About six years ago, I found myself at a tractor pull in rural Eastern Ohio. I watched as a young boy adroitly maneuvered a tractor while hauling a cinder block.
“What is that small child doing on that tractor?” I exclaimed.
Everyone laughed. Apparently, children regularly operate farm equipment. It wouldn’t be the first lesson I learned as a community organizer in Ohio’s Appalachian region. Being a Clevelander, I was clueless. Today I know that politicians’ best plans won’t resonate in Appalachia unless they construct a vision for the future that taps into Appalachian values and Appalachian voices.
Appalachia spans some or all of 13 states, including 32 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Twenty-five million people live in Appalachia, more than 20% of whom are people of color. I met two moms who fought for safe and affordable housing by exposing slumlords on Facebook. I worked with a college professor and her students who wanted to make sure children grew up healthy, so they monitored the air for pollution. Corporate and political elites don’t think much about people living in Appalachia – except during election season or when they want to use the region’s natural resources.
Even still, Appalachians know government can make their lives better and their communities stronger. Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, the country came together to rebuild. As part of the first New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electric Administration, which electrified nearly 288,000 rural households. New Deal programs connected Appalachia with the rest of the country through roads and post offices. People got jobs building and improving water and sewer systems. However, Appalachians know that when government doesn’t reflect all the communities it is meant to serve, progress falls short. The Tennessee Valley Authority confiscated family lands and wiped entire towns off the map to make way for electricity. Policymakers deliberately excluded Appalachians and Black Americans from laws that made it easier for working people to organize.
Last year Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) proposed the “Green New Deal” – a massive investment plan to cut carbon pollution and provide good jobs in the clean energy industry. It’s no surprise that some Appalachians are skeptical. But the truth is, the plan won’t work unless it includes Appalachia and learns from the good work already going on there.
Appalachian grassroots organizations like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition are running values-based, aspirational campaigns to remake their communities. They’re doing it by having authentic conversations with people. When asked, Appalachians talk about the pride they have in their history and culture. They speak lovingly about their families, neighbors and community. They’re proud of the role their hard work played in powering the nation. They’re resourceful and resilient. They know tough times will come, but together they can get through them. But they worry about the future. With too few good jobs their children are moving away, fraying the kinship ties they hold dear. They love the natural landscape, but only so much as the people who live on it.
As the presidential election draws near, politicians can’t afford to get it wrong. Policymakers can make The Green New Deal meaningful for Appalachia by including the values, needs, and history of the people in the region. Doing so would mean a healthier future for their children and grandchildren, good local jobs, and a foundation for future prosperity. Even politicians that want to ban drilling and mining can’t ignore that working in fossil fuel extraction gave many Appalachians a good life. The culprit is never the working people, but the corporations and politicians who seek to divide us for their personal gain. Good jobs are possible by doing the necessary work of modernizing the electric grid, laying rail and expanding broadband. If we resist allowing ourselves to be divided based on race, or whether we live in rural or urban places, the Green New Deal can help all of us take back our power – especially people living in Appalachia.
Based on my time organizing there, a message like that will make sense to the pragmatic people I met. I hope politicians working to earn Appalachians’ votes will take that into consideration, and spare themselves the embarrassment of a tractor-pull faux pas.