Appalshop Hopes to Debunk Stereotypes of Appalachia

For more information about Appalshop's programs, visit their website.

As appeared in the Aug 24 edition of the Courier-Journal:
By Andrew Adler
aadler@courier-journal.com

Appalachia — the place, its people, their cultures — defies easy summation.

Not surprisingly, so does the media center that's devoted more than 40 years to documenting the region's unique resonance: Appalshop.

Tucked away in the eastern Kentucky town of Whitesburg, Appalshop is at once a creature of the mountains and a representative of the world at large. Through films and video, radio, live music and theater, still images and the written word, the center exists to tell stories. Some encompass huge scope. Others are intimate.

Indeed, through the power of narrative and clear example, Appalshop wants to shatter complacency and debilitating stereotype.

“One of the problems that people in the mountains have faced is what I would call a sense of cultural imperialism,” veteran filmmaker Herb Smith said, “where people from other places come here and think they know more about our region than the people who work every day here do.”

Smith himself is a product of those mountains. He grew up in Whitesburg, helped organize Appalshop in 1969 and has since become its personification of institutional memory. Not long ago, he completed an appreciation of legendary bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley, exemplifying Appalshop's to nurture its surrounding art and artists.

“I started when I was 17, and now I'm 58,” Smith said of his parallel journey alongside Appalshop. He is no fan of outsiders who proclaim themselves saviors of naive local folks, the attitude that “we're going to help these poor little mountain folk ‘get it.'”

At Appalshop, “We try to flip that around and say that people here are part of a rich cultural reality in their communities — one that actually reflects America more than some other cultural organizations do,” Smith said.

During its 41-year history, Appalshop has sought to be as relevant as circumstances dictate.

“There are two forces — three if you count funding — that primarily affect how we make decisions,” said Beth Bingman, Appalshop's managing director. “One is the issues arising in this region, and the other is the changing technologies we're dealing with.”

As an example of Appalshop's “issue-oriented” projects, Bingman cited the center's study of “how the economy can transition from a dependence on coal to a more diversified economy.”

“We are looking at things like broadband Internet access, alternative energy and agriculture,” she said.

Aiming to empower a new generation of media producers, Appalshop hosts an annual summertime institute for aspiring filmmakers. This year, a dozen young interns spent six weeks collaborating with professionals on a series of short films.

“They spend a lot of time reflecting on where they're from,” Bingman said of the interns.

Explicitly and implicitly, Appalshop acknowledges this notion of collective identity. “There is a constant in eastern Kentucky,” Bingman said, “traditions of rural and family life that remain really strong here.” She spoke of a “connection to the land — farming, gardening and agriculture — of being close to the woods, close to the streams.”

Through its affiliated radio station, WMMT-FM (88.7, “Mountain Community Radio”), Appalshop puts out an impressive footprint. The station, broadcasting from a tower atop Pine Mountain, reaches not only a broad swath of eastern Kentucky but also parts of Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee. Additionally, “more and more we are trying to understand how to use Web-based media,” Bingman said.

Elsewhere, Appalshop has looked at the burgeoning prison industry via a film series titled “Holler to the Hood” and a companion project called “Thousand Kites” — which Appalshop describes as “a performance-based Web, video, and radio dialogue project centered on the United States prison system and created with inmates, prison employees, and their families and the public.”

Although Appalshop tries to be politically neutral, ceding specific points of view to individual artists, the center has taken its share of hits. Radio stories about mountaintop removal — a controversial process of extraction favored by some coal companies — are a sensitive topic when many listeners depend on coal for their livelihoods.

“We have been perceived as being threatening to local coal interests,” Bingman said, adding that “We've heard that people have been told not to donate to our radio station.”

Still, Appalshop is determined to soldier on.

“I think people understand what we're doing, for the most part,” Smith said. “If we speak truth to power, producing work that reflects an understanding of the history and culture of this region, then that has a kind of validity that random pot shots don't.”

This ongoing, authentic attention to Appalachia has garnered Appalshop important support in high places. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the National Endowment for the Arts, which has been among the center's most consistent funders.

“They're not doing it only in eastern Kentucky, but setting a national standard of excellence (in) a region that's otherwise underserved,” Ted Libbey, who directs the endowment's Media Arts Program, said of Appalshop. “And that allows not just the region, but the entire country, to be exposed to voices that wouldn't otherwise be heard.”

Libbey praised the summer Media Institute, and such projects as a documentary study of photographer William Gedney. “They have a very broad scope to what they're interested in,” Libbey observed, explaining that the endowment looks for organizations that “have strong roots in a particular place.”

“It just so happens that Appalshop's roots are spread out over a very large geographical area,” Libbey added, “so, in some ways, it creates an even richer palette for them.”

These days, from capturing the nuances of mountain music to crafting a film about the late Louisville-born social activist Anne Braden, Appalshop continues to hone its eclectic imperative.

“As an organization, we don't have a party line, or a set of answers we are proposing for the region,” Smith said.

But he emphasized that Appalshop remains committed to enabling its constituents to move forward, even amid confounding forces.

“To me, the transition is economic and political, but at its base, cultural: How do we, as mountain people, determine our own destiny?” Smith said.

“Too much has relied on other people making decisions for us, and that puts us in a mode of cultural subservience, just accepting whatever you can get your hands on. That's a huge position of weakness,” he said.

Appalshop, Smith believes, is a means of helping residents “determine their own destiny, to play a role in creating something fresh and new and separate from the future that is being imposed upon us.”

Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.