Appalachia is badly in need of a savior, it would seem. Economics confirm it, with 80 Appalachian counties classified as “distressed.” Netflix confirms it with its new film, “Hillbilly Elegy.” Appalachia is ground zero for the portrait of white lower-middle class collapse and deaths of despair.
Yet Cassie Chambers Armstrong, who grew up in the poorest county in Appalachia – and the United States – sees a different portrait. Yes, the problems facing Appalachia are severe. But the people also have gifts to share.
Ms. Armstrong is author of “Hill Women,” which chronicles the generations of strong, resourceful Appalachian women who helped her on her way to three Ivy League degrees. “The impression is that it is so broken that it can only be saved if outsiders swoop in to rescue it,” she tells me. But Appalachia “has all the skills it needs to solve its own problems.”
The answer is not in the false bootstrap narrative of people saving themselves, either, she says. It is in helping Appalachia build on its strengths – its resilience, its ingenuity, its deep community connections – and not treating it as a charity case. After all, Ms. Armstrong says, Appalachia has things to teach the rest of the country, too. In Appalachia, “you take a sense of ownership for people in your community and take care of them.”