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Recent Entries

Kentucky leaders should position state, EKY for more new energy opportunity...

New energy – wind, solar and efficiency – is a huge opportunity for eastern Kentucky right now. That is, if our leaders are willing to take advantage of it. Energy will be a hot topic during the Kentucky General Assembly, which is now getting into full swing. That’s especially true in light of a growing need to develop a clean energy plan to comply with the federal Clean Power Plan, released last year. As the Lexington Herald-Leader reports: “Utilities went on a wind and solar building binge in 2015, The Washington Post reports, while stock prices for both industries surged after Congress extended tax credits for renewables in last month’s spending deal. Coal company values, by contrast, have fallen steeply, setting the stage for more bankruptcies and layoffs. Despite a glut of cheap fossil fuels, 60 percent of new investment in power plants is going into renewables, reports the International Energy Agency.” All of this growth in new energy brings jobs with it, too, according to the Herald-Leader:  Between 2008 and 2012, more U.S. jobs were created in wind and solar (79,000 direct and indirect) than lost in the coal industry (49,530), according to a Duke University study. We in eastern Kentucky know what it’s been like for the coal industry the last couple of years as the industry has slid into collapse. We know and feel the loss of jobs and economy and community that’s happened as a result. If there is an option for us to build up our clean energy infrastructure in a way...
Bill and Melinda Gates paid a visit to EKY

Bill and Melinda Gates paid a visit to EKY

Making our eastern Kentucky youth feel like they can do anything is a very crucial part of transitioning the regional economy. It doesn’t hurt when Bill and Melinda Gates are telling them that, too, when they come to visit. The pair – who co-chair the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is “guided by the belief that every life has equal value” – stopped in on Betsy Layne High School in Floyd County a few months ago to see what administrators, teachers and students were doing that made them all so successful. From Melinda Gates: Floyd County schools have made significant gains in student achievement over the past 10 years. In 2005, the district was ranked 145th among Kentucky’s 173 public school districts in terms of student achievement. By the 2014–2015 school year, it had skyrocketed to 12th. More than 91 percent of the district’s students graduated from high school in 2014, beating the state’s graduation rate of 88 percent. And their college readiness rates are on the rise, too. We visited Betsy Layne because we wanted to see firsthand how teachers and administrators have helped drive such meteoric progress. It was quickly apparent that, like all of the most successful schools we’ve visited, Betsy Layne’s teachers and administrators use a combination of compassion and sky-high expectations to drive its young people to succeed. Bill and Melinda talked with students over pizza, and visited their classrooms to see how teachers were teaching. They were pleasantly surprised by the innovative techniques, and...
KSEC wants you for its Just Transition Working Group

KSEC wants you for its Just Transition Working Group

Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of working with the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition’s Just Transition Working Group. The working group is made up of students and non-student youth from across the state who wish to promote a transition to local-based economies in which workers, citizens and the environment are protected. This fall semester, we laid the groundwork to launch a fair coal severance campaign. Through this campaign, we’ll be working to assure that taxes collected from coal companies for mining coal are used in coal producing and coal impacted counties in a way that enhances sustainable economic development. Growing up in a former coal town in Eastern Kentucky, I had little hope for the region. The coal industry that once thrived in my town left the land, water and economy in ruin. For several years, I vowed to leave Kentucky as soon as I possibly could, and saw escaping the area as the only course to success. Finding a community of environmentalists and other progressive-minded people, however, made me feel differently. The skills I learned from KSEC led me to discover my power as an activist and feel that I have the power to change the broken systems that allow Appalachia’s problems to persist. This drive to create a brighter future for Kentucky is the reason I  applied to become part of the Just Transition Working Group steering committee. We have our campaign plans, and now we need awesome young people to make them happen! As part of...
Mountain Music Exchange owners hope new model of trade-ins, online sales will usher in new era of doing business in EKY

Mountain Music Exchange owners hope new model of trade-ins, online sales will usher in new era of doing business in EKY...

Walking into Mountain Music Exchange in Pikeville, Ky., is a bit jarring. From the outside, the shop on Highway 23 looks nondescript enough. There’s an old radio-record player combo on one side of the lobby, next to a plush leather couch where parents wait on their children receiving music lessons in rooms down the window-lined hallway on the opposite side of the hall. Keep walking down the hall toward the shop, though, and you’ll step into somewhat of a fantasy music world of the three business-owners’ own design and making. Guitars of all shapes, sizes, colors and acoustics line the walls; drum sets and keyboards are set up in the middle of the large floor space; a wooden stage is positioned on the left side of the room, and atop it sits banjos and mandolins. There’s also a repair shop in the back of the store, along with the online Mountain Music Exchange headquarters, where items for sale are photographed for the online marketplace. The whole shop is the realization of a vision shared by three men, who also happen to be friends and family: Tony Mullins, Kevin Harmon and Jared Arnett (who is also the director of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative). Mullins used to operate a recording studio in Pike County, and had partnered with Harmon to convert the back of the studio into retail space in which to buy, sell and trade guitars. Eventually, it became apparent that more space was needed as the trio’s...
Climate justice funder shares why his foundation supports, funds just transition

Climate justice funder shares why his foundation supports, funds just transition...

The role of philanthropy in any just transition is critical. Getting funding for a program can mean whether or not that program continues to exist, or is axed. Trouble is, organizations who are working on systems change in order to bring about a just transition often aren’t funded long-term. This often means they are beholden to yearly re-application and arduous restrictions on what can and cannot be done with the grant they’ve received. (Chorus photo: Vivian Huang, Campaign and Organizing Director at Asian Pacific Environmental Network) That’s what makes the Chorus Foundation so unique. Chorus is more interested in long-term, place-based funding for organizations in communities on the frontlines of climate justice. And after ten years of work, Chours founder Farhad Ebrahimi has some reflections to share about what’s worked for them, why they believe in funding just transition strategies, and what other funders can learn from their experience. I should say, in full disclosure, that the Chorus Foundation is a long-term committed funder of the Mountain Association for Economic Development, of which this blog is a product. However, that connection has nothing to do with why we believe the foundation’s approach is so important. Take Ebrahimi’s explanation about why it’s so important to help build a just transition with philanthropy (bolding is my emphasis): Here’s something that everybody knows: things have got to change. Our extractive system simply cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged. In fact, we can see that things are already changing; it’s inevitable. But justice is not inevitable, and any...
Appalachian Food Summit wins 2015 John Egerton Prize

Appalachian Food Summit wins 2015 John Egerton Prize

Food is very important in Appalachia. Not that food isn’t important everywhere. But Appalachians are distinctly connected to their food as a cultural definition of who they are as a people – whether they themselves would say it in those words or not. The fact is that one of the very few places in which things like soup beans and cornbread are considered comfort food and lifted up as a delicacy is in the hills and hollers of Central Appalachia. We enhance our soup beans with everything from chopped onions to chow-chow relish to hot sauce, making as many variations with our garnishes as there are funnel cake booths at the local fall festival. And they are always served alongside cornbread – alongside, because the cornbread is a dish unto itself, not just an accessory. It’s always cooked crispy on the outside in a cast-iron skillet reserved specifically and exclusively for the baking of the most gaurded of family secret recipes: white, non-sweet cornbread. The non-sweet part is key. Sugar is for pound cake and homemade jam – not cornbread. Appalachian Food. It’s distinctly its own variety of regional fare – Southern, but different. American, but different. Its staples are the most humble, yet noble, of ingredients: corn meal, beans, fried dough, lard or bacon grease, small-garden grown cucumbers and tomatoes, chicken, wild plants and mushrooms foraged from local woods (ramps, dry-land fish – morels to the outsiders – sassafras). It’s food that comes from a past of subsistence and community – of...

Of 36 newly announced POWER Initiative grant awards, Central Appalachia will receive 22...

The Obama Administration announced yesterday new federal grants totaling more than $14 million for partnerships in 12 states and tribal nations. The money comes from the POWER Initiative, which the administration bills as the down-payment on the POWER+ Plan, and addresses immediate need created by the collapse of the coal industry. The POWER+ Plan proposes an almost $10 billion investment in coal communities to help them transition into a new economy.  Of the 36 total awards, Kentucky is getting 14. With those 14 factored in, Central Appalachia is getting 22. That’s a lot of federal money making its way into the mountains, and it’s definitely going to help move the region forward. Some highlights of projects being funded with these grants: $200,000 EDA grant to Appalshop, in Whitesburg, Ky., for Mines to Minds: The Southeast Kentucky High Tech Workforce Certificate Project. Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) is also awarding $75,000 to this project. The project will develop a one-year IT workforce certificate program targeted to communities affected by the reduction in coal employment. $100,000 EDA grant to Perry County Fiscal Court in Hazard, Ky., for the Southeastern Kentucky Economic HUB Opportunities Diversification Implementation Project. This project will fund a position that coordinates implementation of the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy across targeted industry clusters, while leveraging existing resources to invest in skills development and job placement for dislocated workers. $80,000 to the Kentucky River Area Development District in Hazard, Ky., to fund a first-ever inventory of existing businesses in the region. $274,500 to...
IG2BYITM Conference reaffirms one Appalachian’s hope for the future

IG2BYITM Conference reaffirms one Appalachian’s hope for the future...

It’s been nearly two weeks since the It’s Good 2 Be Young in the Mountains conference in Harlan, Ky., and still it’s ripples are growing outward. (Photo courtesy of IG2BYITM Facebook) The “festival that breaks out into a conference,” as it was billed, was quite unlike any other conference about or for young people that’s I’ve been to in the region to date, for a few key reasons: It was wholly organized and carried out by young people; It’s social media presence was pervasive and effective in the weeks prior to the conference; And of the couple hundred or so people that attended, there may have been 10 people over 40. What’s also significant about IG2BYITM is the level of commitment and dedication flowing throughout all aspects of the conference. Commitment and dedication to place, that is – Central Appalachia, to be exact. This commitment and dedication is not to be confused as a love-fest for our mountain home. While much adoration and appreciation for our place was shared and talked about and embraced, much talk was had about the challenges we face as a region – challenges that are not small or insignificant by any measure. But while those challenges were in everyone’s minds as the conference chugged along, they were not necessarily the focus. The spotlight was reserved for what’s next – the collective future we are all building together and how we don’t want to be mired in or by the past – past mistakes, past failures, past romanticized –...
Local support for POWER+ Plan growing like wildfire

Local support for POWER+ Plan growing like wildfire

Support for the POWER+ Plan is picking up steam in Central Appalachia, as several localities have now passed resolutions in support of the plan. The Norton, Va., City Council became the first in the nation to pass a resolution supporting the POWER+ Plan in July. They were joined shortly after by the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission and the Wise County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. City Councils in Whitesburg and Benham, Ky., passed similar resolutions last week, and have been followed this week by the Kentucky Fiscal Courts of Letcher and Harlan Counties, and the Campbell County Commission in Tennessee. In each case, the resolutions passed unanimously, which goes to show that local leaders have no qualms about accepting assistance for their communities when it is desperately needed. They live with the reality of coal’s collapse surrounding them every day, and they know the billions of dollars being offered to Central Appalachia through the POWER+ Plan would be an enormous help in bolstering their local economies. Mountain people might be prideful, but they also aren’t too proud to accept help when it comes, no matter from where it derives. The resolutions being passed are worth quoting: “The POWER+ Plan includes programs that would disburse $1 billion in funding for Abandoned Mine Land (AML) projects that create long-term business and economic opportunities; would invest millions in workforce development and job training programs in communities impacted by the decline of the coal industry; and would strengthen the health and pension plans of 100,000 retired...
MACED’s statement about the U.S. Department of the Interior’s new stream protection rule

MACED’s statement about the U.S. Department of the Interior’s new stream protection rule...

The U.S. Department of the Interior released new rules for the protection of streams from the impact of surface mining – rules which haven’t been updated in three decades. We’re happy about this update because we know that in order to have economically thriving and sustainable communities in the mountains, having clean water will be essential. You can read a full statement from the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development about the new rules,...
People who are poor should be central in SOAR leadership

People who are poor should be central in SOAR leadership

Former War on Poverty anti-poverty worker, Robert W. Shaffer has some advice about how to improve upon past efforts at economic transition in eastern Kentucky: Let people who are poor have seats at all tables where decisions about the future of the region are being made. From Shaffer: Poverty statistics will once again be used to bring millions of dollars to Eastern Kentucky to be spent by those who are not poor. What is never considered is the enormous price poor families pay to produce these statistics. They are, after all, the expert witnesses. Who has a greater stake in SOAR’s success? It makes common sense that poor people should have seats at the table where decisions are made about how those funds will be spent. But it is an open secret that many in leadership do not want poor people to acquire the confidence to participate at the highest levels in programs designed to enable them to rise out of poverty. The Shaping Our Appalachian Region Initiative has been key to shifting the overarching conversation about transition in the region, and has helped bring in millions in federal investments. However – as we’ve written about previously on this blog – the entire initiative has a long way to go before all eastern Kentuckians are equally represented among it’s leadership and participants. As Shaffer points out: “SOAR’s present leadership consists of the one percent of the population accustomed to controlling all federal and state funds available to the region. The executive board...

Economic transition advice from a seasoned EKY grassroots leader...

Gwenda Johnson has some advice for modern-day eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia about how we move our economy forward, and she talked about it recently with Making Connections News. From MCN: Johnson grew up on a family farm in Elliot County, and has worked as a county extension agent for family and consumer sciences. Recently, she was asked by her county judge to focus her efforts on community economic development. She spoke with MCN and WMMT-FM about her hopes for the region in a piece created for the “Appalachia Speaks” series – short videos featuring voices and visions of grassroots leaders. “It’s time for us to gather our people,” Johnson says. “Maybe it’s time for a revolution. What can we do? What are the strengths of this mountains and the hills? What so we have that we can use?” Watch Johnson’s full interview...

AML white paper gives recommendations to make program work better for Central Appalachia’s economic transition...

UPDATE, 7-9-15: The full text of the AML white paper can now be downloaded at the link to the press release. Scroll to the bottom for the link to download.  The AML Policies Priority Group – a multi-stakeholder group examining the abandoned mine lands fund – released a white paper today that assesses the opportunity for the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program in Central Appalachia. From a press release about the white paper’s release: The paper provides recommendations for specific policy changes that would provide distribution of special funds to states based on criteria such as number of remaining abandoned mine lands sites, unemployment rates, and opportunity for economic development, rather than rates of coal production as the current law mandates. The central aim of the research paper, which includes input from a broad range of stakeholders across the region, is to analyze the AML program and identify potential improvements. Some of the paper’s key findings include: The AML program supported 1,317 jobs in Central Appalachian states, and delivered a value-added impact of $102 million in these states. It will take at least $9.6 billion to remediate the remaining 6.2 million acres of lands and waters ravaged by abandoned mine problems. AML funding is not distributed according to need. Congress should enact legislation that replaces all AML sub-funds with a single distribution mechanism based on a state’s percentage of the updated federal AML inventory. AML funds are a big part of President Obama’s POWER+ Plan proposal, and this paper aims...
More news of local food success in Kentucky

More news of local food success in Kentucky

Kentucky leads the way in federally funded local foods projects at 1,659. That latest number comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with this one: local food sales topped $11.7 billion last year – that’s billion, with a “b.” That is a huge figure, and one that further proves local foods is one sector upon which communities can capitalize, something we’ve been saying for years. Not only are local farmers, et al, making a big economic impact through the local foods sector, but farmers’ markets and direct-to-consumer outlets are quickly becoming cornerstones of small communities and helping to develop a broader and deeper sense of community among locals. In Kentucky, 73 farmers markets and DTC outlets now accept SNAP, and last year, almost $80,000 in SNAP benefits were redeemed at Kentucky markets. That is huge news for eastern Kentucky where many locals rely on SNAP each month. Such locals would have been excluded from using SNAP at many farmers markets just 5 years ago. The Letcher County Farmers’ Market (LCFM) in Whitesburg, Ky., is a shining example of an innovative approach to eastern Kentucky farmers’ markets. Not only does the market accept SNAP and run a successful summer feeding program for local children, but the market now works in partnership with the Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation to provide “prescriptions” for locally-grown, organic food. Patients who qualify for the Farmacy program receive $1 per day per family member, which are later totaled and written on a voucher that can be...