Sarah Clark ’15
THE WAY OF WHITESBURG
This summer I worked at Appalshop, a media arts non-profit organization, in Whitesburg, KY. My summer has been full of a myriad of things. First and foremost I was in Whitesburg to help Sylvia Ryerson, and Elizabeth Sanders further their work around the prison system in Central Appalachia. This work included helping put together the weekly “Hip Hop From the Hilltop”/”Calls From Home” radio show. This show airs weekly on WMMT, which is a community radio station out of Appalshop. Every Monday night from 7-9 PM Hip Hop from the Hilltop plays song requests the station receives from those incarcerated. While the hip hop show is playing another DJ records phone calls from people who want to leave a message for a loved one who is incarcerated. These recorded calls are played directly after the Hip Hop show, during “ Calls From Home” from 9-10 PM.
I hosted both the Hip-Hop show and Calls From Home during my time in Whitesburg. I also produced the prison report biweekly, which is a radio piece reporting on latest news on the U.S. Criminal Justice System. I also worked with NLG and became a legal aid to help report on some of the abuses happening in Red Onion State prison, through a questionnaire. Throughout the summer I also compiled a book about the experiences of prisoners in Central Appalachia. The book contains letters written directly to me from folks incarcerated in Central Appalachia. My work at Appalshop has driven by the creative process of media arts and what it means to share a story with others. I have worked in solidarity with an amazing group of artists helping to make just a ripple in the realm of this ocean of social justice work.
Pine Mountain struck me, hard. My little Toyota Camry is used to curvy roads, city driving, and interstate long hauls, but it really is not used to driving up mountains. It’s funny how familiar those roads soon became. As I made my way up the mountain coal trucks barreled past me, obvious locals patiently waited behind me until their turn to pass. Finally my little car made it to the top of the mountain and I was greeted, or really struck, hard by the view of my new home for the next three months. The mountains had something to tell me during my drive to Whitesburg, KY. I was meant to stay in the region this summer.
I got lost my first day in Whitesburg. This is hilarious, because in every sense of the word Whitesburg is just one big circle. And Whitesburg has a population of 1,500 people. 1,500 people and 2 grouches to be exact. I think my usually keen sense of direction was lost in my flustered excited state that had come over me those first days in Whitesburg.
Appalshop greeted me with open arms and creative punch. I jumped right in on the first night there, taking calls with Elizabeth during the “Calls From Home” show. Taking calls that night I was washed with humility. The little girl who sang her ABC’s for the first time to her daddy over the phone, the wife assuring her husband that they had done this seven years, what is another four, and the hopeful laughs of friend that just wanted to cheer up the phone lines all grounded me that night.
I wanted to do this internship because I felt so many social issues can feel untouchable, but the work happening at Appalshop and WMMT through the “Hip Hop From The Hilltop”/”Calls From Home” show affected people in an instant. And the ripple effect is untouchable even by an institution as vast as the Prison Industrial Complex.
Going home that night after the show I felt unprepared, inspired, exceedingly lucky, out of my comfort zone, young and grown up at the same time, and it was all okay with me. I was ready for whatever was ahead of me.
Fast forward about two months and a week.
There is a porch in Whitesburg. It is the best porch in Whitesburg. I feel like keeper of all of Whiteburg when I am sitting up there. You can see it all. You can see the five way intersection that only has one stop sign, and enjoy watching the almost accidents and awkward stop and go incidents. The wacky/beautiful/old architecture of Mainstreet is all visible. The hazy mountains as the back drop. Luckily this porch housed three interns this summer so I was able to spend a lot of time on there.
I was talking Eli, one of the interns, on that porch other night. All of the interns have left, Eli and I are the last ones left. We were talking about all the things we have learned in this summer. What mattered, what didn’t. What was fun, what just wasn’t. How happy we are that we came to Whitesburg. Both of us agree it is time to leave, but there will be a time to come back, and neither of us could have asked for a better summer.
Whitesburg has taught me that the mountains that I have been around my whole life mean more than I realized, be present, age 20 will go by fast, how to make excellent corn bread, I cannot tell someone’s story, rather I can facilitate the storyteller, Cajun music is my favorite music to dance to, how to cook for myself, Italian, drinking water out of the tap is a privilege, wear shoes in the river, audio speaks, writing thinks, audiences will listen.
There’s that cat again
lazily crossing the pavement
a little off balance without its tail
walking across Madison Avenue
or is it Street
Nobody knows if it is Avenue or Street
A town where the street names don’t matter
Everybody just knows where they’re headed
Sarah Clark ‘15