Five Lessons about Appalachia and Berea’s Eighth Great Commitment

Chad Berry photoDr. Chad Berry, academic vice president and dean of the faculty, spoke on this topic at a recent conference held at Berea. The following is a guest post adapted from that presentation. 

 Lesson 1: Appalachia is the country’s most misunderstood region.

Heavily stereotyped because of America’s cultural history, people from Appalachia bristle at perceptions of so-called “hillbillies” who are backward or stupid. These perceptions are conveyed pervasively through novels, reality-TV shows, movies, and even popular, romantic assertions that an Appalachian accent is a long-lost Shakespearean dialect preserved through isolation from “modern” American life.

Just as no child is born racist, no child is born thinking these things about people from Appalachia. If they can be learned, they can be unlearned.

Lesson 2:  You may think of Appalachia as poor. But it was not born poor; it was made poor. 

The region and its people are not poor because of some innate defect. They were made poor by an unjust economic system in which human beings were not beneficiaries of economic activity, but rather just another exploitable ingredient. Extractive economies worldwide are often characterized by poor people living amid rich natural resources.  Central Appalachia is no exception, and its residents are still paying a high price for a mono-economy based on extraction that is now in decline. The region and its people need more sustainable economic development centered around diversity and justice.

Lesson 3: “Appalachia” is a social and cultural construct.  How and when it was constructed still influences the way we think of the region and its people today. 

“Appalachia” as an idea didn’t exist until the late 19th century, when powerful elites created, invented, defined, and labeled the area that came to be known as Appalachia.  Sometimes abetting the economic interests that moved in to exploit the resources of the region and its population while other times resisting those interests, these powerful elites included educators, doctors, missionaries, ministers, and novelists. Those constructed viewpoints still dominate national perceptions about the region, and as a consequence, we still think of the region as the No.-1 place of rural American poverty.

Lesson 4: “Appalachia” serves a particular function in the U.S.  If Appalachia hadn’t been constructed, another region would likely have been created to take its place.

In the more than 50 countries I’ve visited, all had their own version of Appalachia. For England, it’s Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. In Cuba, it is Pinar del Río. In France, Brittany, and in Ghana, the northern region. One scholar suggests that U.S. culture creates an image of Appalachia out of nostalgia for the past and fear of the future. The result is a viewpoint of the region that is sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but always stereotypical. People may lament the loss of the old ways through buying a commodified piece of traditional Appalachian culture like a quilt or a basket and wishing they could be more like the artisan that made these items. At the same time, they might travel through the poorest parts of eastern Kentucky, remembering movies like Deliverance or Wrong Turn, quietly feeling relief for not having to live like those people, not realizing, all the while, how much more dynamic, resilient, and complex are those cultures than they have been conditioned to believe.

East Pinnacle

Berea College students enjoy the morning view from the east Pinnacle.

Lesson 5: Unlearn what you think you know. 

Yes, there are challenges in the mountains. At Berea College, we acknowledge the challenges, but we also emphasize the region’s assets. The Eighth Great Commitment of Berea College is “To engage Appalachian communities, families, and students in partnership for mutual learning, growth, and service.”

Appalachian communities, families, and students are assets, not challenges. They hold wisdom and local knowledge, and we can learn deeply right in the place we serve. The aim is to listen to local voices, aspire to mutually beneficial relationships, and to work for significant changes in the systems and structures—laws, behaviors, attitudes, policies, and institutions—that make a difference to people and their communities in Appalachia and beyond. We are not here to fix the region or its people. Instead, the Eighth Commitment moves us to invest in the skill sets and self-confidence people need to improve their lives and act collectively to increase opportunity for themselves and their communities.

—Dr. Chad Berry has served as Academic Vice President and Dean of the Faculty since ­­2011. Formerly the director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center and president of the Appalachian Studies Association, Dr. Berry has authored, edited, or co-edited four books—one of which won the 2015 Weatherford Award for nonfiction.