Building Power Through Culture in East Kentucky

June 27, 2018

By: Ben Fink, Appalshop

I work at the Appalshop — originally short for “Appalachian Film Workshop.” We were founded in 1969, with funding from the federal War on Poverty and the American Film Institute, as a program to teach young people in the mountains to make films. A few years later, when the government money stopped, some of those young people took it over and re-founded it for themselves. Ever since, it’s been a grassroots multimedia cultural center: a film producer, theater company, radio station, record label, news outlet, youth media training program, deep regional archive and sometimes book and magazine publisher. It’s put the means of cultural production in the hands of local people.



One thing that’s different about Appalshop, compared with a lot of nonprofits, is we don’t do “community engagement” or “community outreach.” We aren’t looking to “help” or “save” the community. We are part of the community, no less and no more. And the way we work with our neighbors is through stories. Stories are how we learn, how we make meaning out of our lives, how we understand who we are and what we can do, individually and together.

The story of Appalachia, as told in so many reports about “Trump country,” tends to be pretty depressing: broken people, victims of poverty and unemployment and addiction, clinging desperately to a divisive and hateful politics as their last hope. But if what we’re doing works here — listening to each other, caring for each other, working with each other on common ground toward common goals — it might work in other places, too.


Rural people have power

The 2016 election showed that rural people have power. Whether we like it or not. If we want to understand the power in rural America and how it can be organized differently, first we need to know — who’s got it? The answer is, as usual: not us. My neighbors may not all be up on the latest social justice lingo, but they are not hateful. No, the power got built far away from here. What we get, on both sides, are the bumper stickers, the prefab identities sold by the people with power to make us feel powerful — even as they use our power for their own benefit.


A voice for the community

A few years ago, with the coal economy on its last legs, a new generation of Appalshop leaders started working with a Jamaican economist named Fluney Hutchinson. Fluney has done development in poor areas across the world, sometimes with the International Monetary Fund.

But he doesn’t work through loans, austerity and government takeovers. He works, basically, through building power — defined, in broad-based organizing traditions inspired by the Industrial Areas Foundation, as organized people + organized money + organized ideas. Or as Fluney puts it: “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.” He recognized Appalshop was already doing this, through radio and theater and other media. But he asked, how could we do more? How could we help build an economy where everyone had voice, agency and ownership? An economy where we can work and act and vote out of hope for a future we’re working to make, instead of out of fear of a future we feel powerless to stop?

Appalshop began to use its resources and relationships to do broad-based organizing. We built a wide network of grassroots organizations working to strengthen people’s voice, agency and ownership, starting in our home county. Each organization in our network supports everyone else’s work, connects each other with resources, plans projects to bring value and wealth into our communities, and brings together organized people, money and ideas.


It started with…

  • a remote community center getting the support to reopen the longest-running square dance in the state of Kentucky, with guests from around the state and around the country.
  • the county volunteer fire departments — new partners, representing some of the most disinvested parts of our county, working together to start an annual bluegrass festival that made $10,000 in its first year.
  • a new cooperative for-profit corporation, incubated under Appalshop’s roof, working with our regional community and technical college to start a certificate program in tech and media skills — to create a complete community-based pipeline to employment for young people in the area.
  • people and groups of all kinds coming together and recognizing that we have power, and together we can build more. That we don’t have to wait to be saved. That we can create markets on a scale to attract the attention of investors — and keep the value of those investments in our community.


And with young woman — now a regular participant in Appalshop’s youth media work — who came to an Appalshop event for the first time last year. She said she’d wanted to come for a while, but she was nervous because she didn’t know anyone. Before she left, she left us a note: “Thank you…I have this feeling and I just can’t explain it. But this feels like home.”

In June 2018, Appalshop is 49 and a half years in — and still learning, of course. But I think we’re onto something. When we work together to make places where we all feel like we belong, we can feel safe enough to open ourselves to people and ideas we might otherwise fear. When we build a culture and economy based on shared agency, voice and ownership, we can live with dignity and own the value we create. That’s what we’re imagining here in east Kentucky — and with a growing network of partners from rural and urban communities across the country.


This is an adaptation of the article “Building Democracy in ‘Trump Country,’” published March 2017.