The Significance of ‘Place’ as Identity to Social Change in Appalachia
In Transforming Places: Lessons from Appalachia, Fisher and Smith’s perspective of the concept of ‘place’ is that which we call home, specifically, the mountain landscape of Appalachia is symbolic of this home. Appalachians have an emotional relationship attached to the memories of the mountains that evokes a sense of protection of the place. Appalachian’s ties to the mountains then becomes a place-based political mobilization in the form of social justice organization to defend the home. Because of the inequalities and historical exploitation faced by Appalachians, political mobilization is especially significant. This paper dives into the concept of ‘place’ and its usefulness to understanding how it helps to understand the political significance of place, ‘scaling up’, and looking towards the future of grassroots organizing in Appalachia to resist forms of oppression and domination, including the ‘hegemony of growth’ (Fisher & Smith, 2012.)
Moreover, understanding the “place” helps to understand its political significance and potential. As we say the personal is political, the same applies to the concept of place, where the place is personal, thus the place is political. The concept of place is internalized to be a source of identity (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) This means people are concerned about social issues that are personal to them in their ‘place’ (home.) The implications of ‘place’ and place-based organizations means that it is limited to that area, and aims to help those in that one region, which is at risk of being exclusionary to others (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) One region’s social issues may not be the same as other regions, then solutions should not be the same. Additionally, we need the historical context and narratives of place to understand the region, how the social issues developed over time, and the social issues can be linked to the historical exploitation of the land and people.
Much of the examples in Transforming Places see the political significance and potential of place-based organizations. In Appalachian Elegy, bell hooks says “the passion for freedom and the wildness I had experienced as a child with anarchy, with the belief in the power of the individual to be self-determining” (p. 67-68.) This is an example of how our interconnectedness with the wild of the Appalachian Mountains fuels our own political significance and potential. Again, she is quoted “Living my early childhood in the isolated hills of Kentucky, I made a place for myself in nature there— roaming the hills” (p. 110-111.) This exemplifies the narratives in Transforming Places: Lessons from Appalachia. For example, the RAIL Solution, made up people with a collective attachment to the shared place, worked to end the corporate giant that was the privatization of I-81. “The political potential of this fundamental tension between public claims to and private appropriations of place raises tough, unanswered questions for organized labor in the United States” (p. 276.) The potential and political significance of a place-based organization then turns oppression and domination into ‘political solidarity’ (Fisher & Smith, 2012, p. 281.)
The organizations discussed in Transforming Places, had common goals to preserve their home, identity, environment, and community from environmental degradation and resist the imperialist capitalist patriarchal system. Another example of political significance and potential was the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA.) The efforts of OREPA was to call attention to the Uranium Processing Facility at Y12 in Oak Ridge (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) OREPA took the position that nuclear weapons production is bad for the environment, and because bombs made in America are intended to kill countries of black and brown people, the root of the issue is imperialist white supremacy. This further initiated the Stop the Bombs campaign. Despite an unfinished goal of halting the production of nuclear weapons, OREPA has placed pressure on state and federal regulators to prevent environmental destruction, and the organization grew, encompassing diverse groups of people to address violence as a production—including many religious groups.
Additionally, the Listening Project exemplified the political significance and potential by including part of their history into storytelling. Similarly, the mention of self-awareness and embracing the Appalachian identity of the Women’s Wellness Group in Chapter four, was a way of addressing local issues that are central to understanding our specific history. This ties into the arts project mentioned in chapter six, because of the ways they are linking their stories to the Appalachian heritage, and connecting how the economic, political, and environmental climate of our region has shaped our values and addresses our specific needs. Likewise, chapter five addressed issues that are specific to the Appalachian region through media projects like AMI (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) The narratives of the people of the region help facilitate change and intervention, like a video made by the interns at AMI on domestic violence in the region, is still used for prevention efforts by regional health organizations. Appalachian Women’s Alliance allied more than two hundred women to facilitate change, where the Appalachian Women’s Caravan voiced their message about violence against women through the mountains in 1999 (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) These efforts made by diverse groups of unified women were to dismantle stereotypes and vocally call attention to a silent issue among all women. The political significance of this is that Appalachia has crisis centers, shelters, therapy centers, and other organizations to help others. When one person tells their story and when we begin to hear the narratives of others, the struggle bonds us to work to end the hate, discrimination, violence, and inequality. The stories we hear facilitate empathy, in turn the work of the women has fostered organizations in Appalachia to alleviate fear and suffering of abuse survivors.
‘Place’ matters in understanding the history of exploitation to suggest strategies and prospects to the specific social issues of that region. Although there are spatial and racial differences of specific places, globalization and neoliberalism generate similarities of many different regions (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) As mentioned, there should not be one solution across different regions for specific social issues but place-based strategies and solutions also address the issues and needed solutions across the globe. Place-based organizations reach outside the region—like Occupy Wall Street, Standing Up for Standing Rock, and Black Lives Matter (not mentioned in the book)—linking people nationally and globally due to the global access to the Internet. Subsequently, place-based strategies and prospects for the future should be shared globally. Organizations and grassroots movements may be place-based in the sense of addressing different struggles, but the goal of the global population should be similar.
For instance, the goal across the globe should be social and environmental justice. When there is an attachment to the place called home, it must be viewed in a way of preserving its integrity rather than deconstructing it for the sole purpose of job creation. For example, coal mining jobs are symbolic to Appalachians in their region; thus, it feels threatening when outsiders suggest creating green jobs to replace them (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) However, the goal of the transition work globally and at the local level should aim to create a working world that functions to preserve the environment and make a safe and healthy world for the life within the environment. There is a romanticism attached to the memories of the past (Fisher & Smith, 2012), but this is not an invitation to recreate the past in ways that continue to exploit land, oppress poor people and people of color. Instead we need to focus on the potential future of Appalachia as a place with a self-sustainable food system, locally-based economy, environmentally-conscious companies, and a place of social justice, liberation, revolution, and equity.
Some stories of additional organizations have been discussed from the book, but one single story featured in Transforming Places was meaningful to my own understanding and attachment to the ‘place.’ From my perspective, the organization that stood out the most was the Community Farm Alliance (CFA.) Chapter 14 discussed a Kentucky-based issue, where the CFA aimed to ease the transition farmers from tobacco growing towards a local food growing system and distribution in a low-income region among small-scale farmers (known as Locally Integrated Food Economy.) There was a coherent alternative proposed by the CFA when they opposed biotechnology spending and cuts towards tobacco farmers. This is unique to “Appalachianess” because tobacco was Kentucky’s ‘number one cash crop’ and Kentucky ‘had one of the highest numbers of family farms in the country in 1997’, and ‘a unique kind of agrarianism’ in Kentucky (p. 210). This is also a reflection on my family’s experience growing tobacco for many years. In the late ‘90s, it was clear that there was a shift in the consumerism market of tobacco, and it was also clear that small-scale farmers would likely quit growing altogether. When my family quit growing tobacco, they grew large scale gardens for the family instead. I admired that, and something in me is still attached to that relationship with the land they grew tobacco on, and I have a relationship with growing food because it feels ‘part of me.’
Furthermore, globalization and neoliberalism produce in specific regions eroding communities and local solidarity; thus, Appalachian citizens are reinventing themselves to resist the globalization and neoliberal tendencies. The example of the place-based organization of the CFA exemplified the ways in which Appalachian citizens are reinventing themselves and resisting the globalization and neoliberalism. For example, the tobacco farmers reinvented themselves as food producers. The farmers then advocated for a local food distribution system in urban markets and African American neighborhoods that suffered from grocery gaps (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) The CFA “organizers had spent fifteen years developing leadership skills and county-based chapters among its farmer-members across rural Kentucky” (p. 274.) Many groups experienced the same long-term efforts, such as OREPA which is still active today based on their website orepa.org. Long term organizations must scale up their members and outreach for their voices to be heard and to facilitate change. From here, ‘scaling up’ is discussed as an important political step for organizations.
Place-based organizations that focus on one issue makes it easier to focus on one solution; and from the examples in the book—it is hard for groups to focus on the many global problems and their solutions. At the same time, long term organizations are successful when they address other issues later (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) But, this is where scaling up is beneficial to expand on the local issues by recognizing wider social forces that effect people on a global scale. Scaling up can reach more people and influence greater change outside of the place-based organization. Scaling up was discussed throughout the book on how this often meant a need for more staff/membership, resources, and building more relationships and links with other coalitions, organizations, and community groups. Although scaling up in terms of outreach meant that reaching a larger audience will help build and bond a community. What was helpful about CFA is that the organization encouraged tobacco settlement funds to go towards these small-scale farmers that would be the most vulnerable (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) In this case, the idea of scaling up was to bridge the divide, have a dialogue between foodie groups, policy makers, businesses, and churches.
As mentioned, ‘scaling up’ is an important step in the process of economically diversifying and democratizing the region and communities (especially in coal-impacted communities.) Often there is an acknowledgement of capitalism, but little awareness of alternatives to the white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. From this acknowledgement, however, the first step is to begin resistance and facilitate change through the theoretical framework of an anti-racist, anti-capitalist feminism. Secondly, there is a need to bridge the divide and find common ground, solidarity, and empowerment in struggles, goals, and across love and acceptance. Third, there is a need to “take up space”—as some feminists refer to as organizing public space within face-to-face meetings to discuss regional issues and their solutions. Empathy is formed in conversations and narratives of others that have different struggles, and thus people outside of their social circle becomes moved to speak and act on behalf of the justice of others (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) Another step to democratize and diversify the region is by acknowledging the problem, and put a name to it (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) For instance, migrant workers in Cincinnati claimed their problem to be discrimination, which helped them facilitate the process of change (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) The next step is to create an alternative to the currently opposed system.
Similarly, the CFA created their own values-based alternative plan (Fisher & Smith, 2012.) Secondly, the CFA utilized diversity and democratized their group by incorporating the knowledge of citizens and farmer’s knowledge in their policy tools (like coal, timber, etc.) This insight evokes the same inclusiveness to all policy matters (not just farming.) And the CFA was inclusive for people of color, which is important because persons of color are often hurt the most by spending cuts. It is clear in all policies developed, we need the knowledgeable voices of people that is going to be affected by certain policies. As previously mentioned, this is a participatory democratic strategy.
Additionally, because there is a shift from growing tobacco considering the plethora of knowledge on smoking tobacco—this also gives us insight that we need to have alternatives to other shifting markets. But even when there is reason to shift the market, this shift does not hurt the CEO, managers, and shareholders as much as the workers that lose a whole paycheck with no alternative. For instance, coal is a declining industry—especially considering there are cheaper alternatives, but the environmental movements are calling for solar and wind as power/energy alternatives. This is where we could use the CFA’s model to shift the industry of coal mining jobs towards energy efficient/sustainable technology jobs (for the same people, families, and communities) and timber logging towards bamboo/hemp harvesting to replace wood products for those that relied on timber jobs.
Consequently, groups that want minimal government intervention and regulation, do not want individuals to have their own agency. These same groups give corporations agency to abuse their power to exploit the environment and people. So, the role of the government should be one that gives agency to the individual, while restricting and regulating corporations to prevent those environmental and social injustices. This is where grassroots groups play a role in addressing the injustices to demand certain needs by working with the government. One would think that government always has people’s interest in mind; but if everyone in government is part of the status quo (white wealthy men), then this group doesn’t understand groups outside of their selves. When everyone has a voice that is taken into consideration and valued equally, then that is an actual participatory democracy.
Grassroots movements—although small and led by marginalized people—create large conversations that shift the consciousness. It is important to have both government and grassroots solutions. Governments inadvertently rely on these movements to educate them—even when these advocates are not necessarily experts or professionals. Because advocates have little power comparatively, it takes large groups with access to a platform to have their voices and narratives heard. The government can be part and in par with citizen groups and grassroots movements. In fact, much legislation was influenced from these movements. In this world, government holds so much power, that it sometimes creates the struggle, oppression, and friction that it claims to reduce and prevent. We are a product of the government power and control, but we need both and one another despite that. To properly assess the government’s role, one must ask: Who is the government working for? Are they going to continue to uphold the status quo and perpetuate domination, or dismantle it? Fisher and Smith calls the global domination: The Empire, which distorts our knowledge of the world, people, science, and academia, while preventing us from discovering interconnectedness with others in addition to preventing us from uprising together. In other words, the Empire keeps us divided, separate and unequal.
Collectively, grassroots groups can unify in their struggle and strategies for a solution. Although much of this paper has somewhat romanticized place-based organizations, Fisher and Smith suggest that “people need principled reasons, more than place-based reasons, to form such alliances” (p. 56.) The authors also suggest facilitating change around values-based principles rather than focusing on the identity of the place. The white supremacist capitalist patriarchy forms a matrix of domination across race, class, and gender. Thus, spatial, racial, and relational differences may prompt place-based organizations to focus on their regions unique struggles, this is undercutting the larger system at play that affects every aspect of people’s lives. In other words, mass incarceration, unemployment, poverty, hunger, war, violence, drug addiction, environmental degradation all stem from this system of global domination. Once we put a name to the problems of domination at play, we can name the alternative solution to dismantle domination.
hooks, bell. Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place (Kentucky Voices) (Kindle Locations 67-68). The University Press of Kentucky. Kindle Edition.
Fisher, Stephen L. and Smith, Barbara Ellen. (2012). Transforming Places: Lessons from Appalachia. University of Illinois Press.
The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance. (2016). orepa.org.