Read our regularly updated blog posts from young people engaged in real work on behalf of their communities.
This week we introduce Ethan Hamblin from Berea, Kentucky.
Read Ethan’s post about developing leadership among rural young people.
A Network of Support: Linking organizations and youth
When I was a little boy, my mother told me that the most important thing in the world was family. For some, family includes only the individuals of which you are blood kin. Yet here in the mountains, our family runs deeper than just who is supposed to show up at the reunion. Family includes the neighbors in the next holler over, the best friends you have had since kindergarten, the lady sitting three pews back who babysat your father, and the waitress at your favorite restaurant who knows your entire family tree. As you can see, that family reunion quickly becomes a community potluck where all are invited. Everyone brings a covered dish and gets a seat on the front porch.
Now I would be lying if I told you that planning a community potluck is easy. A small squabble will always erupt over when and where the event will be held and should we actually invite “everyone”. In my opinion, the when and where will work themselves out, but the invitation should undoubtedly be shared with everyone. Whether it is food, plates, drinks, tables, music, paper for the invitation, a Facebook guru to spread the word, or a photographer to make sure our scrapbook is complete, each person will have something to do.
After this diligent planning, the occasion will be a smashing success. I can see the lady from three pews back lean toward the mayor and say, “Greatest thing that has happened to this town in years. This little shindig will be happening long after we are gone.”
The question is who will carry on this tradition? Who will be in this community for the long haul?
Some folks may question the expertise of the “youngsters,” but it is our young people who will be tasked with keeping the traditions, the culture, and the beliefs of their community alive. Yet they face a rugged landscape of our poor education systems, healthcare, and failing arts/recreation programs. As high school graduates, they battle with thoughts of displacement as they decide their next steps; should I stay or should I go? Where are the jobs? Can I afford to build a life here?
We must burn that tick before it sucks the lifeblood right out of our communities. Out-migration cannot be the norm any longer. The survival of a community depends on the people who want to take up planning the potluck.
The key institutions of a community (schools, businesses, NPOs, church leaders, family members, civic organizations, etc) must band together to bridge the gaps that have emerged between the individual and the organization. If an organization has a labor position or summer internship, then they should reach out to the educational institutions to find students who would be perfect for that position. Being “perfect” for the position does not mean that you are straight-A, honor roll, or President of the Class. It means that you have the passion and drive, AND the support to succeed.
In turn, NPOs, grassroots organizations, civic organizations, and local movements must support youth involvement and leadership. Youth outreach programs from our civic organizations must be structured, organized, and carried out by the youth themselves. Every Board of Directors should have an active youth member who is respected and trusted.
It is not just about “allowing” or “placing” young people on our panels, boards, and committees. It’s about building a network of support around our young people, sharing responsibility for the future of the community, and building knowledge across generations.
Now is the time. We must go back to the front porch and reevaluate what we have to do:
We want a community potluck. Let’s call that sustainable community development.
We had a few squabbles. That could be anything from board meetings to social change to political disputes to economic crisis.
We want everyone to come. Let’s call it diversity, especially representation from all ethnicities, disciplines, businesses, and organizations.
We know that everyone is bringing something. There is our wealth: time, talent, and treasure.
We have young people, our greatest asset. Let’s give them to tools they need to sustain us for the long haul.
Ethan Hamblin was raised on Gays Creek, KY deep in the heart of Appalachia. He values familism, community action, and emerging leadership. Ethan is currently a student at Berea College where he is pursuing a degree in Appalachian Studies. Ethan has served as an intern for the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky where he helped establish the Youth Leadership and Philanthropy Initiative. In his spare time you can find him sitting on his front porch with a cup of coffee and talking nonstop with his fantastic family.