Kentuckians for the Commonwealth

Creative Engagement and a Moral Economy in Appalachia
By Caron Atlas

Stories build connections between people, provide ways to share knowledge, strengthen civic networks, provide the tools to rebuild communities, and provide the infrastructure, the social capital, which is essential in democratic community-based development. -- Helen Methews Lewis                                     

I moved to Eastern Kentucky from New York City in 1986 to work at the Appalachian cultural center. I intended to visit for a year and I stayed a decade. I credit that time in Appalachia for shaping my values, strengthening my analysis, and deepening my grounding in culture and grassroots social justice. Having not been back for several years, I eagerly attended the Network of Ensemble Theater’s MicroFest in Harlan County KY and Knoxville Tennessee to re-immerse myself in the region. I brought with me what I had learned from the region as well as questions that remained with me from the time that I lived there.

I learned in Appalachia what it looks like when culture, place, identity, and community come together in the struggle for social justice. I witnessed how mountaintop removal causes great pain, and experienced music as an integral part of organizing. I became aware of the long record of misrepresentation of Appalachian people and their history by the media and how this misrepresentation has been used to justify the exploitation of the region’s resources. I also experienced community resistance, activist scholarship, and youth leadership that continue to inspire me. I learned how public funding could be re-imagined from paternalistic government poverty programs to creation and citizen action, how to be part of an ensemble, and that some of the best art happens outside of New York.

After I left the mountains, I still wanted to know what happens when the coal runs out, and what are the alternatives to an extractive economy. I questioned how self-determined stories, songs, and images from the mountains might capture the country’s imagination to the same degree as television stereotypes and appropriated music. I continued to ask what it would take to shift historical power relationships that have reinforced status quo linkages between politics, economics, culture, and poverty. How can rural Appalachians join with people of color in urban communities (both within Appalachia and beyond) to further their shared political and economic interests while addressing systemic racial inequities?

From the play Higher Ground, photo by Michael Premo

My subsequent work with the Arts & Democracy Project and the Naturally Occurring Cultural District Working Group in New York City added some questions about art, culture, activism and policymaking:
What is the relationship between citizen action and policy change?  Are there times when it is better to work within the system and others when it is better to be independent from it? How do these questions relate to artists participating in policymaking?  How do imaginative ideas and creative methodologies extend conventional modes of civic participation and reframe assumptions about leadership and economy? Are there trade offs between making creative leaps and making systemic change? How can the two be integrated so that each stretches the other towards positive change?

This is the introduction to a longer essay “Creative Engagement and a Moral Economy in Appalachia,” commissioned by the Network of Ensemble Theaters for MicroFest USA in partnership with Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts.

To read the full essay click here