Interview of the Week: Lora Smith

Lora Smith heads the Appalachian Impact Fund at the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky. She also serves as the co-chair of the Downtown Revitalization Working Group at the Appalachia Funders Network, a network of investors focused on the shared goal of an equitable Appalachian economic transition.

ODP: Can you give a bit of detail of the types of energy projects the AFN is funding in Appalachia?

LS: The Appalachia Funders Network is a collection of philanthropies, government agencies, and others who are supporting non-profit work in the Central Appalachian Region. We collaborate on shared strategies and techniques around our common goal of improving life in Central Appalachia.  We want to build a resilient multi-sector economy for Central Appalachia, preserve our region’s unique heritage, and ensure health and prosperity for all Central Appalachians.

A subset of our members have organized the Energy and Natural Resources Working Group in order to bring together diverse stakeholders, collaborate with nonprofit partners, and help leverage resources for a wide range of projects.  As your readers might imagine, energy and natural resources present a range of potential economic and community development opportunities, as well as complex challenges. There is rapidly growing business in solar development, and many projects in energy efficiency and retrofits.  The Working Group produced an informative report that explores many of these challenges and opportunities, which you can read here.

ODP: Appalachian coal has allowed much of our country to develop and flourish yet now as the industry is in decline this has meant many residents there are feeling the economic effects. In your view, what does a just transition look like from coal jobs to the jobs of the future?

LS: I tell everyone that Appalachian people- my people- are some of the most innovative and creative folks in the country. I think a common misconception by people from outside the region is that our workforce is older, white, male and opposes climate solutions that also offer good paying jobs. We are already seeing former workers in the mining economy transition to jobs in sustainable agriculture, build new companies focused on remediation and reclamation of formerly mined lands, start work doing energy retrofits for housing and businesses, and find new career paths in technology. Appalachian people deserve not just jobs, but meaningful and well-paying vocations in career paths that offer opportunity and advancement. What’s important for funders, policymakers, and private sector partners to realize is that it’s not good enough to just provide any old random job for us. We must focus our efforts on workforce opportunities that create living wage jobs that provide benefits and sufficient income for families to not only support themselves, but save for the future. We also need to be focused on supporting the social infrastructure that enables that workforce to exist. This includes investing in things like rural childcare, so that we have safe, affordable and enriching places for our children to go while we’re at work; and affordable and energy efficient housing, so that we have safe and comfortable housing to live in and own. We know that this type of asset-based wealth development is one of the ways we can help move people out of the generational poverty that has been a direct result of decades of disinvestment and extraction from our communities.  

ODP: Due to the economic decline throughout Appalachia, many young people have been leaving to seek work elsewhere, have you found that the projects you’ve funded have encouraged more Millennials to stick around?

LS: While population loss is a serious concern, there has been a strong movement of young people wishing to stay in or move to Central Appalachia. With our partners at the Highlander Center, the Appalachia Funders Network helped launch an incredibly effective program to help millennials find meaningful work supporting a just transition in the region called the Appalachian Transition Fellowship. Appalachian Transition Fellows are emerging community leaders from or dedicated to the Central Appalachian region. They’ve all shown creativity and innovation in their work or field of study, and are interested in supporting and working towards the transition of a sustainable and equitable region. During the program, Fellows are placed in host communities made up of either two or three organizations. It’s a win-win for everyone involved. Organizations get needed capacity from a new staff member and young leaders get invaluable – and paid!- job exposure and experience. It’s been an amazing process to watch as after the Fellowship ends each year, many of the Fellows get hired on full-time. One success story is Mae Humiston, a Fellow who was stationed with the Community Farm Alliance in Eastern Kentucky. Mae was hired on staff at the end of her Fellowship and helped lead sustainable agriculture and local food and farm work in the region for several years. She’s now the founding executive director of Redbud Financial Alternatives and leading work to help Eastern Kentucky families become homeowners and gain access to financial education and services in a banking desert. Stories like Mae’s are proof that millennials can not only survive, but thrive in Appalachia.

ODP: Next year the AFN will have existed for a decade, what stands out to you as some of your biggest successes and what would you like to achieve in the next 10 years?

LS: It’s hard to narrow down what the network’s biggest successes have been over the last ten years as we’ve been such a catalyst for the larger Just Transition movement within philanthropy. The shared vision we’ve been able to articulate, the critical relationship and trust building among members, and the nuanced analysis around promising sectors like energy has really had a profound impact on the region. AFN now serves as a critical doorway to the region for national philanthropy. We have helped engage and grow national awareness surrounding the challenges and funding opportunities in Appalachia and have great national partners that have come to the table like the Educational Foundation of America, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative and the Chorus Foundation who are collaborating with regional and local philanthropy in important and effective ways to advance our shared goals and outcomes.

In the next ten years, I hope that the Appalachia Funders Network has expanded its membership and is growing the base for collaboration between funders and practitioners. I strongly believe that in ten years Central Appalachia will be prospering like never before with emergent strategies we’re seeing now taking deeper root, opportunities in promising sectors like energy accelerating, downtowns revitalizing with young entrepreneurs driving change, and more resources flowing to support these efforts as the rest of the country discovers what AFN members already know: Central Appalachia is home to some of the most innovative solutions to our country’s most complex social problems from climate change to income inequality.

ODP: Appalachia has so many incredible natural areas and stunning vistas, do you have a favorite spot where you like to get outdoors/a hidden gem you’d be willing to share?

LS: The view from the top of Pine Mountain in Whitesburg, KY is one of the most beautiful vistas in Appalachia. After making your way to the top of Pine Mountain, stick around to explore Letcher County, KY and all of the incredible cultural and eco-tourism fun it has to offer.

Photo: Letcher County Tourism’s Instagram


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