In West Virginia we’ve been hearing for awhile now about how many young people are leaving the state and how hard it is for them to stay.
Turns out, there’s a totally different way to think about being a young person in Appalachia.
That’s what the It’s Good To Be Young in The Mountains conference in Harlan County, Kentucky is all about. Originated by the community arts group, Higher Ground, they get together once a year to celebrate what it means to be a young person in Appalachia while providing workshops on essential life skills and hobbies.
Alexia Ault, a VISTA serving with Berea College and a coordinator of the 2017 Conference, said the need for this conference became evident after Higher Grounds original play, “Find a Way.”
The play featured a family of characters that represented different concepts, including a character that represents the coal industry. This character dies halfway through the play, leaving the family to deal with his loss.
Ault said the play was written through real conversations with students in the Harlan area. She said it made evident that there was a need to teach basic life skills, such as finances and sex education, as well as the ability to find jobs and realize what options existed in the mountains for young people.
The first IGTBYITM featured loads of panels, not just concerning basic life skills. They also taught fun things, such as t-shirt screen printing. Ault said they used social media to ask what people wanted to teach and let anyone that wanted to create a panel.
“People would say, ‘I know how to do pottery, can I lead a pottery workshop?’ I don’t think we turned anyone away,” Ault said.
The the name of IGTBYITM implies that it is primarily for young people, Ault said there is no strict age requirements.
“Our demographic is very fluid, there’s no set rule. We ask participants to interpret young however they feel comfortable,” Ault said.
However, she also said it is important that the conversations happen with local young people. Without letting young people express their concerns, IGTBYITM loses its purpose.
“What we don’t want to happen is to have a bunch of established leaders to come in and take over. We want these young people to have their voice heard,” Ault said.
The 2017 conference was buzzing with positivity and it helped remind me that it really is good to be young in the mountains. It reminded me how beautiful Appalachia is and just how much young people are capable of.