Giving Kentucky’s young people a reason to stay

A voice and the power to solve problems will make progressive young people see their future in conservative and economically struggling Central Appalachia.

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In 2013, Libby Kelly was a first-year student at Eastern Kentucky University near Lexington with a passion for environmental justice but a jaded attitude.

“I felt like there weren’t really any solutions to the problems the world (and Kentucky) faced that I could tackle as a 19-year-old with no political power,” Kelly says.

Nonetheless, they were a member of the university’s environmental club, and it was there that a special thing happened. Cara Cooper, an organizer with the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition, came to speak to the group.

Cooper gave the group the tools to launch an ambitious campaign to push the school administration to sign on to a Climate Commitment advocated by the nonprofit Second Nature, which has a goal of establishing complete carbon neutrality as soon as possible. Kelly’s group worked diligently on the campaign, and in the end they won.

“It was the first time I saw people my age with my experience wielding some of the power,” Kelly says.

These days KSEC is sponsored through the nonprofit organization Action Center Inc., and what it did to help Kelly and their peers is exactly the kind of support and connection it strives to offer young people throughout Kentucky. Allison Crawford, KSEC’s communications and development director, says the organization was founded in 2007 when many young Kentuckians met up in Washington, D.C., for the first national Power Shift conference. Many of the students hadn’t realized there were so many people from their home state who cared about environmental justice and sustainability, so when they got back to Kentucky they stayed in touch and started KSEC.

KSEC was designed to be a statewide network of student environmental organizations, though it would be open to any young person throughout the state. As a youth-led and non-hierarchical organization, KSEC makes decisions by consensus. It works with young people ages 14–30, noting that the “student” in KSEC is somewhat of a misnomer.

In the first few years, Crawford says, KSEC member organizations focused mainly on working against the coal mining practice of mountaintop removal, and ran successful campaigns to shut down coal-fired boilers at Western Kentucky University and Transylvania University.

Then in 2012, some KSEC leaders based at the University of Kentucky went to a Sierra Club weekend for young activists and were galvanized to expand their platform and ambitions. They got a grant to bring in a paid organizer – Cara Cooper.

“Too often young people are left out of the conversation or not taken seriously because the perceived idea that we lack experience,” Cooper says. “Young people know what we need for our future, and KSEC allows me to be a part of connecting people who are feeling powerless and showing them that through working together and grassroots organizing that we are actually incredibly powerful.”

Since 2013, Cooper has traveled to colleges and universities around the state to help grow KSEC’s capacity and train young activists in a comprehensive anti-oppression framework, which helps those who care about environmental issues see that those issues are also connected to issues of racial justice, gender equality, and economic equality.

Crawford says that KSEC builds youth leadership to address the impacts that environmental problems have on people. First, KSEC works toward a “just transition” away from a coal-based economy for Kentucky and Appalachia. To this end, it educates young people about different types of economies and possible solutions already being implemented, like the use of solar panels on the roof of the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in the city of Benham, and the Mines to Minds program at Appalshop Media Institute in Whitesburg.

These types of initiatives could be expanded to fill the void left by the decline of the coal industry, Crawford says, and KSEC is collecting opinions on the future of their state and region. “As the economy shifts, what young people want is not being considered,” she says. “We’re filling that gap.”

KSEC also is working against the expansion of fracking and natural gas pipelines in Kentucky, hosting teach-ins and training volunteers to work against the Kinder Morgan Tennessee Gas Pipeline, in particular, which runs through Kentucky. KSEC’s political and policy arm also works with young people to try to achieve the creation of more renewable energy through legislation.

Finally, KSEC develops young people’s leadership and grassroots organizing skills. The group now has 15 delegates representing campuses across the state from Morehead to Murray, and also is trying to get more representation from high schools, technical schools, and community colleges. Staff from the central KSEC office support member organizations in their on-campus work and offer resources and training on larger topics, such as how to organize or how to run a campaign.

Increasingly, Crawford says, KSEC identifies steps toward achieving its vision of a just and environmentally sustainable Kentucky, and then offers its members ways to plug into that movement, or provides them tools to start a specific campaign on their own. In that way, all the member organizations are working in tandem toward a greater goal. KSEC also provides networking opportunities for groups to meet and work together, including a summer activist training camp called Catalyst.

“This is bigger than what’s happening on these individual campuses,” Crawford says. “We want to build a movement of young people, show our power, and make sure our voices are heard. This time calls for a big push so we can be active rather than reactive. Our goal is to make the voices of young people a statewide topic of discussion, so that politicians and leaders always make it a point to talk with young people.”

Underneath it all is a bigger vision still: providing community and a sense of engagement for progressive young people so that they feel that staying in Central Appalachia for the long haul is both economically and socially sustainable.

In this regard, KSEC is part of a growing list of organizations by and for Appalachian young people that are trying to combat outmigration and brain drain – others include Stay Together Appalachian Youth, which strives to create a vital network of support and economic opportunities and is celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer; Young Appalachian Leaders and Learners, the committee of the Appalachian Studies Association specifically for young people; and It’s Good to Be Young in the Mountains, an annual weekend gathering of Appalachian young people in Harlan County.

“We want to fight the narrative that makes young people think that they need to leave in order to be successful,” Crawford says. “We want to tell them, It’s not hopeless, there’s other people that feel like you, you don’t have to leave to find them.”


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