By Sarah Hendrix / Union College
My definition of development in Eastern Kentucky would have to start with people — our human capital. One thing we all recognize is the power of people to make decisions that impact their own futures as well as the future of those around them. These others include school, family, workplace, community and beyond. The person could be you or anyone you happen to come contact with in your daily life. That is the simple explanation.
Now I understand that some people only see the crisis side of what we might be involved in — child welfare workers for example. These dedicated workers see all of us at our worst. It takes a courageous person to stand in the gap. Grandparents, sibling and foster parents do this too. It can be heart wrenching but it clearly takes courage and a passion
The efforts around SOAR or Shaping Our Appalachian Region, are also uncomfortable sometimes but it is very important work. Our region/our families are in need but not out of the game. We are, at the very least, at a tipping point as Malcolm Gladwell would say.
Last year a person came to talk with my students about a specific plan for our region. This person had never been here. While meeting with my students, she began to spout unhappy regional statistics about drugs, teen pregnancy and few college degrees. She talked at us rather than to us. And she was sharing this with a class of first generation college students, who weren’t on drugs, weren’t pregnant, and were looking at college graduation within one year. I don’t think she caught the irony of the conversation. My students, however, were chomping at the bit to talk with her about the strengths of our region. They were adamant about countering her views. In a word, they were prepared to be courageous. And courage comes in many forms.
Recently I saw a brief but very powerful silent video. One man, rises to his feet, in the midst of a sea of people apparently attending an outside picnic, concert, or sporting event. He begins to dance, in awkward and jerky steps, but he continues unabashedly.
As he dances you can see others beginning to look at him and visibly pull back from him. They are clearly curious but also cautious.
Then from outside his immediate circle, he is joined by another who doesn’t move in the same way, but clearly is joining in with the first dancer. Within a short time another joins and then another; some are clearly connected to another already there and some are coming out of left field, literally. You know where this is going. One joins, then another, then there are many.
I am hoping to see this kind of courage overtake us as our region also grapples with national attention.
As in any work with people or a region in need, stepping up takes courage, grit, and a willingness to dance to a different drummer. Walking into an uncomfortable situation also requires courage, grit, and the willingness to respond. Courage is not about being impulsive, or walking away when the cameras leave or the money runs out. Grit means staying until the challenge is met. People who take on this challenge are not always lauded as heroes in the beginning. But there are great possibilities here.
We need to talk more about engaging people. Are there opportunities for you to participate in the Promise Zone work? Consider attending a community discussion like the one upcoming at the Redbud Festival on April 11, 1 p.m. in the Union College Rector Little Theatre. Each of us needs to find an opening to have input on some level. This is a place to start to share your ideas.
One specific idea is gaining momentum with my students, colleagues, and neighbors. This is the idea of student loan forgiveness for students who work in our region. Qualified people leave our region because wages are depressed or they can’t find jobs. With student loan debt they can’t afford to stay. And many people don’t consider our region for employment because of the same issues. I believe that this one idea would help with retention and recruitment for businesses and support individuals as well. You may like this idea or you may not but I am stepping up to my own challenge.
Jerry Rickett, CEO of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, recently spoke to the Corbin Rotary Club about the SEKY Promise Zone. He closed by encouraging them “not to be critical, and to step up to the positive things we can do.” This was only one example of a community discussion.
Your voice is required. A title is not. Join us at the Redbud Festival in Barbourville, April 11th and 12th.
Dr. Sarah Hendrix was born in East Tennessee and is an associate professor and director of the social work program at Union College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.