I wrote this essay in December 2017 to use for a college application. I rewrote a few parts to reflect what I have learned, felt, and experienced since writing the original piece. This is one of my most passionate pieces I have ever composed. I hope you enjoy it.
June 26, 2014, Annie Lowrey published a New York Times article entitled “What’s The Matter With Eastern Kentucky?*”
This headline made it to every dinner table in this area. This headline stirred the soul of the folks in my region. This headline outraged Appalachians. Most importantly, this headline made me sit down and think, what is the matter with Eastern Kentucky?
Silas House, a local author, quickly penned a response to this article, claiming that “The Matter Is You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About*“. Instinctively, Eastern Kentucky banned together to defend “the smudge of the country” that was portrayed as statistically the worst place to live in America. At first, I labeled Annie Lowrey as an outsider who threw numbers onto the place I love without examining the historical context. However, numbers don’t lie. I concluded that just because you love something doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with it.
The roots of my tree are embedded deep in the hills of Knott County, Kentucky. With nothing to offer but a few mom and pop diners and a Dairy Queen, most folks around here have learned to appreciate the simple things. We like to watch the sun kiss the mountains goodnight as God paints the sky shades of orange and blue. We often find ourselves stopped at the one traffic light in town as we are headin’ to sit on our friend’s front porch to animatedly reminisce about the day with “did you see” or “did you hear”. We introduce ourselves as the son or daughter of our parents, or in my case, as the granddaughter of our sheriff 40 years ago.
Now, for every man or woman who gets their kicks by driving a few country miles on a gravel road, there is another man or woman who gets theirs by contributing to the downfall of my homeplace. It’s not like Eastern Kentucky was labeled as statistically the worst place to live in America for no reason. The facts are indisputable. In Clay County, only 7.4% of the population has a bachelors degree or higher. In Perry County, 70% of people are overweight; 40% are labeled obese. In Knott County, my home, every public school student in the district receives free and reduced lunch. Eastern Kentucky’s depressing claim to fame is the internationally recognized opioid crisis, propelled by a selfish obsession with controlled substances.
You don’t realize how big a problem is until it directly affects you. Then you decide it’s time for a change.
Annie Lowrey boldly claimed, “The queasy answer that economists come to is that it would be better to help the people than the place — in some cases, helping people leave the place.” Is it not reasonable to help the people by helping the place? In her article, Appalachia was deemed hopeless, making the people residing within it feel as if they were, too. Silas House rebutted with, “If you tell people they are worthless long enough, some part of them begins to believe it.”
Many Appalachian millennials have a preconceived notion that all Eastern Kentucky is now is all that it will ever be. The idea that central Appalachia can overcome the odds we are constantly reminded of by New York Times journalists is preposterous. It’s deemed crazy to think that one day Knott County could be home to a technology plant that employs hundreds of skilled laborers, or it could be a tourist destination for the adventurous soul, or it could be somewhere folks are moving to rather than from.
If that’s the case, call me crazy.
Despite everything, I believe in East Kentucky. I believe in the possibility of a turn of events. I believe there are enough people who believe the same as I do, but I believe they have been afraid to voice it because people like Annie Lowrey believe it’s ludicrous.
The biggest problem I see is that we are so focused on routine. Wake up, go to work, get fast food from one of the three chains available, go home, and repeat. Very seldom is that routine broken, making little space for new businesses, opportunities, and ideas. I challenge each person reading this to visit five small businesses you haven’t been to before. Support your local entrepreneurs and encourage their dreams.
Nothing will ever change if you keep repeating the same routines. That is what’s the matter with Eastern Kentucky.
*Click on italicized words to be directed to the link.