In the Hunger Games novels, heroine Katniss Everdeen comes from a coal mining region known as District 12. Her people are poor and looked down upon, but they’re also resourceful and know how to work together. In the end, it’s those skills that allow Katniss and her friend Peeta to win the games against better-trained rivals from the wealthy capital.
The books are fiction, but many readers believe District 12 is set in a futuristic version of Appalachia’s real-life coal country. And, these days, the real Appalachia needs all the resourcefulness and cooperation it can get.
The coal industry, which in many counties has dominated the economy for more than a century, is not providing the jobs it used to. Coal reserves are dwindling, mechanization has made it easier to pay fewer workers to extract more coal, and there’s new competition from cheap natural gas. In Boone County, W. Va., for example, about 40 percent of coal jobs have disappeared since the end of 2011, according to research firm SNL Financial. And the same trend is going on across the region.
You could say Appalachia needs an army of real-life Katnisses -- and, luckily, it’s found them. The Highlander Center, a training center for social movements with deep roots in the South, just launched its "Appalachian Transition Fellowship" -- a program to mentor and support 14 young Appalachians as they work on economic development projects throughout the region. Their goal is to accelerate the creation of a diverse economy by working on projects that create jobs and livelihoods in the wake of coal's decline.
Through this fellowship, Highlander’s fellows will spend a full year working on economic transition projects in Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, and North Carolina.
I recently had a chance to meet the Appalachian Transition Fellows as they took a kick-off tour through the region. We talked about how they got interested in economic transition and what their fellowships will look like. Here’s what a few of them had to say.