Navigating Transition – Insights from the Appalachia, USA

How creating a shared vision and harnessing the power of community can shape the process of change

The Appalachia region was the largest coal-producing region in the US. Once a large employer, the coal industry now supports few jobs and the community has been working towards a just transition to a new economy. Justin Maxson and Lisa Abbott, community organisers from the region, recently visited Australia under the auspices of the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network (AEGN) and shared their experience at a Public Forum in the Latrobe Valley, hosted by the Mirboo North & District Community Foundation and the Morwell Neighbourhood House.

Justin and Lisa’s insights are relevant to all communities facing change and will no doubt resonate with community foundations.

In times of transition, process matters
It is vital to ensure that community has a voice in how transition unfolds and that there is a genuine, creative and inclusive process, that hears the voices of those who are often marginalised. Creating a shared vision, which starts by asking the question ‘where do we want to go together’, enables a constructive conversation to take place around difficult or, sometimes, divisive issues. Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC), a social-justice organisation which is playing a key role in the Appalachian transition, hosted groups and community members from across the region as part of a 3-day conference called “Appalachia’s Bright Future” to explore strategies, innovation and to learn from the international experience of other communities experiencing transition.

Build new power: economic, political, energy #ShiftThePower
Democratising and building power at a local level is vital. In Kentucky, new finance models assisted homeowners to retrofit their homes, save energy and reduce costs. These local initiatives created new jobs and, just as importantly, the political will needed to create mechanisms that enabled them to be scaled up.

There is no silver bullet
Meeting the challenges of complex change requires a cross-sectoral, multi-industry approach which engages community, government and philanthropy. No single organisation or group can deliver a solution. It is not a lack of ideas that hampers local communities, but rather having the organisation, skills and resources to get those ideas in action. So, underpinning transformative change is the need to support local agency, empower local leaders and foster leadership development within communities by providing them with skills and resources. This, in turn, strengthens the voice and the vision of the local community.

Be a catalyst, not a container and change the conversation
A key role for community organisations in change is, rather than take ownership, to act as catalysts and enablers; to create a space for different, sometimes conflicting voices to come together as collaborators around a shared vision. In Kentucky, this included growing effective networks, developing an ecosystem of support for local actors and innovators and asking what are the resources needed to bring good ideas to life.

Watch Justin and Lisa’s presentation at the Public Forum here
Place matters! Watch this video for more on the Appalachia context.

Lisa Abbott has over 20 years experience as an organiser with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC), a social-justice organisation which plays a key role in the Appalachian Transitions Initiative. Lisa currently co-ordinates KFTC’s Empower Kentucky Project. Through a process which engaged more than 1000 people, this project is developing a state plan to achieve the community’s goals of improving health, generating good new jobs, ensuring affordable energy and addressing climate change.

Justin Maxson was, for over a decade, President of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), operating in eastern Kentucky. MACED focuses on new economic opportunities, skill-building to support entrepreneurs, policy research and advocacy. Justin is currently Executive Director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, which uses philanthropy strategically to lift people out of poverty and promote opportunity in the region.