Ruralist #2: Setting the Stage


This is the second article in a series about the issues facing our communities in rural western Kentucky and some ideas that have already been shown to work that we can try to address them.  If you haven’t read “Ruralist #1”, you should probably do that first.

Obviously, there are a lot of challenges facing our communities and rural America, in general.  Having said that, it’s important to note that “rural America” is not a monolith and all communities are not facing the same issues, nor do they share the same resources.  There are, however, usually a surprising amount of similarity, under the surface.  A small tourist town in Vermont, a fishing village in California and a mining town in Kentucky are very different in many ways, particularly on the surface, but if one looks a little deeper, a lot of the same factors are at work. 

Before we go deeper into these articles, it’s probably a good idea for me to introduce myself and my organization, so you might have a little insight into my thinking.  I run a small nonprofit organization, the ARCH Community Health Coalition, in my hometown of Madisonville, Kentucky.  Madisonville is located in Hopkins County, in rural western Kentucky in between Evansville, Indiana to the north and Clarksville, Tennessee, to the south.  Hopkins County is also located in the middle of what used to be called the “West Kentucky Coalfield”, which was one of the most productive coal-producing regions in the country between the end of WWII and the mid-1980s. Like most of my high school friends, I left town after graduation, but unlike many of them who couldn’t wait to leave and most of whom never came back for more than a visit, I liked living here.  If I could have done the things I wanted to do without leaving I would have happily stayed right here.  But I couldn’t, so I had to leave.  I’ve had an interesting journey, but I spent most of it in academia, doing biomedical research and teaching.  I never lost the wistful desire to come home though, and through a really weird combination of circumstances, I got the opportunity to do so back in 2016, working in administration at our local hospital (which I’ll talk about in a little more detail later on) which is where I got involved in community health and why I founded the ARCH Coalition in 2017.  For more information, check out the ARCH Coalition web site at for an overview of the organization.  It desperately needs updating, but until I either grow an additional head and at least one more hand or I am able to hire someone to help me with it, it’s not going to get done.  I have bigger dragons to deal with.

I founded the coalition to help address some of our community health-related issues.  I knew that I wanted the organization to be a coalition, a collaborative effort bringing together as many community organizations as I could to work together on various issues.  I knew coalitions had been very effective in other places, particularly in rural areas where resources are more limited.  I also wanted the coalition to be broad-based, working across many different areas, because I also knew that, again especially in small towns, everything tends to be connected to everything else, so even if you start working on one thing, you pretty soon run into something else.  The third thing that I knew was something that I had first become aware of when I was still teaching at the university.  While I was there, I was extremely fortunate to work with some people who were interested in improving how we taught so that our students would have better learning outcomes.  As part of this, I got involved with the local school district in which my university was located, trying to help them improve their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education.  This school district was a fairly typical, urban school district facing enormous challenges.  Anyway, that third thing that I learned as I worked with this school district was that the real problems that were causing their students to struggle to succeed didn’t really have much to do with the schools.  The problems that were affecting the schools and their kids weren’t in the buildings.  They were in the neighborhoods and in the streets and in the homes.  What I learned was a kid who doesn’t know when he is going to get to eat next, where he’s going to sleep tonight or who is going to be beating up his mother really doesn’t have much bandwidth left to worry about dividing fractions.

So, that’s most of what I knew when I started the ARCH Coalition, which is not much.  I would also like to point out that I’ve learned quite a lot since then. I’ve been fortunate in my learning opportunities.  One other thing that is important to know about me is that I was completely undone when I learned that third thing about the school kids.  I was undone because what I learned through that experience was entirely contrary to the world as I knew it, or thought I knew it, up to then.  It’s important for people to understand this, because I am not doing the work that I am doing because I spent my life trying to save the whales and crusade for disadvantaged kids.  I grew up thinking that the world was, basically, a meritocracy, and if you worked hard, kept your nose clean and took advantage of your opportunities, you would succeed.  I was, and still am, in some ways, a conservative.  I’ve been a registered Republican all my life (although for full disclosure I should say that I’m completely baffled by the current state of Republican politics), although I was (and am) pretty centrist on most things, a little left on some, a little more right on others.  So, I’m not coming at this from a liberal, kittens-and-unicorns perspective.  I’ve just learned some things that I didn’t used to know.  There is certainly the human side to what I think and what I do, but there is also a very solid economic pragmatism to it, as well.  I say all of that because I hope to make it clear that I am nobody’s ideological enemy.  Everything I am going to say is because, based on everything I know now, it’s simply the right thing to do, for everyone and for the community if we want our communities to thrive, or even to survive.

I also tend to think regionally, and we founded the ARCH Coalition, we meant for it to be a regional organization.  The reason for this is that there is a lot of similarity and connectedness in the 10 or 12 county area that makes up the area.  Resources are pretty limited, overall, and tend to be concentrated in the larger towns, like Madisonville.  In fact, because of the coal mining history and the relative prosperity Madisonville experienced back in the heyday, there are actually more community resources in Madisonville and Hopkins County than many similar-sized places have.  However, I never thought the ARCH Coalition could be successful in the long run if we just concentrated on Hopkins County, or any one county.  My reasoning was that, even if we managed to create a miracle and turn Hopkins County into some sort of poster child for rural renaissance, it wouldn’t be sustainable if the surrounding area continued to languish in decline.  I think we have to succeed or fail together. 

Okay. Enough of that.

In my “Ruralist #1”, your will note that most of the points I was trying to make relate to workforce and the economy of our part of rural America, not better healthcare outcomes, social services, education, transportation, substance use, behavioral health, child care, senior care, housing or any other issues like that.  Partly, I didn’t mention those things because it’s a lot of stuff and I wanted to keep my article manageable.  Partly, I didn’t go into them because I want to emphasize the central concern of the economic sustainability of our communities.  That has nothing to do with the relative value of economic issues and social issues.  It has to do with the simple fact that they are ONE AND THE SAME.  I’ll explain why that is in the next article.