It’s been a year since we started following six Appalachians as they grappled with whether to stay in their home state or leave for better opportunities. On this week’s episode, we’ll revisit those we profiled in our Struggle to Stay series– and reflect on what we learned as we helped them tell their stories.
We’ll listen to two live events we recorded at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference this year in Cincinnati, and in Blacksburg in 2017. The conversations were a continuation of this reporting project, in which we helped several people record themselves for an entire year as they wrestled with the decision to move away or stay in West Virginia.
West Virginia’s population has steadily declined in recent years, and researchers predict that overall it will continue to lose its youngest residents. The struggle to stay is not unique to West Virginia. But generational cycles of poverty, a deadly opioid epidemic and other challenges here have both prompted the egress of young people – or made the move out of reach.
One West Virginian we featured, 21-year-old Colt Brogan, grew up along the Coal River in Lincoln County. After considering joining the Army, he decided to stay in West Virginia and is now working for a farmer-training program called Refresh Appalachia learning to grow vegetables, raise meat and run his own business, while pursuing an associate’s degree at a local community college.
Another featured in our series, 21-year-old Kyran Dawe, lives in Shepherstown and works as a server at a restaurant by day.
By night, he runs a new theater company he launched with some of his friends. Kyran also identifies as a trangender man. He was born a female, and when we first met him, he had not yet completed his transition. Kyran was recently offered a job out West, and he’s considering taking it. The opportunity would bring him closer to his parents, who have relocated to Colorado, and it would mean more financial stability too. But he’d have to abandon his friends, as well as the theater company he helped start in West Virginia.
Inside Appalachia producer Roxy Todd reflected on her desire to keep in touch with those featured in the project – and how a long-term project like this one never feels truly finished.
“These people had a deep impact on me personally. I’ve seen them at some of their saddest points, their most angry, and their most hopeful. I’ve seen them stubbornly keep on course and stay true to their goals, even during the toughest and most stressful times,” she said.” One thing that I think unites these stories is the belief that finding a home, a job, and feeling settled is one of the most difficult struggles we human beings ever face.”
Brogan discovered that finding peace with his self-identity was mostly tied to finding a secure job, but sometimes, Todd observed, the desire to find your place in the world can also be tied to how you feel about your family, and the place where you grew up.
“I’ve begun to think of this struggle as sort of an inner search for home, and it seems to be at the root of so many of these stories,” she said. “There’s a unique longing for home in Appalachia, I think, because we have a much deeper sense of home. It’s rare and special, and I think that’s what keeps drawing me back to these stories.”
We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from Liz McCormick, Glynis Board, Chuck Kleine and the Appalachian Studies Association.
Inside Appalachia is produced by Jessica Lilly and Roxy Todd. Catherine Moore edited this episode. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Molly Born is our web editor. You can find us online on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can e-mail us at InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.