It took leaving, experimenting, and participating in a effort to rescue his native region to bring a son of Appalachia back, determined to change minds and mountaintops.
“Growing up as a teenager here, like most other teenagers in my peer group, I thought this was the middle of nowhere,” said Nathan Hall of Allen, Kentucky. Hall considered his tiny hometown in Floyd County, “Just a place to get out of.”
And as soon as he turned 18, Hall moved to Wisconsin. His choice to leave fits a pattern typical of many promising rural youth. Unlike most, though, Hall felt a growing need to re-connect with his home region. After years away, he has returned and is now committed to working on one of Appalachia’s most intractable problems – the reclamation of strip-mined land. This summer, with a fellowship to travel, Hall will visit other areas long dependent on one industry; looking at efforts in rural regions like his own, he hopes to discover ways to turn his entrepreneurial dreams for successful biofuels and forestry into downhome realities.
The “Brain Drain” is a growing concern for communities struggling to rise from poverty. Many small towns in Appalachia and beyond are losing their youth to urban centers because there seem so few local opportunities for economic growth, so little hope. According to Patrick J. Carr and Maria Kefalas, authors of Hollowing Out the Middle, many rural high schools unintentionally have contributed to this problem, and Hall’s experience supports their findings.
Carr and Kefalas learned that rural communities often focus on pushing the “achievers,” those who do well in school and have the best prospects, to leave town for college. The problem, they learned, was that young people who have the most potential to change and refresh their communities rarely come back. The students who weren’t so encouraged or pushed so far remain. Left adrift in school, they end up rushing into low-skilled work and manufacturing jobs, if there are any still left in these fading economies.
Although the authors researched primarily rural Iowa, the same dilemmas face rural towns across much of the country, but with new approaches, small towns may be able to refocus their energies – to reverse the loss of their educated and most innovative students and equalize the education opportunities for all their students.
For Hall, it took moving to Wisconsin and then Louisville, Kentucky; it took starting a recording studio in his house and a community garden on an abandoned lot in his predominantly African-American neighborhood; it took establishing an independent community center there and a free community bike swap program before he realized he needed to get back in touch with his roots in Eastern Kentucky. Hall had an entrepreneurial mind but no intention of applying it in his home region until he ran into others, outsiders to Appalachia, who were working with Mountain Justice Summer camp and trying to stop mountain top removal mining. This work awakened Hall’s desire to return to the mountains.
During the three years he lived in Louisville, Hall says now, “It never felt like home, it never felt right.” Working with the Mountain Justice Summer group “crystallized my intentions and my approach to the work I would do,” he says. “Through my time in Louisville and with Mountain Justice Summer I had a 180˚ on my perspective on this region. This part of the country and the world needs positive work more than just about anywhere.”
Hall discovered that he was “almost the only young person from the coal fields” involved with Mountain Justice Summer. “For positive change to happen around here it needs to be by, for, of the people around here — especially the young people,” Hall has decided. “Even today there is a lack of motivation because there is a lack of hope.”
As Carr and Kefalas found, the students who don’t leave small towns for college are generally desperate to find any jobs they can because the one-dimensional economies in so much of rural America are shrinking. Often they end up taking low-skilled jobs that depend on the production of one core resource or center around one industry. In Eastern Kentucky that resource is coal.
When the majority of the people left in rural towns haven’t had exposure to different economies or businesses, it is difficult to convince them of the benefits – or even the possibility — of diversification and new economic development, Hall says. Without opportunities or role models to follow, young people leave for urban areas where there is a more diverse job market if they can, or they accept their place in the town’s major industry.
When Hall finally came home he planned to work in the mines for three or four years until he could learn more about the coal industry and earn enough money to start his own small business. But his family’s concern about his working in underground mines pushed him to apply to Berea College.
He left the mines after several months to go to school. At Berea, Hall made his own major in sustainable industrial and agricultural management. In his last year at Berea, Hall focused on his ideas for repurposing strip-mined lands. After graduating in 2009, he came home and designed and built a biodiesel oil converter, a machine that turns cooking oil into fuel that can be used for tractors or other equipment that runs on diesel. Hall’s design is mobile because he wants to be able to use it for educational purposes in Kentucky; he hopes to bring the converter to small towns and show it to school students while converting the local cooking oil to biodiesel.
For the rest of this summer and the following year Hall is traveling around the world with the financial support of the Watson Fellowship, visiting areas, like Floyd County, that have relied on a single industry as well as communities that are working on land-recovery efforts. His travels will take him to Wales, Spain, Germany, Austria, India, China, Turkey, and Romania.
Hall hopes that after his travels he will be better able to implement his own, innovative approach to mine-land recovery. He’s developed an extensive agro-forestry plan for lands that are no longer being used for mining. He wants to remove the exotic and invasive species that were planted as a cheap, short-cut cover up and break up compacted mine refuse also. His plan now is to replant the lands with native hardwood trees and plant strips of fast-growing grasses like switchgrass in between the rows of trees. These plants will both help to rebuild the soil and be available for semi-annual harvesting. Once the grasses are harvested they can be gasified, the gas can be used for electricity, and the charcoal refuse can be used as soil fertilizer – an overall process that takes carbon out of the air, cleaning the atmosphere.
Although none of these ideas is completely new or untested, all of them have never been combined or applied in one massive project. Usually, they have been attempted in university research centers, not a rural Kentucky town.
“It’s tricky nowadays because I don’t see a lot of people around here who have that idea of needing to do something to help,” says Hall. “To me that is the biggest barrier. You really have to try to encourage and motivate kids in depressed rural areas to come back and do something positive.”
Hall believes that rural students need a school curriculum that encourages them to start their own projects and gives them more resources to try out their ideas. He worries that students don’t have the drive and work ethic needed to find new ways to diversify and develop their own regions.
“The fact is,” says Hall, “having an extensive background as a region dependent on an extractive industry has a large effect on the likelihood of people seeing themselves as entrepreneurs or risk takers.” He believes that a one-dimensional economy tends to discourage such perspective. “There needs to be a shift in areas like this so people at a young age feel like they can try things and it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t work out and that it won’t be against any one’s job to try something new and different,” Hall says.
His ideas are echoed by Carr and Kefalas, as well as other researchers on the brain drain problem in rural regions. Youth need to see that their new ideas can be applied in their own hometowns, not just in urban centers or bigger cities where they go for school. Communities need to embrace that possibility as well. Carr and Kefalas noted that the brightest are often pushed out of their communities because rural adults don’t see local opportunities for ambitious young people.
“That’s why I want to do my work here,” Hall asserts. “There need to be some initial examples. People need to have reference points. If people have more examples and more support, youth might feel less apprehensive of starting their own thing.” He hopes his enterprise, whatever form it takes, will encourage other young people to “get involved in something that is starting up.” One of his main goals is to offer “support to make their business ideas into reality.”
It seems that Hall is trying to live out answers to the very questions raised in Hollowing Out the Middle. “Could we make those linkages between secondary and postsecondary education better,” writes Patrick Carr, “so that high school is not just geared for people going on to a four-year college degree? Could we retrain people to be able to be competitive in industries that are a growth industry… like biotech and nursing and wind energy? Could we begin to think differently about the stranglehold that big industry has on the heartland?” According to Carr rural towns need to focus on “creating that infrastructure to match up economic demands for the regional economy with the young people who are most likely to stay” or who, like Nathan Hall, are inspired to return.
Elizabeth Lynch, a student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, spent the summer working with Headwaters Inc., a water-watch non-profit group based in Whitesburg KY.