Through this and subsequent statements, CAN hopes to bring clarity and focus to our network-wide commitment to equity. We believe that using our voice and platform to highlight and support marginalized voices is critical to our success in building a more sustainable and just Appalachian economy.
While an intersectional approach to equity is our overall goal, this moment demands that we first focus our efforts on ensuring that racial equity is a priority for the network and its members. Conversations around racial equity are long overdue and we believe focusing there is the right way to begin a broader discussion of intersectional equity. This statement is a starting point towards building a more equitable Appalachia, but we recognize that the work will need to continue and broaden to achieve our goals.
The Central Appalachian Network and our members are committed to working toward an equitable Appalachia. We believe that an equitable Appalachia will deliver the economic change that we seek. Establishing a more equitable and inclusive region means intentionally utilizing our platform to advocate for the shifting of power toward marginalized and diverse populations. This means making space for, listening to, and working with individuals and populations outside of the majority demographics of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, age, ability, class, and educational attainment. We intentionally make space for folks across all backgrounds and experiences to be part of the network’s learning, opportunities, and leadership structures. We celebrate the unique perspectives that make up Appalachia, with respect to our history and hope for our future.
We acknowledge and celebrate the Appalachian values of perseverance, resilience, land stewardship, community, and kinship. We know that the celebration of the diversity of the Appalachian region is essential to a just transition, which we define as advancing equity in the region by building diverse, inclusive economies built on multiple forms of local and regional wealth.
We seek to empower Appalachian communities to generate broadly shared wealth and locally-rooted economies, bringing lasting economic opportunity to the traditionally marginalized people of Appalachia. We are working to make room for everyone’s voice, acknowledging that exchange and collaboration between a variety of perspectives is what makes communities inclusive and resilient.
Diversity – who is in the space?
Inclusion – how has the space been built?
Equity – Does the space shift power?
People of Color – a member of a shared group, where one’s unique identity as Black, Asian, First People or Latinx is nested under a broader POC category. The term is used to recognize the shared experience of systemic racism amongst all non-white people although the experiences of Black, Brown, Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous folks vary.
First People – The oldest and original inhabitants of the North American continent.
Intersectionality- The interplay between the entirety of social categorizations like race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
Appalachia’s History in Racial Equity
Appalachia has a rich tradition of collective action supporting marginalized communities in their struggle against oppressive systems. From the coal miners of Harlan County, whose battle for labor rights and improved working conditions inspired a movement of labor activists, to the West Virginia teachers that came together and demanded that the entire nation reassess the value it places on its educators, Appalachia has shown that it is a region that comes together to oppose oppression. Despite widespread media narratives, Appalachia is rife with diversity, and its people are committed to ensuring that inclusivity, equity, and justice prevail over systemic oppression.
There is a commonly held misconception that Appalachia is a racially homogenous region; common narratives would have the world believe that Appalachia is and always has been entirely white. The reality is people of color have been at the forefront of building and defining the region, while also pushing forward to promote equity with an intersectional perspective. Following the abolition of slavery, a large population of Black people migrated to the Central Appalachian region to earn their living. They sought out the inclusionary workforce in the coal mines; they were highly active in the United Mine Workers of America, and contributed directly to the labor movement in the early 20th century. Farming techniques developed by people enslaved in the American plantation system were instrumental in the development of sustainable agricultural practices and are still used in the region and across the nation. Furthermore, prior to emancipation, free Black people living in the region helped undermined the oppressive system of chattel slavery by establishing the Underground Railroad. The region was also home to untold numbers of First Peoples who inhabited and worked the land far before colonization. Appalachia’s diversity may not be overwhelming in numbers, but the region’s identity has always hinged on the leadership and ingenuity of minority populations.
Modern Appalachia may be majority-white, but diverse populations are still pushing for progress and to elevate the wider conversation. Today, organizations like Black In Appalachia, The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, the Highlander Center, and the STAY Project are at the forefront of pushing for racial justice, equity, and law enforcement reform. Their tireless work, along with countless other organizations and individuals, in broadening the social conversation to be more inclusive, diverse, and equitable is a shining fulfillment of the Appalachian legacy of speaking truth to oppressive power. Those interested in pursuing racial justice and equity would do well to follow Appalachian examples in doing so.
Equity and Racial Justice in CAN’s Work and Structure
We acknowledge it is critical to push ourselves to do better, live into our values and use our position and power to create a truly just transition in Central Appalachia. CAN is a network that is more than the sum of our parts: we aim to provide a platform for organizations to come together, listen to marginalized voices, and create a unified vision that supports racial justice and equity. CAN has a history of taking on difficult concepts, holding space, and bringing people together to work towards solutions. As a predominately white network, those of us with white privilege recommit and strengthen our focus on the following:
Hold space for the important, difficult conversations as we build a shared analysis of equity in Appalachia
While we do not consider ourselves experts, we know the importance of using our platform to bring together folks to make space for learning and difficult conversations on equity. In 2018 and 2019, we focused the keynote sessions at our annual Convenings on the critical need for equity in working toward a just transition & equity, inclusion, and access in the daily work of community economic development. These keynote sessions were meant to show the way equity is so tightly woven into the fabric of the Network’s everyday work. We do not see equity as a concept, but as a way of doing and being – something that is fundamental to this network as well as how we work in and with communities.
In the future, CAN will continue to hold space for individuals and organizations across the region to come together to share, learn, and grow around equity issues. We will explore partnerships with equity-focused organizations to develop a shared analysis of structural racism and other inequities in the sectors and geographies in which we work.
Explore and share practical steps to take as organizations and individuals
As a result of the 2018 Convening, CAN formed an Equity Committee to explore equity issues, how it is woven into our work, and to outline practical steps for organizations and individuals engaging in this work. One example of this is the webinar created by the Equity Committee to share information on best practices for increasing equity and inclusion within nonprofit organizations.
In addition to the Equity Committee, we have been intentional in creating space for peer learning around equity within other parts of the network; fostering discussion on Steering Committee calls and retreats and within our working group meetings. CAN members have also implemented policies and projects that seek to establish a more equitable Appalachia. For example, the Community Farm Alliance established the Kentucky Black Farmer Fund in response to the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Black farmers across the state. CAN is committed to continuing to expand regranting to minority led organizations, and organizations listening to and serving communities of color. Finally, it is important that in the future we remain flexible, receptive, and responsive to new information from experts in the equity space and new perspectives from within the region; this is not only a commitment to maintain the work we are doing, but to improve the work we will do.
Integrate and elevate the experiences and perspectives of marginalized groups
One of the most important steps to take toward addressing inequity is to not only listen to the lived experiences and needs of individuals and communities suffering from the effects of oppression, but to ensure their seat at the table of decision making and power. CAN is committed to providing a platform for amplifying underrepresented voices across our network and region, but we are also committed to democratizing our membership structure to make sure our network is more representative of the Appalachian region. We recognize that our internal discussions on equity are, no matter how well intentioned, coming from a position of privilege and power. Sincere efforts to address racial justice requires our network to reflect the diversity and heritage of the Appalachian region. Integrating and listening to more voices of color will provide a broader perspective on the needs within the region; we will be able to work in sectors that did not previously have our attention or priority, and will be more capable of the community economic development we wish to facilitate in the region.