former coal-mining town in one of the poorest and sickest Congressional districts in the country—she thought such a place could exist only on TV. Twenty-four hours later, she had changed her mind.
What did it? Was it coffee and breakfast at a local restaurant, whose owners routinely keep it open for community events? Or late-night drinks at a new bar where the proprietor, a former opera singer, spent an hour discussing the finer points of vocal technique? Or the time spent browsing books and crafts at an Appalachian heritage store, enjoying music at a cooperatively owned record shop, sharing stories with locals of all ages and political stripes, or sampling homemade moonshine at a family-owned distillery?
More than anything, probably, it was the general sense that things are happening here. Yes, the coal industry is pulling out, and jobs are on the decline. (At last count, there are fewer than 100 coal-mining jobs left in Letcher County.) Yet young people are starting tattoo parlors and artist collectives. Senior citizens are fighting to keep their defunded community centers open. High school students and retirees alike host programs on WMMT community radio. And the independent weekly, the Mountain Eagle, still bears the masthead: “It Screams!” In the face of economic decline, the people of Whitesburg are building a new economy.
How did this happen? Ask many people around here, and they’ll point you to a strange-looking building on the edge of town; painted on the walls is the name “Appalshop.” Founded in 1969 as one of ten Community Film Workshops funded by the War on Poverty’s Office of Economic Opportunity, Appalshop includes a filmmaking company (Appalshop Films/Headwaters Television). youth media training (Appalachian Media Institute), a theater company (Roadside Theater), a record label (June Appal Recordings), an extensive archive, and the aforementioned community radio station (WMMT) broadcasting to at least three states. Together, these projects constitute the largest body of creative works about Appalachia in the world.
What does all this have to do with building the economy? Turns out, a whole lot. From its origins as a career-training program for young Appalachians, Appalshop has always been about economic development. It creates jobs both directly, for local filmmakers, musicians, recording artists, archivists, and educators; and indirectly, through extensive partnerships with artisans, growers, chefs, tech companies, healthcare providers, school systems, and governments across the region. These partnerships are a key element in Appalshop’s role as “culture hub,” a dynamic center of cross-sector cultural activity.
Yet Appalshop’s biggest economic role may be in creating the conditions for creating jobs. A national leader in grassroots arts, Appalshop has pioneered the practice of “first voice/authentic voice,” creating culture of and by the people of Appalachia, not about them. Appalshop documentaries have no narrator: every word is spoken by the people being documented. Roadside Theater plays have no script: every word comes from stories told and recorded by participants. Appalshop’s administrative offices are filled with old-time musicians, radio hosts, filmmakers, visual artists, organizers, and community activists: at Appalshop there is no producers-versus-consumers, servers-versus-served, us-versus-them. There is only us, here, together, building our collective voice in a region where so many feel voiceless.
In the words of the economist Fluney Hutchinson, who has worked in developing communities all over the world: “Strengthening the capacity of residents to exercise voice, agency, and ownership over their community affairs is essential to their ability to create communities that they value… That’s the kind of economic development that ensures that we all are invested and remain invested because it represents and it recognizes our unique ability to contribute to it.”
Hutchinson and his institute, the Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Initiative at Lafayette College, have been working with Appalshop since 2013. Together, we are building on the Appalshop model of bottom-up, culturally based economic development, a model which may turn many more high-poverty American towns into Stars Hollow.
This essay is reprinted from the NEA's new publication, How to Do Creative Placemaking: An Action-Oriented Guide to Arts in Community Development, which offers diverse perspectives on the practice of creative placemaking in communities of all shapes and sizes from across the U.S. And it's not too late to join our webinar on creative placemaking today; join the free webcast and learn more about the new volume at arts.gov.