Deane Quillen

“You can only work in a coffee shop in Lexington so long, before you get tired of people saying App-a-LAY-shia.”

Deane Quillen, Age 33, Public Health Researcher, Vanderbilt University/Creator of Defend Appalachia; Nashville, Tennessee, Originally from Dean, Kentucky, Letcher County:

“Growing up, I lived on the outskirts of Letcher County. I lived on the last turn before you hit the Knott County line. I was away from everyone, and away from the hustle and bustle of Whitesburg. I didn’t have much money at all, but grew up on a lot of land. I really connected to the land and the place. [I] had lots of outside time, lots of gardening. As a kid, I did lots of exploring and reading, lots of sort of creating your own adventures, using your imagination because no one your age lived nearby and you couldn’t walk anywhere. [I] was just out in the hills a lot, learned how to ginseng and that sort of stuff when I was a kid. I have one sister; she’s eight years younger than me though. I left for college when I was sixteen. 

I went to three different high schools. I was kind of a nerd a little bit, but I was kind of a punk kid also, so I played some music. I don’t have a lot to say about my high school days. I just bounced around. My parents were pretty intent on making sure I had the best education, at least, so they if they knew that there was a good teacher that year, especially math, a good math teacher at this school, they would do whatever they could to make sure that I went to that school.

My parents did a little bit of nothing and everything. My mom stayed at home. We usually had one car maybe between all of us, and lived eighteen miles from the county seat so there wasn’t a lot in terms of working outside. My dad just sort of did a lot of odd jobs. He was a schoolteacher for a while, but other than that [did] odd jobs to get by.

[I left after high school] for college. I went to EKU, Eastern Kentucky University for their forensics program but then decided to stick around for their sociology, because why not? Sociology is interesting. That’s where I went for my undergrad. I went to graduate school, I just finished grad school and that was at UNC, University of North Carolina, it was all online. 

[After college] I was back and forth working with Appalshop a little bit doing their youth program as an intern and then as a trainer and then worked on some getting media into the classroom and working on curriculum development. So local documentary media was an interest for a while. 

Appalshop is the Appalachian Media Workshop that was built, if I am not mistaken, in 1969 give or take. There’s an afterschool program, there’s a high school kids working on documentary work and Appalshop now is a collective of film makers. We have plays; we have a radio station, WMMT, that’s community run. We have JuneAppal recordings, and the Roadside Theatre. They have a youth program the Appalachian Media Institute. It’s sort of a hub. Every year, they also have the Seedtime Festival, which is a little more arts and crafts oriented than a lot of the county festivals in the region. 

So the emphasis is on preserving culture, and proliferating throughout other communities what it means to be an artist, and be contributing to the fabric of what it means to be Central Appalachian.

Working in that setting, I started getting interested in this idea of younger people being proud of their heritage specifically. I had this idea for a while, but it never came to fruition, of having an info-shop that was geared toward young people in Whitesburg, but could be replicated in other similar communities. The idea that I always had that I liked was that there are a lot of divisive politics at play in this region because of land politics and the economy and all that. I always wanted to do something that would motivate people on either side of this very contentious discussion. Whether it’s coal, coal jobs, environmentalism, these two factions or all sorts of things, 

I wanted to do things that related to both of those sets of these people so that when they saw that they had this common ground, that’s where the conversation could begin. ‘Ok, we’re all in the community together, how do we move it forward?’

Historically, and in a nutshell, I think a lot of indigenous people in the country and across the globe have this sort of natural progression of things, where they are land rich. They are not financially rich, there’s not a bustling economy. But then someone else comes in and says, ‘you have what we want, let’s pay you very little to have it,’ and it has these profound effects that just reverberate from generation to generation to generation. So, you have these people who are very connected to, for instance, [the] coal industry. Very connected to the land and then they can no longer use the land for what they were using it for. 

There are all of these complicated economic issues at play, so it never really comes down to just for or against coal mining, or for or against saving this mountaintop or that mountaintop or whatever the issue is. There’s identity and land and place and family and roots and all sorts of things at play. There’s a lot of common ground there that I think it’s not as black and white as people make it out to be.

Right now I do public health research. I work at Vanderbilt now. I worked at University of Kentucky and Hazard, Kentucky for about four and one-half years with injection drug users and Hepatitis C and HIV. So our issue is research, drug abuse and right now I am working on childhood obesity, but really injection drug use and how it affects rural areas differently than urban areas just because of the health disparities because of access to resources and that sort of thing. That’s my day job.

[Leaving here] is a complicated issue because it’s easy to say that a lot of people leave either because they have a negative perception you know, they had maybe a rough childhood. Some people leave because they are running from something. Some people leave because they are running toward something. And some people just don’t know where they are supposed to be and they have to feel out every big town, little town and every place in between. I’m probably the latter. But, my best friends are still in Kentucky, Southeastern Kentucky, specifically. 

I am a little bit of a rambler. I like to be a little bit of everywhere. I left for college initially, and after that I can understand objectively it is difficult if you’ve moved away, trying to go home again because you’ve romanticized the place. It is not going to be the same. You’ve probably gotten used to some conveniences. Not having to wait until you go, say to the nearest city a couple hours away every month to get your natural foods or the little things that you’ve grown accustomed to. There are other issues that and considerations that probably aren’t on the forefront aside from making sure you have a job, a viable livelihood. Maybe you have found a partner, a girlfriend or boyfriend, husband or wife while you were living in the city. How do you convince them to move to a town of maybe six hundred people or a thousand people and you don’t know anyone there? ‘So let’s hope this works out because I’m all you have here.’ On the other hand, how do you go, ‘okay, how am I gonna find someone there, if you’re single?’ So, there are a lot of things at play in terms of moving back home, or when’s the right time to move back home. 

Some people leave because of family; some people come back because of family. Then, when your family dies off and you are the oldest generation left, you know that can happen relatively soon. In a way, that’s how I feel. I have aunts and uncles who are still here. My parents moved off and my grandparents have all died. So, it’s not the same. 

And so I moved away again a couple of years ago for school. I moved away, even though my Master’s Program was online. I moved to Nashville, because I didn’t know anyone there. I couldn’t handle the social life in the mountains. I thought I would get a little quiet time in this big city. Which is kinda funny, but I didn’t know anyone there so that’s where I went. I understand there are a lot of things at play in a lot of people’s hearts…you know Harry Caudill called the hills/mountains “you move away but you always feel you need to be giving back, you need to be coming back, and so you are never really away from the mountains.”

Appalachian culture means a lot of different things. I can only speak about my little corner because I don’t know what is going on in Northern Appalachia but just say Central Appalachia, the coalfields, specifically. The culture itself, you have a lot of people who are doing things for themselves. And I think that’s something that you see in this generation and yesterday’s generation. You see people who don’t expect to be given anything and so they start building things for themselves. You see these little businesses popping up right now especially. 

You see more artist-centered little stores and people having these little cottage industries and it’s just a reflection of their ancestors raising their own food and canning their own food and making their own quilts. It’s all that same idea of sustainability and doing for themselves. That’s the biggest thing I see in this; pride about being who they are because of the land, not just because of the social scene that they are part of, but because they’re able to identify as an individual part of a bigger community. 

Something that is lost in urban environments is that connection to the community, and feeling like, if I move away this is going to be missing. You’re not going to feel that in a city of two million. You leave; no one’s going to miss you. But you leave [here] and you go, ‘Oh, I wonder who is doing this now. I’m hoping someone picked that task up and is still doing it.’ We all feel like stewards, and when we are not here, we feel like representatives.

So this [Defend Appalachia] was born out of some doodles I guess I did back in 2006 or 2005. I was living in Lexington then. You can only work in a coffee shop in Lexington so long before you get tired of people saying App-a-LAY-shia. And then you draw something. Defend Brooklyn was probably the first Defend logo that happened, and I saw that probably back in 2002 or 2003 maybe. I said you know, ‘I think Appalachia needs that, because there’s a lot of bad stuff said about a lot of stereotypes.’ You just get tired, you get tired of being expected to apologize for either the way you speak or the things you know, but don’t know, about urban life. 

Folks in the mountains have to go to Lexington or some city in the surrounding area for health care, for a lot of conveniences, but folks there never really have to come to Appalachia unless they really want to. And so you just get tired of that after a while, and you have to say ‘you know I’m not apologizing for that, in fact, I’m proud of it.’ And so, even though it says Defend and there’s a little .22 rifle, it’s saying ‘you know, I think you should defend this area.’ It means a lot to a lot of people. I’m proud of it, so before you even ask, just let me wear it on my sleeve and I’m telling you that I am proud of this area.’ 

Like I said, I had this idea of appealing to a lot of young people, and making them feel proud of where they are. It’s assertive enough, but it’s also a casual conversational piece. You wear that and someone says, ‘Yeah, I’m curious. Is it true that…’ and then you hear everything. They feel safer in saying, ‘is it true,’ and then you say, ‘Oh, that’s offensive, no.’

The rifle was the first thing I drew up, and that was based on a hybrid between stories I heard about my great-granddad. He was a union man in the coalmines, and he was working in the mines in the 1930’s, and as you know the 1930’s were a little rough and tumble around these parts in the mines. He’s up in Letcher County. He always carried a .22 on the picket line, sawed off, I think it was sawed off. It was a cross between that and the gun that my grandmother always kept behind her door, which was a little Steven’s .22. She just kept it, because Appalachia is full of matriarchs and grandmothers tend to keep the families together. It was rusted when she died, she never really shot it, she never had to, but it was right next to her boots.

There are four major designs I had in mind when I was coming up with these. I had the rifle, I had the farmer and the mules, I had the miner’s hard hat or helmet and the carbide lamp and I had the musical instruments. They each represented four ways that I thought that you can sort of defend your identity and your cultural identity. You have arts and culture with the music, you have the helmets are work and labor. The mule and the farmer you have being a steward of the land or self-sufficiency and you have, with the rifle, a sort of that militant attitude. If you have to, you will defend what’s yours, and so it’s more of a confrontational [one]. 

I liked this idea that different people can interpret those images in different ways depending on either their social or political stance on a topic, or they’re upbringing and everything. So, someone sees the coal miner’s helmet. As I said before, coal can be a very divisive topic. You don’t talk about it unless you’re in friendly company, or else words might get exchanged. But, it’s a very complicated topic that you don’t talk about so much to people unless you want to get in that heavy conversation, because we have a number of differing opinions on how coal should be mined, where it should be mined, who should be mining it, or whether they should be mining it at all. And some people could say, ‘If you’re trying to protect this mountaintop, you’re trying to take food off my table, out of my kid’s mouth.’ 

My great-granddad worked in the mines. He made his money working in the mines, and so did all of my family up until my generation, I guess. I can’t deny that, but I also can’t deny that over one hundred acres of that land was strip mined. It doesn’t look the same as when I grew up. There are a lot of issues there. 

And so the helmet I tried to make it as the 1920’s, late teens to mid-1920’s style helmet or hardhat. There’s that historic context, like I’m proud, it doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with the way things are extracted from the land. If you came from a line of miners you should be proud of the hard work that your ancestors did. It’s that gritty sort of imagery, and I think there are a couple different conversations about that. With the rifle, I’ve heard one person say, ‘You know, I saw so and so wear that shirt for the first time, and I didn’t know she was pro-gun, and then I talked to her about it and I was like, Oh, so that’s what it means to you.’ Okay, it’s an attitude more than a rifle. 

It’s breaking down those things that, on the surface are black and white, and you just want to encapsulate everything into sound bites and make them very simple and palatable to people on the outside, because living outside the region you kinda have to do that. When someone says, ‘What do you think about coal?’ You have to sort of stop and go ‘I can’t answer that as quickly as you want me to.’ So these things inspire these kinds of conversations to happen. And maybe for someone who wants to demonstrate that they are pro-gun, that’s the shirt they’ll wear, too. I like all the conversations that happen in the gray area, and that’s what some of the imagery is all about.

I do hope [to come back to the mountains]. Right now I am sort of trapped in, ‘well, I went to a grad school, now do I go to a doctorate program, and if I do I can’t do that here.’ My career path in my mind is such that I want to get as many resources as I can living in urban areas, and see how things are applied there. Just my interest in public health, we have issues that affect urban areas here too, especially with the proliferation of prescription drug abuse throughout communities from 1998 or so on, especially. We have those issues here, but we have these other health concerns like these issues of transportation and other issues that folks in urban areas don’t even think about. When I’m doing things in an urban environment, I’m always thinking of how can I apply those when I come back to the mountains. So yes, I see myself coming back. But at the same time, I’m a rambler, so I can’t commit to one spot for the rest of my life. I get a little anxiety. But I really hope, and it’s my full intention, to be back here soon and in the interim, as much as possible when I can.

A lot of people’s only perception of folks from this region are in the media. Mass media has never been friendly to folks who do not adopt a standard accent, the broadcaster’s accent. We have a lot of stereotypes. I think there’s this idea that folks around here are simple, and if you look around, they are anything but. That’s why I love some of the short stories by some of the writers like Henry Caudill, Jesse Stuart, and James Stovall. You have these guys, who don’t seem too swift, but they’re pulling one on you and you don’t see it because they know how to get by. It’s definitely not simple around here. You want to stick a city slicker in the mountains and see how long they survive. It’s hard to make for your own. Things are always more complicated than they appear on the surface. That’s a theme that goes through my mind all the time. I like to bring up those sorts of complexities of people, and place and issues.” 

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