Earlier this month, the Appalachian Big Ideas Festival, created by Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, gathered national and local philanthropists, venture capitalists, small business owners and artists in Hazard, Kentucky, to survey the flood damage and enter a deep dialogue about the future of the Appalachian region. 

Upon arriving in Hazard, travelers were introduced to a community that’s still mucking its way through the mud of a shifting climate crisis: scenes of homes and debris strung about the riverbanks, and advisories for boiling drinking water plastered on buildings. And while the community continues to tackle the adversary day-by-day, the reality is that the region has been facing a rising tide of challenges long before these most recent floods. 

(Photo by Natosha Via)

Left unchanged, Appalachia will continue to face the same historic obstacles and will become uninhabitable due to the legacy of broken systems, ones that extract profit, rather than generate sustainable, shared outcomes.

However, thanks to unprecedented resources being made available from across communities, there is a growing opportunity for the region to build housing, a green economic engine, and a climate-resilient infrastructure, to change the narrative of the region. The question for the Big Ideas Festival was, and remains, how do we get there, together?

Evolving the Appalachian Relationship With External Collaborators

During a panel discussion on housing and impact investing, things reached a fever-pitch when a participant shared their thoughts: “Anytime folks outside of Appalachia come in and say we’re about to become prosperous, we know we’re about to be marginalized and oppressed.” 

With a long legacy of extracting both our natural resources and brainpower, Appalachians have grown distrustful of outsider capitalists for good reason: historic promises of progress have been led by external parties, and subsequently lead to repeated patterns of social, political, and economic extraction and degradation. And yet, as entire towns and the 1,900 families who lost their homes in the flood consider the infrastructure they need to meet these new realities, billions in capital will be required, almost assuredly drawing from a mix of external sources.

As leaders continue to chart the regional path forward, finding the right ways to collaborate with these parties will be integral to the prosperity and success of the community. If we can imagine a path forward, one that centers local communities in the heart of the work, there we have an opportunity to invite philanthropies and external investors into this vision to support local projects, as opposed to asking outsiders to craft their own.

Envisioning Change From Within

This very notion found itself at the core of the festival’s funders meeting, where participants were invited to imagine a vision for the future of Appalachia. Led by Coeuraj, a consultancy specializing in systems level transformation, the result was a vision of a vibrant region; one changed by a growing political system and embracing of an incoming generation of diverse leaders. One that is equal parts resilient in sustaining its own future and welcoming to those who support the path it creates for itself. And most importantly, a region that’s not only inhabitable, but where people choose to return to and raise their families.

Not only were participants asked to co-create this vision, but they were also asked to commit to it. Over $1.5 million dollars has been pledged at the festival and several community organizations have started coming together to bring this new vision to life. In addition to the efforts made for direct flood relief, Coeuraj, alongside national philanthropies, is planning events in New York to consider how to work with media companies to embrace a new story about Appalachia and its people.

The spirit that was ignited at the Big Ideas Festival was kindled through shared history, humanity, and hope. As such, the vision that was created, and beginning to be acted upon, will use this same courage and determination to make monumental change, starting from within. As the network committed to this initial vision grows, and we center expertise from within the region at the core of our solutions, new seeds of progress will be sown.

Ryan Eller is an Appalachian native and Head of Partnerships at Coeuraj, where he works with communities to steward transformational change. He currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky, and is the President of The Beloved Community Foundation: an organization that exists to organize across traditional divides of race and religion to create a more just and inclusive society.

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