“Stories of Place Project: Martin County, Kentucky leads the Way”

By Mary Hufford, Director of Stories of Place

The Stories of Place, Martin County team, photographed during a field trip to Appalshop in Whitesburg.  Photo by Willa Johnson.

Nina McCoy, Ricki Draper, and Mickey McCoy reviewing a map of Martin County that is
used during Stories of Place meetings with students. Map courtesy of Aaron Guest.
Photo by Mary Hufford.

“Working with youth to gather and present the stories of elders, Stories of Place engages multiple generations in the discovery and renewal of places that matter most to Central Appalachian communities”

In August 2018, with the support of a Whiting Fellowship awarded to Karen Rignall (faculty member  with the Community and Leadership Development program of the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment), LiKEN launched its Stories of Place program at Sheldon Clark High School, in Inez, Kentucky. As director of LiKEN’s Stories of Place Program, I have been working with Karen Rignall, project coordinator in Martin County, Ricki Draper, a fellow with the Highlander Institute, and Sheldon Clark faculty members Allison Leip (English) and Christin Roberson (Science). Our community adviser is Nina McCoy, who formerly taught biology at Sheldon Clark High School.  Twenty high school sophomores gather each week for Stories of Place meetings. They are developing the skills needed to conduct documentary interviews with elders in the community. They are also learning GIS mapping skills, and in the spring they will meet with Willa Johnson, of Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute, for training in editing and producing podcasts. 

Stories of Place students locating their homes and special places on a map of Martin
County during the first meeting. Photo by Allison Leip.

Thinking of Stories of Place as applied narrative ecology, we approach “place” as an ecosystem  that depends on the stories we tell for its ongoing renewal. What are the environmental and social conditions that sustain storytelling in our communities? And how does storytelling nurture environment and society together?  Working with youth to gather and present the stories of elders, Stories of Place engages multiple generations in the discovery and renewal of places that matter most to Central Appalachian communities. Our curriculum introduces students to the unique legacies of the mixed mesophytic forests of the region, as they identify and explore landscapes and histories shaped by more than a century of coal and timber extraction.  Through discussions of the work of Appalachian writers and filmmakers, students learn to tell the stories of their communities. On the way they meet with and learn about key figures and institutions in the region’s cultural history, including a field trip to Appalshop in Whitesburg in October, and an upcoming visit from Gurney Norman, who grew up in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky, and who from 2009 – 2010 was Kentucky’s poet laureate.  

Talking with community partners in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia, as well as with members of Indigenous communities in the Western U.S., we hear a persistent refrain: Distracted by technologies of the digital age, we pay less attention to our local surroundings, and to the communications between young people and elders that strengthen communities of land and people. Stories of place uses digital technology to address both rifts, and to engage youth and elders in planning for the future of their communities.  

Poster at the entrance to Sheldon Park High School advertising Stories of Place. Twenty sophomores signed up. Photo by Mary Hufford.