Opportunity Southwest Virginia

Arts, culture, and craft entrepreneurs prove their value as economic drivers

In 2011, staff in the Office of Economic Development at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise (UVa-Wise) recognized a challenge. With a mission to encourage economic development in Southwest Virginia by connecting the community with the college’s resources and building professional and leadership development, there was one piece missing: A culture of entrepreneurship.

“Entrepreneurship is critically important,” says Shannon Blevins, Associate Vice Chancellor for Economic Development and Engagement at UVa-Wise. “Helping people identify their talents and passions, and helping them create their own jobs and business, they will stay with your community, they won’t leave, and when you’re thinking about retention and growth strategy, entrepreneurship is so important.”

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Clear Creek Creative

In the winter of 2014, land prospectors started showing up in Rockcastle County, Kentucky. They were scoping out land for the next big hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”,  boom in Appalachia, looking to extract mineral rights and resources before the coal industry finally took its last dying breaths. Using divide-and-conquer tactics, they were hoping to buy up land leases from families in the community, offering money as the cold winter months approached in exchange for mineral rights.

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Appalachian Puppet Pageant & What the Water Tells Me

Hip-hop, theater, and puppets help grow new relationships and economies

The Appalachian Puppet Pageant takes to the streets of East Knoxville each year in a community parade that celebrates art, culture, and the resilience of the historically Black community it’s rooted in. A 10-foot tall papier-mâché Dolly Parton puppet dances alongside papier-mâché animals to the sounds of live music while community groups and neighbors in masks and costumes march alongside each other in a spectacle of pure joy. 

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Keeper of the Mountains | SolarFest

In a 2012 Earthjustice video, Keeper of the Mountains co-founder Larry Gibson guides the camera crew across the lush, wooded property on Kayford Mountain in Kanawha County, West Virginia that his family has lived on since the 1700s. 

As his tour proceeds through the woods and up the grassy mountain, it ends at what should be a breathtaking view of rolling green mountains as far as the eye can see. Instead, Gibson reaches the apex only to unveil one of the largest mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachia – 7,500 sprawling acres of gravel and rock devoid of any plant life, trees, or beauty. After almost 30 years of constant destruction on the mountain he called home, the sight still moves him to tears.

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Black Soil: Our Better Nature

“Food connects us and art tells the story of those connections.” – Black Soil: Our Better Nature

Black Soil, a social enterprise based out of Lexington, KY, launched in 2017 by Ashley C . Smith and Trevor Claiborn, her partner in life and in work. Their focus is to revive and reclaim the agricultural heritage of Black Kentuckians to build economic opportunities for 21st century Black farmers and producers through hands-on technical support and strategies including educational workshops, community events like Farm Tours and Farm-to-Table Dinners that showcase Black farmers and Black culinary artists, and by lifting up the stories and history of Black agricultural experience through art, cultural sharing, and community-building.

“If you reach back two generations or less, most African Americans will say they had a significant family connection to foodways by sustenance growing and farming, having stories of communities being so prideful of the harvest and the crop,” Smith says. “Our mission is to reconnect Black Kentuckians to their heritage, legacy, and  agriculture. If you don’t know you’re a foundational pioneer in these industries, you can accept erasure, and we’re here to say ‘no more’ because when you break down the economic impact of agriculture, there are so many ways people can be included.”  Smith plants names like seeds – Nancy Green, Booker T. Whatley, Edna Lewis – Black agricultural and foodways pioneers whose legacies are the roots of Black Soil’s work today.

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