“Every one of these places is a problem with history,” Dr. Allan Comp tells me as I sit in my tiny Bushwick apartment sweating from the heat and from interviewing someone with an official Washington DC office number. Dr Comp leads the OSM/VISTA teams for the U.S. Department of the Interior inducing the Coal Country Team, an organization of VISTA volunteers that serves in Appalachia, primarily focused on environmental and community reclamation. By ”these places” he means mining towns and specifically mining towns deep in Appalachia that aren’t only impacted by the digital divide, but by a past of intense mining and not much else.
As we speak more and more about the history of this part of the country, I can’t help but consider it in light of my own personal story. I was born under the shadow of a massive GE factory in Pittsfield, MA. This factory closed a couple years before my birth and left everyone in this Western, Mass factory town unemployed. Driving through West Virginia and seeing the massive, abandoned, mines standing beside towns or beside what once were towns I realize my home isn’t that different. Mono-economic policy has been tried before in America and it failed in the long run. What happens when coal comes to a halt?
Factory towns had the luxury of being close to big cities, in my case Boston and New York City, so they had opportunities to recover from new industry or at the very least for people to make a quick move to jobs, but where will the people of Appalachia go? In our conversation Dr. Comp and I talked about the sense of place the people of Appalachia feel, and having interviewed people like Chuck Nelson and Maria Gunnoe who receive death threats for their environmental work, yet still refuse to leave their homes, I can say that I’ve seen these ties first hand. I don’t know what it’s like to tie my identity to an environment, in fact I’ve tried my best to do the opposite, to adapt myself to be able to change to where ever I am. Dr. Comp seems to be in a similar position to me as he jokes about his southern California home as “the place all the loose marbles rolled when the country was tilted.”
Regardless of where this marble rolled, Dr. Comp has spent years working and improving the quality of life in sections of Appalachia abandoned by the coal industry. And Dr. Comp’s hope for Appalachia is that, “Appalachia can learn how to move beyond coal, it’ll never move away completely, but move beyond, and begin to trust in other resources: their rich culture, environment, other natural resources.” Since I asked him that question, it’d be unfair if I didn’t take a second to consider my own personal hope. I don’t think it’s realistic or necessary for everyone in Appalachia to have home broadband, I just believe that access to the internet and the choice to have it or not is important in terms of social and economic equality. But In working on this project I don’t want to solely focus on how difficult it must be without the internet, I also want to talk about the potential virtues and values of life without the internet; I said from the get go that I want to put a human face on the digital divide.
One of the big reasons the digital divide isn’t widely discussed is because it’s been in the hands of academics and techys, which was a necessary first step, people much smarter than I did a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of defining and identifying the problem then suggesting possible solutions, but now I want to tell the human stories. I’m hoping that in talking with people like Dr. Allan Comp, who has dedicated so much of his profession and life to this often forgotten part of the country. I can discover openings to share the personal histories of Appalachia. There are a different set of life skills in Appalachia, for example, Dr. Comp points out that people in West Virginia “find more in the forest than I could in the supermarket.” These people aren’t defeated and twiddling their thumbs waiting for a Comcast van to roll up, they’re survivors who will find new ways to reinvent life after coal or are already doing so.
Before ending the interview, Dr. Comp left me with some simple, sage, advice: “Appalachia can get to you after awhile,” and I think he’s right, because I for one can’t wait to head back.