- What Does it Mean to Be “Young” in the Mountains? Voices from the “Youth Activism in Different Generations in Appalachia” Oral History Project
Intergenerational Perspectives on Youth and Activism in Appalachia
“How do you define the word ‘young’?” This was the first question I posed to participants in the Youth Activism in Different Generations in Appalachia Oral History Project (YAA). Based on existing knowledge from personal and professional relationships, I knew the role and impact of young people on the future of the Appalachian region was an important aspect of their work, some of which is consciously oriented around certain age sets or cohorts of youth, like Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute (AMI) and the Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY) Project.1 Youth is also used to signify broader ranges of chronological age and levels of experience in the region. For example, when I asked Alexia Ault how she defined “young,” she talked about when she was helping organize the “It’s Good to Be Young in the Mountains” (IG2BYITM) conference in [End Page 19] Harlan County and consciously being careful about defining “young people.” We met at the Harlan Center downtown in a large meeting room, which was strangely quiet and cavernous compared to the first IG2BYITM gathering that took place in the same space almost three years before.
A lot of the work that I’ve done, we target it towards an audience that’s like “young” in quotations, so we leave that up to the participants to decide whether they fit in that category. It doesn’t have to be like strictly between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two or . . . whatever. So, one example is I was on the steering committee for the first “It’s Good to be Young in the Mountains” festival. I was the logistics coordinator for that and we were really careful with that festival. It did have the word “young” in the title, but there was a space on the website where we said . . . we define that term loosely. It’s aimed at more next-generation leadership, I think would be a more correct term. But that’s just so wordy (laughs) to be like, “Welcome next-generation leadership” . . . every time you’re talking to a big group. And so it’s not necessarily based on a number of years or experience or, you know, academic degrees or anything like that . . . I guess a lot of times when we’re talking to, quote, unquote, “young leaders,” we’re really talking to people who aren’t established. Like, they’re not established politicians. They don’t already have a lot of power than maybe a marginalized group, and really trying to work with those people to help them find their power.2
This loose definition of “young” as “next generation leadership” of people who are not necessarily established, regardless of age or experience, recognizes and challenges how young is defined and by whom as well as some of the power dynamics that affect representation, [End Page 20] inclusion, and access to knowledge, resources, decision-making, and results in Appalachian communities. It also characterizes much of the work by and for young people in the Appalachian region and illustrates how connections between youth generations are maintained over time through the organizations and networks that support that work.
There are practical and philosophical ways to define who is young, what youth means, and what is possible for young people to imagine and enact. There are also political economic implications for categorizing youth generations, equating “youth” with the “future,” and determining to what extent and which young people are included in regional development and organizing efforts. With the most recent presidential election, much attention has focused on the economic classes and opportunities in Appalachia and young people today are experiencing and navigating a new moment that deserves documentation. The YAA project documents intergenerational experiences of and reflections on youth, gender, civic engagement, and activism, and regional development in Appalachia. The YAA project also explores comparative perspectives on what it means to be young at different times and in different social contexts, and what people think is possible for people in the region...