At the 2018 Appalachian Studies Conference in Cincinnati members of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project along with a few other young people attending the conference decided to protest the presence of Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance. Vance was invited to be on a panel at ASA about the "opioid crisis" and its impact on a generation of young people in Appalachia.
In the spirit of transparency we want to be clear that the protest was not an action that was officially organized by STAY, specifically because it was not approved by the steering committee through our normal process. However, it was organized by members and leadership in STAY and as an organization we fully support their actions.
JD Vance has built his name and his fortune on telling our stories and our struggles without investing in our movements. The space he has been given to decide who is “Appalachian” has reinforced a narrative about Appalachia that is rooted in white supremacist pseudo-science. It is a story about the region that has allowed for people in power to extract our people, our resources, and our stories only to convince us we are “takers” when we’ve got nothing left to give them. It is a re-telling of Appalachia that has been weaponized against people of color and indigenous people to deny the existence of white-supremacy and institutional racism in this country. It has devastating impacts on the lives of people in Appalachia and beyond, and many of us in Appalachia spend our lives working to undo this damage.
We are disappointed in the Appalachian Studies Association’s decision to allow JD Vance to be invited onto the panel at the conference. Especially considering that when the idea of bring Vance to Cincinnati was proposed at the conference in Blacksburg, young people specifically asked for him not to be invited. Bringing JD Vance in as an “expert” on that panel legitimized his narrative and marginalized, erased and silenced the experiences and voices of young people, people of color, indigenous people, people who are poor, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+ people in Appalachia. We have since learned that the likely motivation for bringing Vance to ASA was less about a Vance’s views on the opioid crisis than it was about specific individuals seeking potential partnerships with JD Vance. We find it incredibly alarming that a potential partnership with JD Vance would be prioritized over well-being of marginalized voices.
Furthermore, we would also like to recognize that while the opioid crisis gets a panel at our academic conference, communities of color got the war on drugs and mass incarceration. We owe it to those struggling with addiction to be accountable for whose voices we allow to be legitimized in our spaces. We owe it to the communities with whom we share similar struggles around drug addiction with to not allow their experiences to be erased.
It is imperative that we do not cede ground to the kinds of stories Vance is telling about Appalachia and it is incredibly concerning that young people’s protests to his presence were met with boos and calls to “respect the space” and to “be quiet children”. This reaction was surprisingly unpleasant given that Friday’s plenary was all about youth speaking truth to power. Young people from Appalachian Media Institute, High Rocks, and Spring Mills High School shared their experiences as young people living in Appalachia through film, poetry, stories, and music. That plenary was not just a performance for the attendees of the conference, it was young people standing in their power with unspeakable strength and aching vulnerability to make it clear that they will be heard.
That the reaction to young people protesting was to declare that ASA was an “academic conference” and to tell them to leave while threatening to report them to the scholarship committee, calls into question whether academia actually wants youth to speak truth to power? While it is true that Appalachian Studies Conference has never been a solely “academic conference” it is worth emphasizing that if academia is not rooted and invested in the experience of people in Appalachia, then that academia is extractive.
The method with which the young people in that room chose to resist Vance made people uncomfortable, but bringing Vance into that space was harmful, as was the vitriol with which the resistance to his presence was met. For many of us ASA has served as a unique place for scholars, activists, and community members to connect and build relationships across difference through their love of Appalachia. Damage has been done to marginalized members of that community and we are calling on the Appalachian Studies Association to wrestle with how comfortable they are with Vance’s narrative and at what cost.
The STAY Project believes deeply in the principles of harm reduction and restorative justice and we believe there are ways that moving forward the Appalachian Studies Association can reduce the harm that was inflicted, the first being that The STAY Project fully supports the actions called for in the statement issued by Young Appalachian Leaders and Learners (Y’ALL). Beyond that we would like to see the Appalachian Studies Association institute the following practices:
- The Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project