Young people are moving Appalachia's economic transition forward

Kendall Bilbrey

Every day across various media platforms we are flooded with news about the downturn in our economy. In Appalachia, where the economy has traditionally been not so diverse, this often means layoffs in the coal industry, outsourcing of factory jobs and lack of job opportunities. Our young people are seeing this and taking note. Many of us have been encouraged to leave our mountains to participate in an economy elsewhere. Those who do stay are left with few and dwindling job opportunities and a real lack of meaningful work. I can speak to this, because I was one of those young people who left.

It wasn’t until I had left the region that I truly understood the need to return with the skills and knowledge I had acquired while away. I didn’t know what to do, but I did know I needed to return to the mountains with a goal to create opportunities for young people to have the choice to stay. When I heard about the Appalachian Transition Fellowship, I jumped at the opportunity.

The Appalachian Transition Fellowship is a program facilitated  by the Highlander Research and Education Center and Rural Support Partners with support from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Ford Foundation, Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the One Foundation. The Fellowship program was formed in recognition that the future economy in Appalachia can no longer rely on outside influence and industry to create new opportunities.

Including myself, there are thirteen inaugural AppFellows who began on June 1st of this year. We have been placed in 13 different communities across Central Appalachia. The Appalachian Transition Fellowship is a year-long, full-time, paid program designed for emerging Appalachian leaders who are committed to working in Central Appalachia for the economic transition of the region. This program offers fellows the opportunity to spend a year working within host organizations to help foster cross-sector partnerships, provide needed capacity to regional efforts, and build personal and professional skills. Through institutional placements, independently designed projects, training, and mentoring, the program gives emerging leaders and host organizations skills and networks needed to advance economic and social change in the region.

I have been fortunate in my fellowship placement with a regional coalition, The Alliance for Appalachia. In late 2012, the Alliance undertook a year-long listening process, where they connected with 40 stakeholders across the region. In the spring of that year, they hosted a delegation of Appalachian leaders that met with new potential national allies in Washington D.C. Thanks to the support of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, the listening project culminated in a 60-person regional summit this December 2013 bringing together environmental justice organizations, regulatory agency representatives and development organizations. They left the meeting with real ideas of what an Appalachian Agenda for economic transition could look like.

The purpose of my fellowship with the Alliance for Appalachia is to continue to move the goals of the listening project forward. Specifically, I am working on a collaborative research project with Eric Dixon, AppFellow with the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center. Our project goals are to identify the best ways to appropriate Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) fund money for use by Central Appalachian communities, with an eye towards job creation, water quality, reforestation and other reclamation goals. In addition, we would like to share our findings with interested stakeholders, organizations, agencies, and individuals through outreach and opportunity for collaboration across the region.

If there is one thing I can say about my experience with this fellowship program, it would be that I have been completely captivated by the immense talent and strength in the youth leaders of Appalachia. The energy and pride we share in our culture is unmatched. This program provides the opportunity for young people to connect and work together in communities across the region while shaping a network of leaders who will move the economic transition forward. By creating a wide network across Appalachia, we strengthen our regional capacity and can work together to move forward. The Appalachian Transition Fellowship and my placement with The Alliance for Appalachia has further ignited my energy and shown me that opportunities for young folks in Appalachia are possible.

I’ve found my place again in the mountains. 

Growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Wytheville, Virginia, Kendall has made it a priority to fight for justice and move Appalachia forward. Kendall is a 2012 graduate of George Mason University with a Bachelor of Science in Conservation Studies. Upon graduating from college, Kendall embarked on a journey to China where they studied red panda behavior for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Kendall is passionate about the power of youth in Appalachia, and currently serves on the Steering Committee for The STAY Project






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