What drew them in was the love story.
It wasn’t a tale of love between people. It’s the love of a place. Of hoecakes and hollers. Of bacon sandwiches at the Texaco, and the color green in its infinite variety across mountain forests.
It’s the time of year when young people write their love letters to Appalachia, full of the reasons that elude the national political pundits, who wonder why the kids don’t just leave.
How can they stay?
Every year near Valentines Day, “Appalachian Love Week” is celebrated on social media by a non-profit called Stay Together Appalachian Youth -- or just STAY. Many young people first encounter the group through the hashtag #Appalachianlovestory.
Lou Murrey was one of them. She grew up in Boone, North Carolina. But after getting a photography degree she was pushed to move away for her career. She lives in New Market now as STAY’s paid coordinator.
“I’m still in Appalachia, but I ache for the mountains at home in western North Carolina. I think about them all the time, and I think about wanting to be there, even though it feels complicated to be there,” Murrey said. “I believe that things don’t have to be as hard as they are. And I believe in doing work that makes things not as hard as they are.” For her, that work starts at home.
STAY helps Appalachians who are between 14 and 30 years old build a network of support for each other. It sometimes provides small grants to help members make their communities places they can and want to stay.
The group’s summer training institute helps members navigate everything from mental health to student loans. But it also teaches how corporations have shaped Appalachia, and shows members how to organize home-grown activism. The Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, which has been at the forefront of Appalachian activism for almost 90 years, is STAY’s fiscal sponsor.
Murrey, who identifies as queer, said STAY attracts those who don’t fit the narrative about Appalachia that has dominated since the last presidential election.
“When you’re excluded from the narrative long enough, you’re like, ‘Do I actually belong here?’ Which is heartbreaking,” Murrey said. “There’s a certain look about who gets to be Appalachian. And it’s not young people, and it’s not black people, and it’s not indigenous people, and it’s not queer folks…. We’re trying to say, yeah, we’re Appalachian too.”
STAY member Ari Baker felt terrified when starting a trans discussion group in Blount County, but it has since spread to Knoxville. Baker also helped launch Blount Pride last year. Baker, who coordinates education programs at the Blount County Public Library, said STAY recognizes that young people are already community leaders. But bringing them together helps.
“Isolation is a big problem in our communities,” Baker said. “It’s a problem for a lot of our STAY members, whether they’re isolated by their own identity as a queer person or as a person of color, or idealogically isolated in their community. And so finding spaces where you can show up as your whole self was a really big part of me figuring out a way to stay.”
Mekyah Davis was often the only black kid in his class in Big Stone Gap in southwest Virginia. The 23-year-old dreamed of getting out through a football career or the Air Force, before he attended his first STAY summer institute.
“The STAY project really changed the direction and course of my life, because it made me realize how valuable and special this place is to me.” He met new mentors and friends and was energized by being in a setting where young people were at center stage. It also taught him more about the history of the region and why it grapples with poverty, unemployment and race.
Under the umbrella of STAY, Davis started a project called Black Appalachian Young & Rising. It began last November with a Kentucky conference of about 40 people, mostly high-school students. Although he’s working as a server at Applebee’s in Johnson City, he’d like to find a job organizing black Appalachian youth.
“There continues to be this dangerous homogenous narrative that Appalachia belongs only to poor white folks. It’s dangerous for many reasons, but amongst those are it erases the legacy of white supremacy and why black people have been pushed out of this region,” Davis said, pointing to the forcible removal of all black citizens from towns like Erwin, Tennessee and Corbin, Kentucky a century ago. “It erases the beautiful legacy and history of resistance.”
STAY members and academics have observed that the dominant storyline at the moment shows Appalachia as the domain of uneducated, poor, bitter white men.
“I think the first thing that’s missing from that picture is facts,” said Baker. That’s dangerous, Baker said, because it leads young Appalachians to a false sense of self-hating.
“Obviously I work in a really conservative community,” Baker said. “And people are still doing radical, progressive things, but with different language, in different ways that feel more accessible to people. And I feel like East Coast liberal intellectuals -- that level of nuance is not something that’s on their radar.”
One-dimensional depictions of Appalachia also exclude everything that’s not coal country -- which has shrunk to being the minority of a region that also encompasses cities like Knoxville and Pittsburgh.
“Appalachia has been depicted in the media as something other than the American mainstream since at least the 1870s,” said Bob Hutton, a senior history lecturer at the University of Tennessee. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that a lot of Appalachia has been treated almost as an internal colony,” Hutton said. “And that has been a lot of the region’s problem.”
Failings attributed to Appalachia include poverty and “the brain drain” -- the bright and the young leaving for better job opportunities outside the area. But Hutton points out that these problems are actually common to rural areas nationwide.
In this political moment, one thing does seem to set Appalachia apart. “If there’s anything that seems to show up on the map as peculiarly Appalachian, low voter turnout seems to be one of those things,” Hutton said. “West Virginia and Tennessee have some of the lowest voter turnout in the country.”
Nevertheless, in recent years publications like The New York Times have flocked to Appalachia to analyze its supposedly-outsized impact on national politics. Hutton said those outlets often portray the area as damaged because of its internal faults, rather than because its resources have been stripped to benefit other regions.
STAY members rattle off a list of the results of that practice: An economy dominated by unreliable, low-paying jobs in prisons, fossil fuels, and even tourism. That’s paired with a lack of good infrastructure to provide access to safe water, internet or health care.
There is almost no public transit in a region where housing is very spread out, making it nearly impossible to survive without a car. That strains both youth and families. For example, Baker says the Blount County Library has to provide gas cards to some parents so kids can attend its summer youth program.
“The lack of investment in youth in general is common from hill to hood to holler,” Murrey said. “People don’t invest in youth. They don’t invest in places for young people that are sober spaces. They don’t invest in places that are for their health and mental health.”
But young people are trying to step into that void when they can. In the Clear Fork Valley of Claiborne County, for example, they are testing water near coal mines. “That’s really cool, amazing work. And you see that happening all over the region,” Murrey said. “So young people are fighting back and trying to do something different.”
STAY’s age guidelines are strict, so Murrey will have to leave her job when she turns 30 this year. Ari Baker is aging out, too. But the connections woven through STAY have become part of their Appalachian love stories.
“I think people who have succeeded at building community in rural... spaces tend to cling to that more fiercely, and so that’s something that I really value,” Baker said.
STAY will celebrate Appalachian Love Week on February 15 with an all-day music festival featuring hip hop, punk and folk at the Moonbow Coffee Shop in Harlan, Kentucky. Donations at the door support STAY. For more information, visit thestayproject.net.