Building a New Economy
The Mountain Association has always worked to transition Eastern Kentucky’s economy to one that is more just and sustainable for all. The old economy was one built on exploitation of resources and labor. While the dominant coal industry provided jobs, sent kids to college and helped lift many families out of poverty, the lion’s share of the profits benefited wealthy absentee mine owners and corporate interests.
Eastern Kentucky has been economically distressed for generations. These economic realities are rooted in that history of exploitation, and are seen in the region having low educational attainment, among some of worst health statistics in the nation, and demographic shifts that have resulted in a population disproportionately made up of the very old, the very young, and the very sick – many of whom are unable to participate in the labor force.
The question is not how do we replace coal and industry jobs and get back to where we were; the question is how do we build a new economy for Appalachia?
The new economy will be:
A diverse economy that relies on many small businesses in different sectors. These provide the goods and services needed in the community and keep more money circulating in the local economy.
A resilient economy that is less reliant on a large single industry so we are not vulnerable to sudden shifts in that sector as we have been in the past.
A sustainable economy built on balance rather than unchecked growth, respecting the natural ecologies of place: air, land, water, people and culture.
An equitable economy that provides opportunities for all and addresses the ways that people have been marginalized, including race, age, gender and gender identity, LGBT+ identity, ethnicity and socio-economic status.
At the Mountain Association, we call this Just Transition. And the justice we call for in this transition is based on the reality that our communities, and communities like ours, fueled the growth of this nation. And they sacrificed with their lives, families, health, water and prosperity, even as they gave us the timber that built our towns, the coal that fired our industries, and the steel that made our cars.
We must reinvest in our communities, and make them places where the local economy is regenerative and restorative, and where people have what they need to thrive in the place they love.
What does the New Economy look like?
All of the amenities and resources needed to revitalize Eastern Kentucky communities are themselves economic drivers creating jobs and livelihoods. They are also rooted in what makes those communities unique through culture and local resources. The farmers market, the local foods restaurant, coffee shop, music venue, craft brewery, retirement community, housing, healthcare, and recreation facilities all contribute to a quality of life and economy that many people are looking for today.
We envision an economic transition driven by entrepreneurs whose businesses create goods and services to drive diverse local economies, and focus on sectors that not only generate economic activity but also generate benefits for the community. This dynamic model recognizes that investment in key sectors can not only generate economic activity, but also result in additional benefits to the community and the people who live there.
For example, local health care facilities provide jobs, and make care more accessible because locals don’t have to travel to get the care they need. And the dollars spent on health care remain in the community. Similarly, the energy work the Mountain Association has done for nearly a decade, is a good case study. The retrofits in homes, businesses and organizations to increase energy efficiency create jobs for the installers and make homes and buildings healthier, safer and more comfortable. Retrofits in businesses and organizations can improve their bottom line, and make them better able to hire more employees while paying them a living wage. As retrofits become commonplace, some may choose to invest in solar, which could further reduce their energy usage and save them money on their utility bills. The reduction in carbon output benefits all of us through lesser impacts on climate change.
How the Mountain Association contributes
The Mountain Association invests in particular sectors, including entrepreneurship and energy, because we believe they have the highest potential to make real economic transformation and healing possible. An economy built from the ground up with the input and investment of the local community will be far more sustainable than one built on outside influence and ideas that don’t meet the needs of local people. A small, interconnected local economy can be sustained as increased tax revenue and spending go back into the community.
In all that we do, we begin first with listening to small business owners, community leaders, and other citizens so we can hear from people directly what they want to accomplish in their communities, and how we might be able to help them achieve those goals. We often become a bridge-builder, helping communities find and access resources they need to bring their ideas to life. We see these connections happening every day, especially through three Appalachian networks we directly support: What’s Next East Kentucky?!, Appalachian Funders Network and Central Appalachian Network.
We also invest in strategic partnerships that help advance a just transition to a new economy in Eastern Kentucky. These partnerships help us move work in ways we could not do so alone. We see this work as defining what it means to be an “association”. Some of our core partnerships include our work to provide important backbone support for our two affiliates, Kentucky Natural Lands Trust and Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. By supporting affiliates, and by fiscally sponsoring organizations whose missions align with our own, we help make our own work stronger and more sustainable.
We also support many other non-profits in the region through our business support program and through general collaboration. For instance, our work with the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, in Hazard, has allowed for more philanthropic investment to be concentrated in that community, which has meant more local engagement and beginning new projects that could not have happened without the investment the partnership was able to leverage.
As we undertake ambitious work that requires much more than our efforts alone to effect change, these partnerships are vital to working on the systems change needed to advance a new economy in Eastern Kentucky.
Moving Forward, Together
As we move forward, we know there will be no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges the region faces. We must try many different approaches all at once in tandem with and interconnected to each other. Eastern Kentucky’s economy must be one that considers the local assets and culture of all places within the region as unique and able to help the region build a brighter tomorrow that is regenerative and restorative.
Building that just transition to a better tomorrow is not the stuff of fantasy. We know it’s working. By fostering a culture of innovation and curiosity that asks what is possible first, then tries it before giving up, the Mountain Association is seeing results of these investments. We invite you to help us build a new Eastern Kentucky economy, together.