Kentucky Communities Unlock their Cultural Wealth to Lead the Way Forward

By Abbie Langston and Lorrie Chang

Letcher County, Kentucky is at the very heart of Appalachia, a region as rich in history and culture as in natural resources. Over the last 10 years, the county has lost more than 90 percent of coal jobs that had sustained its economy. About 98 percent of residents are White and 80 percent voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

At first glance, this rural area might seem to have little in common with diverse urban centers like Detroit and Pittsburgh. But the challenge of advancing a just economic transition in coal country is not dissimilar  with the challenge of building an equitable economy in metropolitan regions once dominated by steel, automotive, or other manufacturing sectors.

Like these cities and other “company towns,” Eastern Kentucky citizens once drew their lifeblood from a single industry, and now face the challenge of charting a new economy. One resident likened coal’s hold to addiction. The coal companies proclaimed, “you mine the coal and we’ll take care of you,” she explained. When coal collapsed, this dependency left communities in fear and desperation. So it’s no surprise that many residents have welcomed the prospect of a proposed federal prison as another economic anchor to fill the void.

But across the political spectrum, a consensus is building that Letcher County’s future cannot depend solely on one company or industry. A group of community-led organizations have formed the Letcher County Culture Hub, a network designed to foster and develop residents’s agency and assets, and build on the strength of its own rich cultural wealth. Today the growing list of partners include volunteer fire departments, businesses, community centers, and artist and cultural organizations collaborating with elected officials and other local, regional, and national organizations. Partners bring together resources and work in consensus to pursue common goals including reviving cultural events like the region’s bluegrass festival, founding new social enterprises including one that employs formerly incarcerated people, and expanding opportunity such as broadband Internet.

The Letcher County Culture Hub is also a part of the Arts, Culture, Equitable Development Initiative, generously supported by The Kresge Foundation, for PolicyLink to expand the impact of six community based organizations across the US in equitable development and policy change through arts and culture. Read more…