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A (Cautionary) Tale of Two Mountains

May 31, 2021

Sam is SCSC’s first Visiting Research Scholar in Multidimensional Poverty. He has been invited by SCSC to work alongside partners Appalshop and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative to develop a participatory social connectedness index in the Appalachian region. Through his past research and lived experiences, Sam has developed a passion for studying rural poverty, deindustrialization, and community-centric approaches to development.

While central Appalachia had largely been ignored by the American public prior to the 1960’s, this mountainous coal-mining region quickly erupted into national consciousness after President Johnson decreed Appalachia to be the face of his 1964 “War on Poverty” agenda. Photojournalists flocked to Appalachia to capture images of the region’s so-called “culture of poverty” that supposedly led to endless material desperation across the mountains. Soon, images of visceral Appalachian poverty—featuring the sunken faces of children, filthy, crumbling homes, and wide-shots of the towering Appalachian mountaintops—dominated the frontpages of popular American newspapers, serving as seemingly self-evident proof that Appalachia was plagued by a “culture of poverty” that condemned its citizenry to destitution. Seeking to address these social ills, the War on Poverty attempted to build up Appalachian communities in their own vision; “Community Development Programs” were established throughout the region, as were career training initiatives and infrastructure projects, which resolved to bring American prosperity to the lonely Appalachian mountains and their secluded households. 

The Community Film Workshop of Appalachia was established in 1969 as a branch of the War on Poverty’s career training program. Though this organization was intended to teach Appalachians the technical aspects of film so that they could pursue careers in Hollywood, Appalachians instead decided to remain in the region and produce documentaries that portrayed mountain life in an entirely different light than did the War on Poverty photographs. When given the opportunity to speak for themselves, these documentary filmmakers portrayed their communities as lively and thriving, sustained by social organizations that were illegible to the American public: Bluegrass ensembles, quilt making circles, union rallies, and other uniquely-Appalachian traditions. Rather than a result of some cultural deficiency, Appalachian poverty was portrayed in these films as a result of the region’s coal mining industry which exploited its workers, polluted communal waterways, and benefited from (and contributed to) local bureaucratic corruption. To the filmmakers, the War on Poverty’s entire agenda was misoriented away from the complex, political underpinnings of Appalachian poverty in favor of a diagnosis that was palatable to an American public that had become entranced by notions of idyllic suburban life and the archetypal nuclear family. 

The Appalachian documentaries and War on Poverty photographs constructed two separate visions of Appalachian society that necessitated two different policy approaches. As the War on Poverty raged on, the United States government soon discovered that their “culture of poverty” hypothesis was indeed an inaccurate account of the roots of Appalachian poverty, leading to the policy agenda losing political momentum and its dismantlement in 1981 by the Reagan administration. Deploying top-down understandings of community and social connectedness therefore not only misrepresented Appalachia’s plight, but also undermined the War on Poverty’s sincere objective of eliminating the region’s very real material deprivations. To academics, policymakers, and activists alike, Appalachia represents a cautionary tale that highlights the dangers of impressing our own understandings of social connectedness onto communities across disparate contexts. In doing so, we risk misinterpreting—if not destabilizing—local social structures that are central in bringing communities together, even though they may be unfamiliar to us. The study of social connectedness and isolation must center the voices of communities themselves, lest we make the same mistake that the War on Poverty development actors did so many decades ago. 

Although the War on Poverty has long been surrendered, its legacy remains; Appalachia continues to be haunted by these visceral images of decrepit poverty that serve as a testament to the region’s perceived “backwardness.” But the legacy of Appalachian self-advocacy and self-representation, too, persists. The Community Film Workshop of Appalachia has rebranded itself as Appalshop, and it continues to act as an integral part of community organizing across the mountains. Beyond filmmaking alone, Appalshop has since evolved as an organization and now hosts a radio station, a travelling theater company, and an extensive cultural archive. Appalshop’s work is invaluable to anyone who is interested in learning more about the transformative potential of the arts, community organizing, and the ethical use of imagery in the development process.