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 – but how we instead want to move forward, and how we want that movement to be just and equitable and respectful. And how we are going to address our challenges in new and creative ways together because what our leaders have been doing up to this point has left us all feeling disappointed.
Many people and entities over the generations have said our region and her people are hopeless. The Media has so many times tried to put us in a box, close the lid and not open it unless they needed a ratings bump. Many mountain people have left for greener pastures – some have found them, some have not, all have missed the hills from the time they packed the car until perpetuity.
Appalachia is not an easy place to be. Anyone who’s from there, who lives there, who attended IG2BYITM, who is invested in her future, will tell you that. It’s hard. It’s difficult. The living here – for many reasons – is rugged, a mirror of the beautifully diverse landscape which calls us home all day, every day, for the rest of our lives. But like a dog that won’t bark, we love this place in spite of itself and the many ways in which it tries to run us off.
It is ours. We are it. It is our double-wide on a shaky foundation with a leaky roof, and our mansion on the hill with five bedrooms and four baths. It is our playground and our education. It is in our blood – cut open our veins, and see the blood run cool and clear like a mountain stream – or hot and raw, like an exposed coal seam laid bare by the dynamite’s roar.
It is our salvation and our sin. It is our roots and our wings. It is everything but simple, and nothing but beautiful.
What I learned from IG2BYITM is all of that, and more. What I learned is that we stay in this place and commit our lives to this place because where else could we go that would hold us so sweet and love us so deep, while simultaneously scaring us for life with it’s addictive power? Appalachia is complex, and so are we – her many-varied children. In no other place can our full complexity be realized than right back where we stared, in the loving arms of our mother Appalachia.
And if we’re going to stay, we are definitely going to push our place to be better than she currently is, because we know – deep down in our mountain souls – that we deserve it, that our communities deserve it, and that there is nothing else for us than to patch that leaky roof, teach that old dog to bark, invite all our friends over when the work’s done and sit a while swapping stories on the porch. And then, we’ll start it all again tomorrow, never giving up on our home improvements until the work is done.
(Views expressed in this post are solely those of Ivy Brashear, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development)