'After Coal' forums connect mining communities across globe and bring out local candidates

On October 7, KFTC’s Letcher County Chapter paired with Appalshop in Whitesburg and the After Coal project of Appalachian State University, to host a public community forum on economic transition, and a local candidate meet and greet reception.

The evening reception began with informal conversation among the 80 guests and several candidates for local office, including the mayor of Whitesburg and a few city council candidates. Mair Francis, founder of the DOVE Workshop, and Hywel Francis, a Labour Member of Parliament for Aberavon, Wales, traveled all the way to Whitesburg in order to discuss policies on sustainable community development in Wales and Appalachia. This was Mair and Hywell's first visit back to east Kentucky since sharing their experiences as the opening session of Appalachia's Bright Future conference in Harlan last year.

10014751_10152407948041623_297164187689692937_oMuch like economic struggles seen in Appalachia today, the coalfields of South Wales shut down 30 years ago – leaving mining communities forced to come up with strategic ways to rebuild their own economy. Mair and Hywel discussed what has worked for community development in Wales, what has been difficult, and how the coalfields of Wales can be compared and contrasted to the industry in Appalachia. Guest speakers to provide local anaysis and vision included Evan Smith, from the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, and Robin Gabbard from The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky.

Clips from the forthcoming After Coal documentary about the years of exchanges between Wales and Appalachia kicked off the community forum discusssion. Guests from Wales went on to highlight some of the best practices in community regeneration, including the presence of a clearly articulated vision, and a thorough understanding of the strategies, priorities and resources required. Evan Smith, a Whitesburg native who often represents miners on justice issues such as black lung and mine safety, stated, “It takes a lot to fix an economy. There’s no silver bullet; but there are things we can be doing and things we could be doing better.”

Dr. Hywel Francis also emphasized the importance of community funding, education investment, and reclamation of environmental resources. Robin Gabbard explained, “The answers are in every little firehouse and post office in our communities. Not just the problems, but the strategies and what we’d like to see. To develop a place where our kids and other people’s kids want to have a life. Creating transferable leadership skills in our young people.”

When questions and respones were welcomed from the audience, Jared Utt, a local pastor, asked Dr. Francis how community members in Wales found hope in the early 80’s, when the mines shut down and people were out of work. “Fellowship is sort of the way that in great despair, people find hope in their work and struggle together – a sense of fellowship is immeasurably powerful,” Hywel said.

“Great hope is to be drawn from Wales – as long as we can plant gardens every year, and grandmas can play with their grandbabies; so long as we can imagine the community we want to live in, there is hope,” concluded Evan Smith. 

HigherGroundYouthThis event was the second in a series of three in eastern Kentucky this fall:  Homegrown Tourism was Thursday, September 18 at the Elkhorn City Public Library, and Arts and Youth will take place this Tuesday, October 28 at Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College Harlan Campus.  A 5 pm open reception with refreshments will welcome another visiting speaker from Wales. Candidates for local offices are, again, invited to meet the speakers and public at this event. Visiting from Wales, Richard Davies, who directs the media program at Merthyr Tydfill College, will present work created by his students and share lessons learned converting the old town hall into an arts center for the college.  Harlan County youth will share some of their work on the Higher Ground project as part of this exchange.