Young Black, Latinx, and queer people in Appalachia don’t have what they need to live a safe and sustainable life in their regions. 

Groups like The STAY Together Youth Appalachian Project, a diverse youth coalition in Central Appalachia, are providing young people in Appalachia an opportunity to challenge systems of oppression and build more diverse, inclusive, and healthy communities.

As they build young people’s collective power, the organization seeks to uplift and grow a population of people who have been left out of Appalachia’s complex history.

The region has and will continue to experience a mass outmigration of young people, which STAY attributes to a lack of economic and educational opportunities; the percentage of children and youth living in Appalachia is lower than the national average of 24 percent. 

By 2015, Appalachia had experienced a decade and a half of declining population.

The jobs in these regions have shifted away from natural resource dependent industries like coal, gas and logging, which have faced economic challenges as markets increasingly look toward renewable energy sources. 

This has left Appalachia with unstable employment options like downtown revitalization projects that bring a mass of seasonal tourism jobs forcing many to leave due to economic and past environmental issues. Almost two-thirds of Appalachian counties between 2010 and 2018 had experienced a net loss of population.

STAY believes that when youth can deepen and build an economic, environmental, social, and political analysis of the Appalachian region they can identify work that leads to liberation. The STAY Project co-coordinators — Lou Murrey and Mekyah Davis, who also coordinates its Black Appalachian Young and Rising project — are Appalachian natives who know their region. They recently talked to Reckon about Appalachia’s needs. 

Reckon

What do you want for the youth of the Appalachian region? And what do you want people to know about them?

Lou Murrey

Appalachia can be a very beautiful but also difficult place to survive.

I want there to be spaces where young people can go that aren’t just church. I also want people to know that we are queer and radical and there are Black and Latinx youth here. And mostly that there are people who want to stay and  some people who have to stay because they don’t have a choice. 

Also, STAY isn’t about trying to force anybody to stay in Appalachia, we don’t want youth staying in places that cause harm, but we should also be allowed to stay and find opportunity in our communities.

What are youth saying they need to stay and live in their Appalachian communities?

 Murrey

 They need to be able to live in their community so that means they need jobs that pay well enough for them to survive while also not demanding all of their time. Mostly young people want places where they are not policed — whether that’s by the actual police, parents or teachers they need spaces where they can exist whether they are queer identified or are Black or Latinx youth.

 Young people want real guidance from those who love and care about their development and

I want them to have spaces where they can mess up and they are not punished, where they have mentorship that is understanding and not tied to expectations.

Young people need a space where they can be fun and joyful and not get in trouble for that.

 Mekyah Davis

 We need spaces where young people can be young and not be penalized or demonized.

 We need solid mentorship and elders who are going to guide us and can recognize that we are of a new age and of a new generation that likes to do things differently.

 The youth of Appalachia are building a collective analysis of this region, the world and their communities.

 What is the most helpful resource that STAY offers to youth who want to continue living in these regions?

Davis

An important resource STAY provides is access to a network where youth can build relationships of love, care, and genuine investment. 

We really work to connect them with the resources and skills they need to make their visions for Appalachia come true.

What’s right with Appalachia? And what’s wrong?

Murrey

What is wrong with Appalachia is what is wrong with America. We live in a country that is built on enslaved labor and stolen land; Appalachia is not exempt from that. There are stereotypes that the Appalachian region is all white, all poor, and all hard labor jobs, that is not the whole picture but that is the narrative that is told and internalized.

Anytime there is a mass of Black folks uprising in the country, Appalachia has historically been used to say racism isn’t real because we have poor white people, but that’s not how this works. 

Yes, our struggles are tied together but there is clearly a difference. Being poor and white in Appalachia is hard but being Black and poor is harder. In addition your existence is erased when statements are made like, “There aren’t Black people in Appalachia.”  

There is a long history of capitalism and white supremacy that is the American story and Appalachia is a microcosm of that.

That’s why our Black Appalachian Young and Rising program is so important because there are young Black people here who do want to do the work for their community and that is what’s right about Appalachia. 

All the things that are hard about America are harder here and parrticularly for Black and queer youth because they are not included in a larger narrative about the region making it even more difficult because you don’t know how to see yourself in it. 

Davis 

There are so many complexities within being a Black young person in Appalachia, but connection guides our celebration of blackness and also our strategy for change. 

BAYR creates a dignified and autonomous space for Black youth to define Black Appalachian joy and identity, start restorative processes to see what will help us thrive, while also celebrating our existence. 

Because BAYR is the Black youth caucus of The STAY Project we understand how our beautiful existence intersects with state violence and erasures amongst systems of racism and economic injustice.

How are programs like The STAY Summer Institute creating space for young Appalachian youth to feel empowered and connected?

Davis

Our Summer Institute is a regional gathering that provides a creative space for youth with leadership development, cultural sharing, political analysis, and kinship for youth from across the region.

This year, we are planning a hybrid institute that will continue to be designed and facilitated by young people who are 14 to 30 years of age in places across the Appalachian regions like Big Stone Gap, Virginia.; Grand View, West Virginia; Gaston, Alabama; Knoxville, Tennessee and Boone, North Carolina.