About two years ago I briefly mentioned a presentation made by Ben Fink at a conference about a community solar project Appalshop was working on in the heart of Kentucky coal country. Fink recently had a piece on the Brookings Institution website that went into detail about the where the effort stands today.
I wanted to point to it as an example of a cultural organization working in productive partnership with a community whose politics might strongly differ from their own .
The solar project wasn’t something Appalshop decided to do whole-cloth because they thought it was the right thing for the community. It was built on the relationships and trust developed over the course of years while working in partnership on other projects that aligned with the interests and needs of the community.
Results of this community wealth-building work have included expanding an award-winning farmers’ market into a community kitchen, reviving Kentucky’s oldest community square dance, and starting a brick oven bakery where neighbors recovering from addiction and incarceration could find work.
Despite being in the middle of coal fields, one of the biggest challenges facing companies and organizations was rising energy costs that threatened the existence of everything from the local markets to the volunteer firehouse. While solar provided a solution to this ironic situation, being located in the middle of coal fields also made it a hot button issue.
Bringing solar to coal country was risky. Coal had been king for generations, and there was plenty of propaganda accusing solar supporters of siding with “elite, anti-coal activists.” It would have been easy to assume “the community” would oppose the project—except for the fact that the community was the one running it….
But the relationships built through the CCED process remained strong; the fire chief, a former strip mine boss and lifelong right-winger, continued to champion the project.
This work is not about changing residents’ political views. It’s about neighbors coming together across differences to create a new story about the place we all live in and love. To some, it’s a story about saving the planet. To others, it’s about saving money or fighting an energy company. But to everyone, it’s about supporting our communities and the centers that keep them strong.
The reference to the fire chief remaining a supporter was a testament to the strengths of the relationships they built. The fire house was a partner in the solar project but backed out when a gas company guaranteed the firehouse would never lose its gas supply. The fact the fire chief remained a supporter illustrates that his involvement wasn’t just motivated by desperate need.
Fink suggests that the relationships they formed helped overcome the perception that life in their community was a zero-sum prospect where what was better for someone else meant you lose.