Chris Green: Making a Difference in Appalachia
Chris Green is a busy man. This is most readily evidenced by the titles he holds: Director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center (LJAC), Associate Professor of Appalachian Studies, Program Coordinator of Appalachian Studies, and Conference Chair of the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA). Add to this list of identities husband and father, poet and scholar; Green is currently working on a book about antebellum Appalachian literature and serves as an editor for Ohio University Press’s book series in race, ethnicity, and gender in Appalachia.
Perhaps the burning question, among many, is in regard to whether a man with so many responsibilities might believe in the concept of “downtime.”
The answer is no. “Downtime does not exist,” he says. “That’s the way I run my life. I’ve always done too much. There’s always too much to do. I work so much because I care about things so much. And it focuses my worry about the world.”
His worries about the world are many, but his focus is local, the smaller things, the places where one person might be able to make a difference. His journey began with poetry, an art form that embraces the notion that small movements can have big impacts. Poetry, he says, helps people see the world they’re in, celebrate it, and also change it.
Green’s love of poetry developed in high school, an extension of earlier creative pursuits. “I played role-playing and board games,” he said. “And that morphed into seeing and touching the world through literature and words.”
This sense of morphing—one pursuit evolving into another—would continue throughout Green’s academic career. As an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, a sense of wanting to make a difference and a love of literature led to early work in both sociology and creative writing. But it was an opportunity to work with Gurney Norman—an Appalachian literary great later named Kentucky’s Poet Laureate, and whose youthful poster-photo hangs in Green’s office today—that fused Green’s interest in social change, literature, and Appalachia. It was on Norman’s suggestion that Green did his undergraduate thesis on the Southern Appalachian Writer’s Cooperative.
“That’s what set me on fire. I went to graduate school to pursue more because this made sense to me.”
Pursue more is a bit of an understatement. Green would go on to earn three master’s degrees—in English, poetry, and secondary education—and a doctorate in English. “Someone once told me having three master’s degrees was like having twelve cats,” he said.
But at least it’s good for knowing one’s Chaucer, which Green will happily recite in the appropriate accent, and for publishing books. His book of poems, Rushlight, was published in 2009, as was an abridged version of his doctoral dissertation, The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race, and Radical Modernism, which earned him Berea’s own Weatherford Award for the Best Nonfiction Book on Southern Appalachia.
Green shares that winning the Weatherford Award was “huge because for me that was like the Emmys. That was like beyond the Emmys. That was like the Nobel Prize for literature to my heart. It’s amazing the competition.”
The route to Berea wasn’t an especially straight one, or planned, or without serious bumps. This self-described “hippy kid, with long beard and hair” detoured through North Carolina, Indiana, and West Virginia. Boone, North Carolina, brought forth road blocks to Green’s Appalachian studies, but he secured a more traditional English education—hence his skill with Chaucer. Deciding to pursue his poetry and the study of post-colonialism, he completed his MFA and the course work for a PhD at Indiana University, but he came to feel that higher-education wasn’t allowing him to participate in helping people directly enough. So he changed course to begin teaching in the public schools, but that produced a quite literal head-on collision. “I was driving to the third day of my student teaching,” he recalls, “and I was hit head-on by another car. I don’t remember the next two weeks of my life.” Green suffered a severe concussion, memory loss, and brain damage–injuries that would take a couple of years to recover from.
Working as a substitute teacher, Green found ways to incorporate poetry wherever he went. “I read poems to the students. If I was in a chemistry class, I read them poems about chemistry.” Later, back in Lexington, Green would earn a more formal post as a poet in the schools through the Kentucky Arts Council.
Ultimately, though, Green’s passions led him back out of public schools, and he returned to the University of Kentucky to finish his PhD. Doing so solidified his place as a leading Appalachian scholar. Green’s dissertation addressed a topic decidedly lacking from the greater discussion of American multicultural history—the Appalachian poet’s role in shaping the national discourse on ethnicity and racial identity in the 1930s and 1940s.
Shortly after finishing his doctorate, Green answered a call to the heart of Appalachia by taking a position in Appalachian literature at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. Spending eight years there, Green dug in his heels as a teacher and activist dedicated to making a difference. “I went into the belly of the beast,” he said. “I held conferences on mountaintop removal. I had a student whose great uncle was the only one to survive of 31 men killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion. The people are being torn apart left and right by it. Everybody’s connected, and everybody’s indebted, and everybody’s in pain. People love it and people hate it.”
Eventually, Green went on to become conference director for the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA) for its Huntington conference. Through the ASA, he met Berea’s Chad Berry, now Academic Vice President and Dean of the Faculty, who four years later encouraged Green to apply for the director position at LJAC. For Green, it was not so easy a decision. “I told my wife we’d never leave West Virginia. I loved that place. I loved my students, and I was making a difference there. I was teaching literature. I was chairing theses. I was the chair of the General Education Council. I was an associate professor with tenure.”
The promise of Berea College, though, proved too great to resist. Green considers his work at LJAC the most important yet “because of the history of Berea and the power this institution holds in the minds of the people who study Appalachia and think about Appalachia.” He explains, “Berea itself is a college about social justice. It’s about interracial education. Instead of biting at the sides of everything I wanted to do to make a difference, I could congeal those efforts, come to a remarkable school, and make a bigger difference.”
Part of making a difference is about starting and facilitating conversations about complex issues. “I’ve brought up hard conversations like that the demographic least likely to succeed at the school are males from rural Appalachia. It’s my job to bring those things up and help figure out ways to solve it.”
Another difficult conversation is about how to get these Appalachian students home again once they’ve finished their education, which is one of LJAC’s stated missions. Green is candid about the lack of options many of these students face at home. A large part of the goal, he says, is to give people the skillsets they need to participate in change. Another part is enabling the region to keep the core of the culture while playing host to people whose college education isn’t about industrial engineering. “And that’s a hard thing to do, right? That’s the big switch. It’s really about making their own way in part, and part of it is the not-for-profit entrepreneurial spirit, and about people who can go into places where it seems like there are no resources, discover what all’s there, and mobilize those to help affect where they are. Maybe they’ll be able to return home, eventually. They’ll be able to return to what calls them.”
Being able to go home and change their worlds, as Green sees it, is perhaps the dreamy end of “the long walkabout” between earning one’s undergraduate degree and beginning one’s professional career. The nebulous middle is navigating a larger industrial machine in such a way that one doesn’t get caught in the wheels. “That’s one of the things I hear is a battle cry here at Berea. We’re seeking to give people education in a way that empowers them to not be a victim of that machine, but to choose how and where that machine is working, and to be able to critique what’s inside and outside that machine—which ain’t always so pretty—so they can make decisions about how to change both those worlds.”
Naturally, the scope of these missions leaves little room to sit back on one’s heels. If people are so inclined to believe in downtime for themselves, it may be worth a visit to LJAC, located on the first floor of Stephenson Hall, where they will find exhibits dedicated to Appalachian history and literature, a set of handmade rockers ideally suited to intimate conversation, and, if they’re lucky, Professor Green, himself, introducing someone to the Dolly Parton pinball machine in the corner. No quarters necessary.