“We are the roots we will build the future on. Tomorrow’s ours, and to me that’s the most exciting thing.”
Annie Zomaya, Age 20, Student, Eastern Kentucky University; Cumberland, Kentucky, Harlan County:
“I was actually born in Chicago, Illinois, and moved here when I was five years old because my mother wanted to get closer to her family that was here. She was born in Benham, Kentucky, and raised in Chicago.
My father was an Iraqi immigrant. He came to the States in 1975, and met my mother in Chicago. He lives there [in Chicago] now.
[My mother’s] parents moved her family to Chicago to find work because my grandfather, coalmining was not the life that he wanted. He moved to Chicago to find work, and then moved here in ’99 after he retired. My mother decided that she wanted to be closer to her family here, so she came back, too. I’m not for sure [when my grandfather left here originally], I would say the early ’60s.
It’s just the culture [that brings people back here]. It’s this unspoken thing that everyone just feels. It’s like there’s a wavelength that everyone around here lives on. It’s maybe hard for an outsider to understand it. It’s hard to put into words. There’s something about the culture and the way of life here that is just really attractive, like a magnet.
It was a lot different, [Chicago when I was young]. I’ve visited my father over summers, [and] the way of life is just polar opposite. Here, you wave at strangers when you’re driving by. Up there, if you so much as make eye contact with a stranger, they immediately become defensive. It’s just a colder area, both talking about weather and not. Here, it’s more of a close-knit community. There’s just a sense of trust here.
[In Chicago for fun, I’d] go to parks, go to museums, the malls. I always loved going to the malls, because that’s something we don’t have here. If you want to go the mall here, you have to travel two hours out of the way. That was always my favorite part about it. And just seeing the diversity there, it is really beautiful. People from all over the world come there. You don’t see a whole lot of diversity here, but when you do see it, it’s like, ‘Oh my Gosh!’ You just light up inside.
As a kid here, it was more like, get down and dirty. Go outside, run around, roll around in the grass and play with the dog, and the neighborhood kids. It was more stay-at-home here, and in a city, it’s more go-out-and-do-something. Either way is fun, I guess. I enjoy both. But it’s completely, completely different.
My mother’s maiden name is Brown. My Papaw [was] Carlos Brown. Jr. The [Brown] twins, those are my aunts! They are my mother’s half-sisters. They have the same father. Their mother passed away when they were very young, and then he met my grandmother, which is my mother’s mother. He grew up here in Southeastern Kentucky and absolutely loved it. He grew up playing music. He was good friends with Hugh X. Lewis, the musician. He was my Papaw’s bluegrass music buddy.
Hugh X. Lewis, I don’t know if he was more bluegrass or country, but one of those (laughs) – southern musicians. He’s known for the white hat. He’s definitely part of the Eastern Kentucky pride. I believe he is [in the Country Music Hall of Fame].
Like I said, [Papaw] loved it here, but he did not want to lead the coalminer life. He tried it and it just was not what he wanted. My Grandma grew up in Letcher County. She’s from Linefork. Her maiden name was Georgia Cornett, now she’s Georgia Brown.
It’s funny, growing up I always thought I preferred the city life. I always thought I wanted to go back to that. About this time last year, I actually made the move to Chicago. I said, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore. I want to get out and have a real life.’ That was my way of thinking. I ended up coming back because college credits that I had earned here in my first year of college would not transfer, so I had to come back to finish school.
It was in that time, since then to now, that I have gotten involved with Higher Ground and the It’s Good 2 Be Young In The Mountains Planning Committee. They’ve just completely changed my life. They’ve opened their hearts up to me, and made me see this region in a way that I’d never even thought about looking at it before. Now, I really love it here, and the culture here. But I can’t choose between the two, honestly. I guess I’m kind of a hybrid. Or I just don’t like decisions. When I’m here, I enjoy it, and when I’m with my Dad I enjoy that. I just try to live in the moment. There’s beauty to both sides of it, really.
Higher Ground is a community performance project. It’s like community theater. I think it’s been going on for about 10 years. I just joined their last performance, Higher Ground 5: Find a Way. I knew Robert Gipe from high school. He used to come to my high school. I took Drama there; he would come sometimes and help us out with things. I saw him one day on Southeast’s campus and just said, ‘Hey, are you doing anything with Higher Ground soon?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, we’re actually starting a new production, so you should come and check it out.’ I joined it, and I just fell in love with the people. They just welcomed me in like family.
Robert Gipe is… aw man, who isn’t Robert Gipe? He is an author, he’s an actor, he lives here in Harlan, Kentucky. He’s just a firecracker. He is the catalyst behind Higher Ground. Higher Ground is completely original, it is written by people here. We take the stories of Eastern Kentucky people and weave them into a play. We do it in a way that is honest and respectful of the people here. We don’t want to [do it like] if an outsider came in and took stories and tried to turn it into something. It would not be the same. We are our own people telling our own story. We talk about issues that people face here. In the last production, Find a Way, we talked about a coalminer that lost his job and then immediately lost his son. Then his daughter had to come out to her parents that she was lesbian. We discuss real issues that people have faced here, and how they have overcome them.
A lot of times, people will come from outside of the region, and/or maybe not even make the trip, they just base it off of what they’ve seen in the media, their opinion of the people in the area. It seems to be particularly negative; you know, the barefoot and pregnant stereotype. That’s just not true. You see that here, but you see that everywhere. Really, if you look hard enough, you will see it in cities. Everyone has their problems.
What this place has that I think the media doesn’t show enough of, is the art that is created here. The beautiful minds. People work hard here, and they explore, and they create things that are beautiful. It’s hard to see that in just one trip here or one documentary. If someone really wanted to know what life in Appalachia is like, they need to come and spend a week with a family that lives here, and let them make ‘em feel at home, make ‘em some soup beans and cornbread, and show ‘em the country way of life. It’s a beautiful life.
(Stereotypes) Maybe they don’t think we’re smart enough to understand it and realize that they’re putting us down. But we do. That’s what this group of people here today is all about, showing that it is good to be young in the mountains, and we’re more than stereotypes. One girl, when we were telling her about the conference, she was like, ‘Is it really good to be young here? You know, with all the stereotypes?’ We quoted her as saying, ‘I’m more than a stereotype.’ That is 100% true. We all are.
We’re calling it’s Good 2 Be Young In The Mountains [IG2BYITM] the conference that feels like a festival. Essentially, it was created by a group of young people in Appalachia that wanted to make their voices heard. We heard about all of these events and organizations that were talking about rural development and developing the Central Appalachian region, and we were like, ‘Well, let’s do that!’ As young people, let’s come together and share our ideas and our thoughts and our skills, and work together to move forward and create a brighter future. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re teaching people new things. We’re meeting new people. We’re challenging ourselves, we’re challenging others, challenging the community. My personal goal is, at the end of this event, to walk away with new skills and a renewed ambition to build a brighter future for Appalachia.
We have people [in attendance] from West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina… I believe there’s somebody from Oregon, which is not Appalachia, but whatever, join the party. We actually have some internationals: someone from Italy, someone from the Ukraine.
We’re the future. We are the roots we will build the future on. Tomorrow’s ours, and to me that’s the most exciting thing. What’s next? Who can answer that question, really? That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to create that answer. Hopefully it’s a really, really good one (laughs).
Am I a hillbilly? Yeah, I guess I am. It means that I’m somebody that knows how to have a good time in the hills of Kentucky and I’m not afraid to say it.
Here [at Mom’s house], it’s like, soup beans and cornbread and all them country vittles. Then, I go to my father’s house and they have shawarma and tabouli and falafel. It’s completely different. I love falafel, it’s my favorite. My Grandma and my Dad’s sisters, they’re both the best cooks I know. If I have to be honest, my favorite is the Middle Eastern cuisine. I have a pretty diverse palate. Maybe it’s because I don’t get to eat it that often, when I do I’m like, ‘This is so good.’
[Where else will the voices of this conference be heard?] We’re trying to encourage people to get more involved in their communities. So, you know, going to town meetings. We’re doing a power mapping activity later on, over the course of the event, to find out where the power is in our region, and what we can do to contribute to that. I hope people take some of it into their personal lives, too, to just step out and do their small part in the community. For me personally, I’ll be going to Eastern Kentucky University. This time next week, actually, will be my first day there. I’ll [be] applying for an internship with an agency working to improve life in Eastern Kentucky. I definitely want to do more things like this in the future, and get involved in rural development, philanthropy, and things like that. Officially, I’m a Public Relations major, but I do want to go into the non-profit field.
What’s the answer [to the future of Appalachia]? Diversify, for the economy. Definitely can’t put all your eggs in one basket. We saw that worked for a little while, worked for a long time, but it’s not working anymore. The thing is, there’s so much potential here and I don’t know why it hasn’t been utilized yet. We have smart people. We have hard working people. We have talented people. There are so many things that could take root here and take off and be something great. I don’t know why it hasn’t happened yet, but I’m really excited and confident that it will happen.
I think [the biggest roadblock] may be a fear of change in the people, especially the older generations. People have got to figure out what they fear more, stagnation or change. Right now, we’re pretty stagnant with the economy. We almost don’t have a choice. I understand that a lot of families were built on coal here, and that’s wonderful and I think that should be celebrated and remembered, but there’s more to us than just that. Like my friend Devyn Creech said, we’re more than a rock in the ground. We have so much more to offer than one thing. We really need to show the world what we’ve got.
When I leave this world, I want to leave behind more than bones. I want people to remember me as a person that had a hope inside of her, that was willing to make changes, and do what it took just to make the world a better place. That opened new doors for people to build their dreams here, without feeling like they had to leave.
That is really unclear to me right now [if I’ll live the rest of my life in the mountains]. If I do or if I don’t, I will be totally cool with whatever happens because I’ve learned to stop fighting the present and accept where you are. Ever since I started doing that, all of these opportunities have been flooding into my life and it’s great. If I do remain here, I will do all that I can to help this place prosper. If I’m not here, I still want to see it prosper and I still want to do my part to help make that happen.”