Going Home to Rediscover Appalachia
Jones, Diana Nelson, Nieman Reports
A reporter tells the story of poverty by looking through a different lens.
As a general assignment feature writer, I have the good fortune of being tapped for a variety of assignments. Last year, at my editor's urging, I began seeking out potential story ideas with our newspaper's national editor, Greg Victor, whose only staff writers are based in Washington, D.C.. During one of our impromptu meetings, Greg showed me a wire service article about a new litter-control program in Kentucky. The dumping of old chairs, rusty ovens, broken push mowers, washing machines and other household appliances over hillsides into hollows remains a serious cultural obstacle to progress throughout Appalachia. This news item prompted Greg to think this might be a good time for an in-depth look at what is happening in Appalachia nearly 40 years after the nation's War on Poverty riveted the public eye to this region.
Greg asked if I would be interested in trying to explore this question, and of course I was.
As the daughter of a West Virginia family from Shinnston, in the northcentral part of the state, I saw the assignment as a way to learn more about the region that shaped me without claiming me. I have always had a back-and-forth attitude toward "home," believing it is too easily stereotyped and widely scorned while what I know about it is really different. Its negative portrayals are all too negative, and what is positive about the region remains all but unknown outside its borders.
Appalachia is a huge region that can nevertheless be plucked almost at random for microcosms of its sameness--rural living that is almost quaint, oddly genteel, modest, unwittingly plain and innocent, in fact, the very opposite of the image of the United States in general. I asked photographer Steve Mellon to team up with me. (See Mellon's story on page 33.) He has roots in eastern Kentucky and is known in the newsroom for his depth of thought and sensitivity. My first and overriding goal was to avoid the predictable images of poverty and attitudes of glib superiority that prevailed in nearly every article I'd read about the region.
For the first three weeks I researched old articles, government reports, and documents. I read books about coal miners, grassroots activists, and first-person accounts of community projects during the War on Poverty's earlyyears. I called old colleagues in Huntington, West Virginia, where I worked on my first newspaper, for ideas. I did preliminary phone interviews with people who are now active in developing efforts and initiatives to reinvent the economies of entire towns in anticipation of coal's decline. Some people remembered President Lyndon Johnson's visit to Inez, Kentucky and the sudden spotlight on poverty in 1964. Throughout the project, I got invaluable help with statistics and historical perspective from Mike Kiernan of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
By the time I set out to report the story, I had decided to focus on central Appalachia, the area that I think of as the region's "gut"--specifically, southwestern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Appalachia extends to western Pennsylvania, home of two of the most distressed counties in the region, and I knew my focus might seem like a slight to local readers. But it is in this gut of Appalachia where poverty is thickest. In this area, one can drive an hour or two in many directions and reach more counties where poverty is the way of life than anywhere else in the region. I figured that if we could examine how the region has changed here, we'd be describing substantial, and perhaps the most indicative, changes in the region.
When my friends found out I was going to Inez and Hazard, Kentucky, some of them twang-sang the first few bars of the theme from the movie "Deliverance." I have stopped taking people's potshots at Appalachia and the poor people who live there personally, but I have realized that my people are the last ones in this country who can be made fun of without incident. …