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Appalachian Regional Commission Hosts Listening Sessions in Appalachian Communities

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

Article by Gabby Gilliespie, Southwest Virginia oganizer with the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign

Last week, citizens from across Appalachia attended a listening session hosted by the Appalachian Regional Commission in Morehead, Kentucky. With the provisions proposed by Obama for the 2016 budget, organizers in Appalachia are attempting to create a groundswell on many levels that will push local leaders to make good decisions for the future of Appalachia. A part of these provisions, known as the POWER+ Plan, include a proposed $25 million in funding to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). As many know, the ARC has a lot of influence when it comes to economic development in the region. They have been a part of shaping conversations and building partnerships for the past fifty years. As a young citizen of Appalachia, I believe it is important for as many of us as possible to participate when ARC hosts listening sessions and public forums, so that our voices are heard and our ideas are propelling these conversations forward.

Ada Smith, of Appalshop and The STAY Project, speaks

The ARC scheduled five listening sessions across Appalachia to gather public input on their 2016-2020 Strategic Plan. Before hosting these events, the ARC put together a study detailing the impacts of the initiatives put in place by their organization over the past fifty years. These listening sessions are the next step in the process towards creating a strategy that includes the input of citizens, leaders, and representatives from varied sectors that will be impacted by the work of the ARC.

Carol Judy from the Clearfork Valley in Tennessee said, “At the Morehead meeting there was a significant presence of youth who shared and participated, creating an intergenerational sharing of solutions and issues,” and the question she has moving forward is, “where is the youth of ARC?” Coming out of this session, I also heard a lot of questions about how citizen input was meant to be incorporated. How much sway do our ideas truly have on the strategic plan?

The structure of the listening session began with a welcome and briefing about the strategic plan, as well as the findings from the Executive Summary mentioned above and located at this link, entitled “Appalachia Then and Now: Examining Changes to the Appalachian Region Since 1965.” After these presentations, the facilitation team asked participants to get into groups and share their understandings of opportunities to strengthen the economies in their communities. In that same session folks were asked to discuss the specific barriers they see to advancing those opportunities. People were given space to share within their small groups, and also share out to the entire assembly the things that resonated during their conversations. In the next session the questions involved the building blocks and resources people felt they had in their communities and which building blocks were lacking or needed strengthening.

Kendall Bilbrey, a young citizen from Southwest Virginia felt that, “Folks seemed to be comfortable with solutions-based conversations without getting caught up in political arguments,” and believes that these conversations are vital to moving our region forward to work together toward just transition.

We have seen a lot of progress on this front in Central Appalachia over the past five years. It seems that more and more citizens every day are willing to let the “coal is our future” rhetoric fall to the wayside and are far more open to talk about new economic opportunities in the region. Many folks in the groups I engaged in at the event wanted to see more spaces for sharing intergenerational knowledge and skills, as well as seeing much more youth engagement.

Overall, I believe events like the ARC listening sessions are a good opportunity for communities across the region to come together and share ideas for the future as well as discuss issues concerning the roles organizations have and should play in shaping the economic landscape of Appalachia.

To learn more about these listening sessions, visit the ARC website.

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Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition  •   Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowermentSierra Club Environmental Justice

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