Relying on Ourselves
The Spirit of Rural Community Development
By Nelda K. Pearson
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Here in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia everyone knows the saying, You can tell when times are hard. The gardens get bigger. Although dependence on home-grown food is not as common as it was even a decade ago, anyone who lives here can see other clear signs of economic distress by what people are selling: firewood from pickup trucks in shopping center parking lots; boats, campers, and motor homes in driveways with for-sale signs; and finally, cars and trucks marked for sale. First the luxury items go up for sale, then the necessities.
In rural and small-town America, community development means something different than in urban settings. Urban community development corporations primarily work to revitalize small, physically decaying neighborhoods with bricks, mortar, and finance. They focus on fixing infrastructure, developing affordable housing, and lending to small businesses. When they focus on people, its often to give them specific training for jobs that exist, if not in their neighborhoods, then somewhere in their metropolitan region.
These approaches are not so useful here in the mountains. Rural areas are not just physically dispersed and isolated; they also have had different patterns of economic development. Central Appalachia is representative: It has experienced waves of development from outside that industrialized without urbanizing and didnt create an indigenous middle class of small business entrepreneurs. The economy focused on exploiting natural resources, from timber to coal to textiles and back to coal. Profits flowed out of the mountains.
In the global economy, many rural communities have shrunk from economic centers to mere ghosts of their former selves. Places like Dungannon and Ivanhoe, Virginia, were once thriving centers for commerce, education, and entertainment; now they are bedroom communities for people with long commutes. First the main employer National Carbide and New Jersey Zinc in Ivanhoe, the rail yard in Dungannon closes. Then local businesses start to fail. The branch bank closes. Eventually, schools get consolidated and children are bused across the county. Finally, the churches close or only have a preacher once a month. Folks compete with each other for the few scarce jobs, not just in the community, but in the region.
Even large immobile employers can be a mixed blessing. Universities are often employment centers for a rural region, but they also create a strikingly two-tiered economy. Most jobs offered to indigenous folks are low-paying, even when they require many skills, like the wide array of computer programs secretaries must know. At the same time, universities attract a wealth of educated and skilled outlanders who flood local entrepreneurial efforts. In the New River Valley in southwestern Virginia, where I work, the New River Valley Competitiveness Center and the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center have been creating local high-end jobs but those jobs are dominated by faculty, family of faculty, and graduate students from Virginia Tech and Radford University. Even for low-skilled contingency work, local people compete with over 36,000 students.
The traditional responses from county planners and economic development experts to these problems are to seek new large employers or provide skills training to displaced workers. Neither of these approaches will be successful in the long term.
Bringing in new corporate giants repeats the cycle of outside control, with ever lower-paying and less stable jobs. Corporations coming to the mountains are looking for the same things they look for in less-developed countries: low- or no-cost land and buildings; infrastructure provided by local government; low taxes or tax rebates; few if any health, safety, or environmental constraints; non-union workers with few employment options; and governments willing to provide the above. Existing power structures in rural areas are often more vested in selling the area to corporations than in protecting the interests of low-end workers.
Retraining or advanced degrees wont help either, if the only jobs available are low-wage retail positions in malls and fast-food restaurants. As one mountain song says, Ive been trained as a heavy equipment operator. Now Im waiting for the heavy equipment. Over 15 years ago, AT&T left Pulaski County, Virginia, for the maquiladoras of Mexico. Nearly 2000 local workers were thrown out of work. AT&T relocated 18 of its managers, buying their quarter- to half-million dollar homes. The other workers got an educational package. Many got degrees, but 15 years later most are still working low-end service jobs. The land around the AT&T place has been turned into a golf course. You dont need an advanced degree to ride a mower. They couldnt leave for jobs in the city: with economic prospects what they were, no one would buy their homes.
Poorly funded local entrepreneurial efforts that dont address larger power dynamics are not likely to succeed either. In Radford, Pulaski, and Christianburg, Virginia, the main streets are lined with empty storefronts, while local consumers flock to ever-expanding regional supercenters. In Dungannon, two attempts at a community-run sewing factory failed after management challenges and tougher than expected competition from multinationals. Helen Lewis, a long-time community development worker in Central Appalachia, calls this the steel ceiling of rural community development. Existing economic opportunities are oppressive, but indigenous entrepreneurs dont have the capacity to compete with them.
In the face of such conditions, community development in Central Appalachia has come to mean indigenous control, first and foremost. It means neighbors working with neighbors to solve community problems as defined by the community, identifying local resources, and working toward self-sufficiency. There are three parts to this work: 1) identifying and nurturing new leaders, most often women who are not part of either the existing governing structure or the more covert power structure of the better families, and who are often the heart of a broader community, and can authentically speak for a wider spectrum of people; 2) getting the community to identify its problems as community concerns, not individual problems; and 3) helping communities recognize their capacity to analyze and solve their own problems, to move from passive residents to active citizens.
One of the most potent forces for bringing a community together is sharing stories with each other. Rural community development often places a high priority both on formal storytelling such as oral history and community mapping projects and on cultural activities that provide the space for informal storytelling, brainstorming, and reinforcing shared identities.
After Ivanhoes oral history project, Waller refocused the efforts of the Civic League on quality-of-life issues. The League developed an alternative break program for college students who come to Ivanhoe during their spring or summer break and contribute to community projects. The students also learn about community development and life in rural Appalachia through economic, cultural, and historical programs. Along the way, not only has Waller been growing as a leader, but many other community members have become organizers in their own right. There has been no economic miracle in Ivanhoe, but it does have a vital community life.
Beans and Rice is attempting to address this by working with the youth. We recognize that we may simply need to be with the adults, through programs like our weekly communal meal, which are important for establishing the trust of the community. But we believe we can actually shift the lives of the youth, encouraging them to be social and economic entrepreneurs, leaders who think of the good of their community as essential.
Nelda K. Pearson is executive director of Beans and Rice CDC and professor of sociology at Radford University.
Appleby, Monica and Helen Lewis. Changing Habits: Women and Work in Appalachia. Kentucky University Press, forthcoming.
Belenky, Mary Field. The Tradition That Has No Name. Basic Books, 1997.
Daley [Pearson], Nelda Knelson and Sue Ella Kobak. The Paradox of the Familiar Outsider, Appalachian Journal, Spring 1990, pp. 248-260.
Hinsdale, Mary Ann, Helen Lewis, and Maxine Waller. It Comes from the People. Temple University Press, 1995.
Lewis, Helen and John Gaventa. Participatory Education and Grassroots Development: Current Experiences in Appalachia, USA. Working Paper #13. Highlander Research and Education Center, 1959 Highlander Way, New Market, TN 37820.
Pearson, Nelda K. Empowerment and Disempowerment of Women in Central Appalachia, USA, Democratization and Womens Grassroots Movements Worldwide, edited by Jill Bystydzienski and Joti Sekhon, pp. 328-351. Indiana University Press, 1999.
"You Got to Move," First Run Films, directed by Lucie Massie Phenix and Veronica Silver. 1985.
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