Do you ever wonder how really good people can so fervently disagree about so many things? My job again reminded me of that paradox this week.
It started with a trip last weekend to southeastern Kentucky where I had dinner Sunday night with a collection of committed troublemakers (that’s a compliment by the way). Among the diners at Jenny Wiley State Park were journalists, authors, lawyers, academics, environmentalists, and even a judge and a minister.
They are all exceptionally bright people and exceptionally committed to helping others build a brighter future. Warm and funny, they soldier on in the face of serial defeats and disappointments. It takes courage. Most of all it takes a deep and abiding love for a place and its people.
On Monday, I gathered with 1,700 in the East Kentucky Expo Center in Pikeville to listen to a “conversation” about how to improve the lives of those who live in eastern Kentucky and its coal fields. The troublemakers were there though they were outnumbered by folks who make up the establishment.
As I talked to people from both sides, coal defenders who value its wages and jobs and also those who fear its destructiveness to the land and the culture, I saw clearly that nearly all of them care deeply for their neighbors and genuinely want to help. They share a vision, but disagree on the path to reaching it. Most importantly, they share that deep love for the place and its people.
I was there from 8 a.m. until nearly 7 p.m. and during the entire day I never heard anyone talking about “the war on coal.” I was encouraged by the number of young people with a passion for their region and personal determination to make a better future. I was impressed by the sense of common ground and lack of finger-pointing.
Sure, there were a few in the crowd who were there only to defend their personal interests. They’re easy to spot in Frankfort or in Pikeville. Their inability to understand how transparent they are always amazes me. But they were the few while the many were those from both sides of the coal argument who genuinely want to help.
I spent some time with someone who works within the power and political establishment of the region, someone who might be viewed as part of the problem by some of my trouble-making friends. But he gets things done. He gets a whole lot of things done that benefit his community, his region and especially his neighbors.
He, like those around the dinner table Sunday night at Jenny Wiley State Park, gives the lie to stereotypes outsiders have of the people of eastern Kentucky. Incredibly bright and hard-working, he has a big heart and shares that deep and abiding love for the region. He’s made life a lot better for a lot of people.
The problems of the region are so many and they are so big. I don’t have a clue as to what the actual solutions might be. But it’s not for outsiders and flatlanders like me to find them. It is up to the people who live there and I’m encouraged because they seemed to be so serious Monday about talking to each other. If they ever begin to work together, if they’ll just try trusting each other, I do not doubt they can overcome their differences and their problems.
It reminds me of the wisdom of a loving aunt who when she couldn’t quite reconcile the paradoxes around her would smile and say: “Well, it takes all kinds.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.
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