Innovator Takes the Long Way Home

[imgbelt img=elnathanmachine320.jpg]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.


[imgcontainer left] [img:elnathan320.jpg] [source]Elizabeth Lynch

An ambitious Nathan Hall left his small hometown, Allen, KY, but since graduating from college believes his native region needs new ideas and energized young people ‘more than just about anywhere.’

“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.

Mountain Justice

Hall was inspired to return to the mountains where he was raised after involvement in Mountain Justice Summer. He discovered that most of the participants in the group were not Appalachians. Shown here: the 2009 summer training at a mountaintop removal mine site in West Virginia.

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.