Black Storytelling and Policymaking in Appalachia

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In the fall of 2021, the Black Appalachian Coalition (BLAC) and the Ohio River Valley Institute (ORVI) hosted five virtual listening sessions to hear from Black Appalachians. The sessions were part of the ongoing national conversation around infrastructure policy but weren’t limited to infrastructure. Black Appalachians shared stories about their past and present and thoughts about how Appalachia should move forward.

This BLAC paper highlights some common themes across the sessions related to policymaking in Appalachia. The 8 hours of rich dialogue throughout the sessions can be viewed here.

Black Appalachians have played a critical role in Appalachian history, but Appalachian narratives have been whitewashed. Neither the contributions of Black people to Appalachian history nor the harms experienced by Black communities are popularly known or appreciated, especially in media and policymaking.

Speakers identified many policy needs for Black communities in Appalachia—including access to healthcare and healthy foods, child and elder care, public transportation, clean air and water, more and higher quality education opportunities, criminal justice reform, jobs, and equal and higher pay.

Across all of these policy issues there is a common need for Black storytelling and participation as a precondition for policymaking. Narratives shape how policymakers prioritize public problems. Narratives that leave out the Black parts of our region’s history and present guarantee that problems experienced by Black people won’t be prioritized. Policymakers should place more value on creating spaces for groups of Appalachians that have been historically oppressed or ignored to share their stories, and on helping shift narratives to accurately reflect the region’s past and present.