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Through the Lens of Change

Part 3 of a 4-part Forefront series examining eastern Kentucky's transition away from a coal-centric economy. Read the series


How can 1 organization located in the foothills of eastern Kentucky provide a view of a largely hidden yet broad segment of American history and culture in the midst of transition? Ask Appalshop.

The story of Appalachia is remarkable, and Appalshop—a media, arts, and education center—seeks to preserve it. Since its creation, Appalshop has received a mixed pool of investments from an assortment of funding mechanisms: local and national donors, federal and state sources, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Kentucky Arts Council, and private and corporate foundations. It also receives support from online sales of its films and stories. By preserving the past, it allows for future growth in the region by acknowledging the area’s rich cultural heritage while visioning new economic possibilities.

Appalshop is located in Whitesburg, Kentucky, a town of approximately 2,100 located in the heart of the Appalachians. The surrounding county of Letcher has a population of roughly 24,000. In the 1950s and 1960s, Whitesburg and the surrounding towns and counties were hit hard by the mechanization of the coal mines, and the resulting unemployment made the region a central focus of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Whitesburg, Kentucky, viewed from High Rock. Photo courtesy of Bruce Wess.​

Whitesburg, Kentucky, viewed from High Rock. Photo courtesy of Bruce Wess.​

The importance of local business development in Whitesburg can’t be overstated, especially given the area’s decline in coal production. Within just 3 square miles, there’s a new restaurant, a cooperative record store, and a new entertainment venue and distillery, providing cultural entertainment and jobs. This economic activity seems to be taking hold in other parts of the region, as well. For the past 47 years, Appalshop has brought new residents, businesses, and investment to the area, creating a positive dynamic within the community.

A View of the Past

Initially 1 of 10 Community Film Workshops born of a partnership between the Office of Economic Opportunity and the American Film Institute, Appalshop was the only rural workshop and is the only workshop of the 10 that is still in existence today. Through media training, storytelling, cultural events, and preservation of Appalachian traditions, it’s an energizing force in Whitesburg.

Established in 1969, Appalshop started at a time of renewed interest in the telling of the Appalachian story. After the original government funding for Appalshop expired, it became an independent nonprofit with the mission to amplify the voices of the Appalachian people through radio, theater, music, fine arts, storytelling, filmmaking, and photography. From the very beginning, filmmakers turned the camera inward, demonstrating an early example of how the utilization of more portable video equipment could influence social change through storytelling.

In its early years, Appalshop’s connection to Appalachian social movements, organizations, and individuals was integral in shaping the work. The depictions offered in those early films were authentic and poignant, resulting in the films’ success. Praise for Appalshop’s initial work propelled the organization to a position of prominence as a media production company, subsequently connecting it to a network of social justice advocates, activists, and academics who participated in the social movement to provide a truer representation of the region.

Appalshop—and the popularity of film and availability of new equipment—has played a significant role in countering adverse descriptions and stereotypes of the Appalachian region.

Appalshop—and the popularity of film and availability of new equipment—has played a significant role in countering adverse descriptions and stereotypes of the Appalachian region. Josh May, Appalshop’s communication director, says, “There was nothing like it in the community. What developed was an honest representation of the area and the people.” Allowing residents to speak for themselves, to one another, and to the nation at large, telling the unique story of Appalachia, allowed residents and Appalshop to contest adverse perceptions of the region. Even though there are various individual views among Appalshop’s filmmakers, they all agree on 1 fundamental aspect of regional representation: It is critical for Appalachians to tell their own stories. This media space provides a window into regional conditions and into the hardships of living in this beautiful but challenging place. These films record Appalachia’s cultural legacy, offering participants room in which to participate actively in current issues affecting their communities.

The materials Appalshop artists have produced serve as benchmarks for those prone to study, idealize, and evaluate the area’s culture and history. Individuals within the local community or in the region or those who are connected regionally and nationally to other groups drive this work. Many reform initiatives developed to address a variety of Appalachia’s social problems such as labor issues, inferior educational systems, environmental destruction, and limited access to healthcare. These problems became subject matter for Appalshop documentaries.

Appalshop, and its cohort of artists, provided a view of the culture and community that drew a new generation to the area.

Initially, the filmmakers were not entirely aware of the impact of their work. Ideas developed as they became more experienced with the subject matter, and the influence of their work, and of Appalshop, unfolded slowly and in sometimes unpredictable ways. Appalshop, and its cohort of artists, provided a view of the culture and community that drew a new generation to the area. Its presence in the community acted as an entrepreneurial center for all types of media and assisted in the development of new shops, restaurants, bars, and other entertainment venues. Word spread about Whitesburg’s attracting visitors, new residents, and, ultimately, new businesses.

A View from the Present

Every manner and aspect of Appalshop’s programming serves the Appalachian community. A prioritized connection to the region is central to the organization, originating with hiring its staff. Appalshop is a major employer in the community, with over 30 employees, and everyone from local student interns to local on-air personalities is from and committed to the region. This specificity has resulted in a group of people who feel responsible for and invested in the success of the organization as well as in the future of eastern Kentucky and its residents. After all, it’s their future as well.

A View into the Future

Appalshop is in a unique position to act as a change agent for new ideas and to explore strategies for individuals and organizations striving to improve the region.

The creative output reflects the relationships developed between filmmakers and area stakeholders. These connections played a significant role in Appalshop’s development as a regional institution by solidifying its position in the local community.

Now Appalshop has come full circle, going back to its workforce development roots. In partnership with the Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, Appalshop is providing a certificate program in media production. For this inaugural class, a consortium of employers in Letcher County is committed to providing 20 new jobs in the region.

Going back to their original workforce development focus, in late 2015 Appalshop received a $200,000 Economic Development Administration grant and $75,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission for the Southeast Kentucky High Tech Workforce (SKHTW) Certificate Project. The SKHTW project “will develop a 1-year IT workforce certificate program targeted to communities affected by the reduction in coal employment.” The program in information technology and media production will be offered at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College campuses in Kentucky’s Letcher, Harlan, and Bell Counties and provide 30 county residents with educational experience using both classroom and hands-on instruction.

The project seeks to fill the technology and media skills gap identified by employers in the region, providing an educational framework, connecting graduates with local businesses looking to hire, matching graduates with entrepreneurs working to establish new businesses, and working with graduates to apply their new skills in starting their own businesses.

The SKHTW Certificate project is financed by a grant from the federal Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Plus initiative. POWER provides more than $55 million in funding for job training, job creation, economic diversification, and other efforts in communities that have experienced layoffs as a result of declines in the coal industry. Of this amount, $20 million is earmarked for coal miners or coal plant workers who have lost their jobs in recent years. The money will go toward job transitioning services and programs. Another $25 million is designated for the Appalachian Regional Commission, which works to improve economic opportunities in Appalachia.

Appalshop has evolved over nearly 5 decades from early programs, screenings, performances, and community involvement to providing educational classes in many focus areas, including photography, guitar, piano, clogging, and basket weaving. The program has since expanded to include cake decorating, darkroom, square dancing, banjo, sewing, calligraphy, drawing, and painting. This evolution brings us to the current approach centered on workforce development and job training in the region.

Appalshop looks at ways to shift the conversation, moving from a community supported by extractive resources to one supported by creative placemaking.

Through all of these programs, Appalshop connected with residents, providing influence for social change in residents’ hometown of Whitesburg. Appalshop looks at ways to shift the conversation, moving from a community supported by extractive resources to one supported by creative placemaking. May, Appalshop’s communication director, sums up the organization’s role in this new economy as a practice of allowing “the community to think outside the box and create a place for conversations on ways to develop the area’s potential and possibilities.” This line of thinking demonstrates a bond to the town, even as the organization stretches its presence from a regional institution to a national one. Appalshop’s role as a regional arts institution encourages local artists to realize their roles in preserving the Appalachian identity.

Sum and substance: Appalshop provides important tools for cultural self-representation and economic growth in eastern Kentucky.

Read more:

Eastern Kentucky is the focus of intensified state and federal attention to outmigration and high unemployment rates resulting from the depletion of coal reserves and from the lack of economic diversity. For more details on population trends in the region, stay tuned for the conclusion of Forefront’s 4-part series examining eastern Kentucky’s transition away from a coal-centric economy.

For further information about Appalshop, visit its website at https://www.appalshop.org.

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