Back to The State of the South

Reflections from True South Central Appalachia: Eastern Kentucky Mutual Aid

Being born and raised on the gravel, rural routes of Elliott County, I’ve never been one to shy away from taking the backroads. It took around two and a half hours to make the trip from my rented single wide in Grahn to Berea, Kentucky, avoiding highways along the way. I was excited and well prepared to represent my grassroots community, Eastern Kentucky Mutual Aid, at MDC’s event.  And the winding drive is worth it! Along the way, I had time to do a lot of observing and thinking about equity as I cruised past massive, soulless, cookie cutter developments so new you could still smell the sawdust. Then there were the gorgeous farmhouses, the homeplaces fallen into disrepair, reflecting old money that got lost along the way somewhere. There were mobile homes parked right alongside suburban ranch styles and I realized that eastern Kentucky is probably one of the only places where you’ll see comfortable middle-class doctors and lawyers sharing any sort of space with folks who work fast food. That is a unique experience in this region, at least for now. The drive itself brings on questions about when the homeowners associations and zoning regulations and full-scale gentrification will kick in. How much longer will our kinfolks be allowed to mix and mingle in their everyday lives as neighbors?

These are the sorts of questions we often find ourselves kicking around in the mutual aid community and particularly in our own group, eKy Mutual Aid. I was excited to be asked to participate in this event and spent weeks beforehand consulting with my community about the subject of the panel I was asked to participate on, equitable disaster relief. eKy Mutual Aid jumped into action the very night flood waters hit our kinfolks in 2022 and we have not stopped helping flood survivors since. We were excited to bring attention to those still suffering after the climate disaster, people whose lives will never be fully repaired or recovered are feeling forgotten and left behind. I knew it would be my job to speak on behalf of our neighbors who weren’t invited to participate in this space. The kind of people who have no connection to the nonprofit or academic/social justice world and maybe don’t even have a high school diploma. These are our community members, our kinfolks. I was intensely aware that while the other members of my panel held higher degrees, I was a three-time college drop out. Instead of being intimidated, I see the chance to invade these spaces as a challenge and an opportunity.

I made it to Boone Tavern in time for the commencement statements and speakers and truly enjoyed the panel on history and arts that opened the event. I found the space to be accessible and accommodating, even for my mother who joined me for the weekend and is a wheelchair user. I also really enjoyed meeting both Andy and Kristin from MDC. I had spoken with Andy before the event and explained a few apprehensions that I had as the only person tagged in to talk mutual aid. But he reassured me and I felt as though the MDC facilitators did an amazing job keeping conversation valid, balanced and moving along. I do wish that so many of the panels had not been happening simultaneously. I would have loved to have been able to participate in conversations on childcare, incarceration, food insecurity and other subjects that came up in the program. I didn’t feel like I got to hear much from the other presenters, sadly.

By the time my turn to speak rolled around, I had managed to get myself a little worked up in the angst department. I have been called everything from “passionate” to “intense” and some way worse things when speaking for my people. They trust me and I will be held accountable for my words and actions by peers I trust in return. To be frank, I knew what every person on my panel’s yearly salary was before I walked into the room. And I couldn’t help fantasizing how much good eKy Mutual Aid could accomplish with $120-$200K coming in steady every year. I was struck by the irony of holding a conference on equity in a town where they pride themselves on free thinking and then invested in signs to discourage panhandling. Donating to local charities as encouraged by their big expensive signs posted out by Walmart will NEVER end houselessness or hunger, and that reality seems to escape some of those in the nonprofit sector, in my humble no-degree-having opinion. However, I found the dialogue to be respectful on the part of everyone involved. I also felt as though I was being heard by some people who might not take me or the concept of mutual aid seriously in any other room. I made some connections that I have since followed up on with the hopes of getting some help for our community and also specifically for the flood survivors we are still working with. I wish I could say that we’ve been planning some well-funded mutual aid activities together, but that’s not the case. My calls have gone conspicuously unreturned thus far.

I do truly appreciate MDC for allowing me to be a part of this event and for making sure that everyone who had something to say got a chance to be heard. Sometimes our voices are our only weapons against injustice in this world. And I’ve been screaming and hollering at the top of my lungs till my throat hurts.