Politics and Appalachia

This piece is meant to be a reflection on my own experience living in coal country this summer. I wanted to share some thoughts on how this experience has impacted my life since leaving the beautiful mountains of West Virginia. I will warn you, some of this content might make you uncomfortable, and I want to check my privilege, here. This summer was a period of growth for me, but I know that I am blessed to be a white, straight, cis women with a lot of support and love behind me, and had I been in a different situation, some parts of the summer would have been much more challenging, threatening even. But this is my story, and these are my experiences as a young woman working in Appalachia for the first time.

I’m from Northeast Ohio, and, although I grew up in a pretty conservative, affluent, homogeneous town, I never really felt stifled. My parents supported my love for science and math, and they really encouraged me to explore my ideas and my passions. Although there was an obvious opinion about politics and government within the community, my parents encouraged me and my siblings to critically analyze everything, and they allowed us to come to our own conclusions, regardless of whether or not they aligned with their own beliefs. And, despite the conservative themes that ran through our town, girls were still encouraged to do well in school and set their dreams high for the future. It was because of the support of my family, friends, and community that I was able to excel in high school and get into my dream college.

When I began my freshman year of college, I was excited to be around people who shared similar beliefs to my own. I felt encouraged to speak up about issues, and I began to take pride as a woman in STEM. My beliefs were based on the idea that I wanted to show love to everyone—I wanted everyone to have the same opportunities that I had been given growing up. And, I assumed that was why people chose to be liberal minded—because they cared. I then assumed that conservatives must not care at all; from what I had found back home, conservatives were rich and they were selfish.

The summer following my freshman year, I worked with an organization called Appalachia Service Project (ASP). They are a home repair non-profit ministry that does incredible work throughout central Appalachia. I had volunteered with ASP, doing construction throughout high school, but being on staff meant that I was now in a role of leadership. Not only would I be one member of a four-person staff that was in charge of managing the projects for an entire county. But, I also became a leader for my eighty-plus volunteers, an active member of the community, a support system and friend to my homeowners, and a trusted source of knowledge to everyone I encountered. Whoa.

Early on, I learned that it was easiest, both when interacting with community members and with volunteers, to avoid politics like the plague. We were in the midst of a crazy election cycle, and somehow this girl from an incredibly left-leaning school ended up in the middle of Trump country. And, with each new group of volunteers came all sorts of political ideologies that were often heightened by the very obvious leanings of the community. When driving to homes that we were working on, we used various homemade Trump signs as landmarks. A large “Hillary for Prison” poster hung outside a coal miners’ union, and the phrase “make America great again” was heard on a regular basis.

At first, it was startling. I felt scared; to see community members so blatantly supporting Trump felt like a smack in the face. It seemed to shout “you’re just a woman.” And, I felt those effects instantly. As we were searching for homes to do work on, people were surprised that our staff was comprised of three women and only one man. How could these small, feeble young women be doing this type of grueling manual labor? I was asked by people if, in exchange for their hospitality, I would make them dinner. I was told to be careful around the local boys because they could be trouble. I was reminded time and time again that as a woman, I was less capable and more susceptible to danger.

Although I chose not to directly attack any political beliefs with my words, I made sure that my actions spoke for me. I carried lumber and materials without asking for help (although sometimes I had to because I’m pretty small). I went on runs to various worksites alone. I walked outside the center when it was dark. I made sure to remind everyone around me that I was an adult woman and I could do anything that needed to be done. And this surprised a lot of people. Volunteers and homeowners didn’t expect me to be as knowledgeable as I was. They were surprised when I chose to crawl under a house or to get dirty, and after a while, I was given a newfound respect for it.

For all of the headway that I felt I had made, though, the community’s politics remained the same, and there was little that I could do to change that. Although I was there proving that women could be competent with construction, gender roles still existed, as did poverty.

Appalachia used to be blue. In fact, West Virginia only voted for two Republican presidential candidates between 1960 and 2000. But, once Democrats began attacking coal, the area’s main job source, Appalachians turned to the GOP, who supported business as well as fewer regulations. Democrats, for all that they were trying to do to help the poor, were taking away the jobs of the Appalachian people without offering any sort of replacement. Although government programs were encouraged to aid people in poverty, the aid felt useless when people were figuratively unable to get back on their feet because there were no jobs to be found. It wasn’t until this realization clicked with me that I understood. I struggled all summer with how these people that I had come to love so dearly could support a man who was openly prejudiced towards me and others that I cared about. But, I realized that it wasn’t that they didn’t support me. They loved me too, but they had been put in a position where their basic needs were barely being met. And, how can one even begin to look towards the good of others who are states away when you and your neighbors can barely put food on the table, and you’ve been out of work for years, looking ceaselessly for jobs with no luck. White privilege made no sense in that context because almost everyone they encountered was white and struggling just as much as they were.

This is not to say that white privilege doesn’t exist, because in the majority of the country it does, and it is an issue that needs to be addressed. Many of the social and economic issues that the Democratic party fights for still need to be fought for, and I believe that there is much work to yet to be done. But, for all of the groups that the party advocates for, somehow the Appalachian people got lost in the mix. They’re white, but they see no privilege, they’re living in poverty, but the government doesn’t seem to be helping. They aren’t bad people. They aren’t mean people. And they surely aren’t hateful people. In fact, the families of Appalachia are some of the most loving people that I have ever met. Throughout the summer, I was treated as though I was a part of the family. I was offered a drink when I was thirsty, a meal when I was hungry, a place to rest when I was tired, and all of the help and support that I could have ever asked for.

So, what’s the takeaway? My experience with Appalachia changed the way that I look at the world. No longer can I see things as black and white as I once did. Not all Democrats are good and not all Republicans are bad, and more importantly than that, there are SO many different types of Democrats and Republicans. And, we all have specific reasons for leaning one way or the other, none of which can be described by just one word. Before, I spent too much time associating a person with their political viewpoint. They became the candidate that they supported. But, I can no longer hold that point of view. We can’t continue to judge others based on who they vote for because if we do, we keep ourselves from seeing the whole person. I went to Appalachia to build houses. I went to Appalachia to help people, but, as cliché as it sounds, they helped me in more ways that I could have imagined.

 

Image Credits: Feature, 1, 2, Jenna Bouquot