I found it no coincidence as I drove away from Corbin that a lonely banjo and the haunting voice of Patty Loveless emerged from my speakers, adding complexity to my thoughts.
In the deep, dark hills of eastern Kentucky
That’s the place where I trace my bloodline
Indeed, as I listened to the ideas worth sharing throughout the day at TEDxCorbin, I was reminded of my own story. Of seeing my dad’s coal-stained hands after a night shift working at the coal washing plant. Of admiring his and my mother’s tenacity to earn college degrees even after getting married and having a baby. Of her dedication to teach and inspire children and his choice to make his dream of journalism and entrepreneurship a reality.
Most importantly, of their choice to do it in Kentucky.
On the surface, it would seem eastern Kentucky isn’t an easy place to call home. The once-thriving coal industry is gone. Jobs are elusive. Opioids are everywhere. Poverty is abundant.
These challenges were ever-present in the conversations I heard Saturday. But challenges are universal, aren’t they? Whether it’s the opioid crisis in Appalachia or violent crime in Detroit, every place has them. Our ability and desire to rise above these challenges is what matters — our devotion to being grounded in this place despite the issues we face.
That is where the 22 people who spoke Saturday find themselves. Grounded. They hail from towns like Williamsburg, Pikeville, Salyersville, Hazard, Harlan, and they all tell a similar story: They choose to stay and change the narrative in Appalachia.
I listened as Lily Gardner, Pritchard Community Student Voice Team member and quite possibly the most impressive teenager I’ve ever been in a room with, tried to reconcile the bright aspirations and community pride held by Appalachian teenagers with the lack of opportunity they face. How do we stop the brain drain, the perception that the only thing waiting in the mountains is a career as a miner? “We’ve got to share why we’re different,” Lily said. “And how we’re not part of that single story eastern Kentucky has.”
I cheered as Ryan Johns, an executive with Pikeville’s RH Group, shared with us that a renewable energy project first announced in 2017 now has a partner and can move forward. Toyota will buy power for the next 15 to 20 years from a 700-acre solar farm built on a reclaimed strip mine in Pike County, creating 50 ongoing and 200 construction jobs, many of which will be filled by local workers.
I was inspired as Mae Suramek told us her story of how noodles can change the world — how her journey in entrepreneurship has created a profitable and socially conscious restaurant in Berea with franchise promise. Noodle Nirvana has already donated nearly $90,000 to three local causes since opening its doors in 2017, while paying workers $2.75 per hour more than the minimum wage and offering them a set schedule so they can plan their lives and focus on their families.
But it was Chef Kristin Smith who brought me to tears. The owner of the Wrigley Taproom and Eatery in Corbin told us of meeting one of her idols, Top Chef contestant and Louisville restauranteur Chef Edward Lee, who brought his mother along with Food & Wine restaurant editor Jordana Rothman on a tour of Appalachian restaurants and to Kristin’s table.
Kristin spent three weeks feverishly preparing an Appalachian meal for her guests, which culminated with an apple stack cake topped with bourbon chantilly cream and a story about its origins. Kristin was later quoted in a Food & Wine article as saying “poor families” in Appalachia would each contribute a layer to those cakes — a claim the next chef on the tour was quoted as calling “bullshit.”
“I didn’t say that,” Kristin told the TEDx crowd. “I didn’t say poor people.”
I listened as she talked about grappling with this embarrassment — “I failed my people,” she said — but was sincerely inspired by her conclusion:
“No apologies for where I’m from,” she said. “No apologies for where I choose to live. No apologies for my accent. No apologies for my stories. And no apologies, I will not apologize, for when they get the story wrong.”
Saturday’s TEDx speakers personify the stories of Appalachia, the ones you don’t always hear but that define the movement happening here.
I am so glad Jessi and I made the drive to Corbin to hear them. At P&P, we want to help change the narrative through branding. To support this region in its endeavor to rise above the stereotypes. TEDxCorbin helped us gain important perspective.
As the Patty Loveless song goes, these folks may see the sun come up about 10 in the morning and they may see it go down about 3 in the day. And they may continue to fill their cups with whatever bitter brew they’re drinkin’. But they are not going to spend their lives thinkin’ of how to get away.
I love that song. But I think I’ll listen to a new one, one that closed a fantastic TEDxCorbin event with these lyrics from Appalachian musician Larah Helayne:
My roots were made to grow into this Bluegrass I call home.
No apologies. It’s time to change the narrative.