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The Faces of Appalachia

Updated: Apr 2

by Julie Wilson

March 5, 2024


Amanda Ralston, CEO and Founder of NonBinary Solutions (photo by Nick Thelen); and Joe Tolbert, Jr., Executive Director of The Waymakers Collective


There was a decisive moment in Beth Howard’s life where she felt the seismic shift that would go on to define her future.

 

Beth, who grew up in Blaze, Ky. – a rural community about 25 minutes south of Morehead – noticed the difference when she went from the microscopic lens of “my family scraped by just to keep food on the table” to the macro realization that poverty wasn’t just a problem for her community. The whole of Appalachia was under its thumb.

 

This was systemic. This was intentional. And if she had anything to say about it, this was reparable.

 

As the Appalachia People’s Union Director for Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), Beth encourages white people to join the fight for racial and economic justice in this country. That’s right, it’s going to take everyone to derail this runaway train of disparity: whites, POC, indigenous peoples, marginalized communities…

 

Luckily, Appalachia is brimming with people who have feet firmly planted in all of these demographics.

 

Whether you realized it or not.

 

In this two-part series, we’ll meet Amanda, Joe, Beth and Gerald. All with Appalachian roots. All fighting for underserved voices to be heard.


 

 

Besides hills and hollers, Appalachia is a pillar of misconceptions to those who rely on the media for their insight. To assume that most of its people look like the cast of Hee Haw is just, well, ignorant. (Are there some? Sure, but you can also spot your tank-topped, overalled folks in any city in the country.) So, let’s move past the backwards notion of the redneck (which, before the word was co-opted, actually has a kickass history to its origin) swigging from the XXX jug and get to the real of those whose lineage runs through this region.

 

We tagged along with a few folks as they shared how they’re using their ancestral ties as a tool for change.

 

‘It’s Not Black & White’

Amanda Ralston was born and raised in Weston, West Virginia – just shy of 4,000 people in the entire town. Her family has been a part of this community since before West Virginia was even a state. Her father was the fourth-generation owner of Ralston’s Drugstore, which was founded in 1856. Yes, we’re talking serious roots here.

 

The pharmacy would eventually become Amanda’s after-school sanctuary, starting in elementary. While hanging out with Ernie, the pharmacy cat, she would sit in her father’s office and putter around on the computer. Weston may be small, but her father thought big. Ralston’s was the first pharmacy to have a computerized system.

 

“My dad was a forward-thinking, sort of techie kind of guy, so I think that’s where I got that interest,” said Amanda. “I learned on the computer with DOS, you know, floppy discs and the whole nine yards.”

 

Amanda, now 46 and living in Lexington, Ky., has parlayed that skillset into an auspicious career in behavioral health; today she serves as the CEO and Founder of NonBinary Solutions.

 

Sometimes a word is more than just a word. For Amanda, the name of her company has significance beyond just a corporate moniker. It also hints at a core pillar in the life she has made for herself, which for years she had to hide from those around her.

 

These days, Amanda is constantly traveling, en route to a speaking engagement for not only clinical people but the startup community and industry pioneers. And it’s in those initial meetings where she gets to explain what’s behind the name.

 

“People are like ‘I’m sensing something queer about this,” she laughs.

 

Whereas back in Weston, every effort was made to keep her sexual identity a secret. (Remember, we’re talking the early ‘90s in Appalachia.)

 

“I was very much in the closet growing up in small town West Virginia,” said Amanda. “Everybody knows my entire family. Everything’s a rumor mill in a small town.”

 

In first grade, Amanda had a crush on a girl named Tracy*. With the finesse of a 6-year-old, Amanda slips the headphones of her Walkman onto Tracy’s ears, playing Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You” to let her feelings be known. “She said, ‘You’re gay!’ and I thought she meant happy,” explained Amanda.

 

When she asked her parents what it meant, it became clear to her that it wasn’t the compliment she thought it was. From then on, it was boyfriends and every other mark of heterosexual normalcy for Amanda. “I mean, you learn to assimilate, right? Everybody’s mantra in high school and middle school is 'Don’t be different,'” she said.

 

Until her senior year, when she had her first girlfriend. In secret.

 

Amanda, all 5’7” of her, was a baller and a track star in high school. She had college recruiters seeking her out but instead opted to follow her girlfriend to nearby Glenville State College where she was already attending.

 

“Here’s the problem with not being out. When you’re not out, you have to hide a whole bunch of stuff, including your relationship that might not be very healthy,” said Amanda. “So, I finally broke down and told my sister.”

“Here’s the problem with not being out. When you’re not out, you have to hide a whole bunch of stuff, including your relationship that might not be very healthy.”

This led to her moving back home and finally the truth – and Amanda – came out. The reception was … tepid.

 

“It didn’t go so well initially. It did not,” said Amanda, shaking her head. “Mom was raised very much in church and had all the beliefs based on that. I mean, this is 1995, so Ellen hasn’t even come out yet.”

 

[Author tangent: I mean, come on! Amanda lapped Ellen for chrissake! This is what a lot of people don’t understand about the “stuff” that comes from Appalachian roots. You do the hard shit, and you face it head on. If there’s one thing that ties all Appalachians together, it’s the fire in the belly that comes from the hills. Perseverance, tenacity, endurance. It may look like an IDGAF attitude, but we really do. That’s why we keep pushing for change.]

 

But there’s a happy ending: Amanda’s parents came around. “I applaud them that they did the work, especially at the time when a lot of people weren’t doing it yet,” she explained.

 

She pivoted, reached back out to a previous college recruiter and made her way to Centre College the next semester. In Danville, Ky., no one knew Amanda. She had a clean slate to establish the person she wanted to be. So, what did she do?

 

“I hit campus as gay as I could be,” she laughed.

 

As a consultant in behavioral health, Amanda’s early career took her all over Eastern Kentucky to work one-on-one with families. Now, she stands in front of conference rooms full of people to share the story of NonBinary Solutions, which actually has three meanings behind its name:

 

“One, people are not black and white. Right? They are shades of gray. So, in order to provide treatment, you have to see it’s a spectrum,” she explained.

 

Secondly, it was inspired by Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder with Steve Wozniak, who is quoted as telling Jobs, “It's not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.”

 

Thirdly, it’s the moment she gets to stand up in front of groups of people and explain that people on the spectrum are six times more likely to not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. “Now, if you care about people with autism,” Amanda explains, “you must also care about people who are nonbinary.”

 

For Amanda, the evolution to embracing her true self was arduous in an Appalachian environment. Even so, it’s that same region that helped her find her voice. “I think when you don’t see yourself in a space, you tend to go make the space,” she said.


 

 

You’re From Appalachia?

While Amanda went outside to continue her journey, Joe Tolbert, Jr., found that it was his own Appalachian backyard that would provide the setting for his future career.

 

Joe lives in Knoxville, the third largest city in Tennessee, just behind Memphis and Nashville. In all fairness, it’s probably not the first place (or 10th even) that comes to mind when you think about Appalachia. Not even for Joe.

 

“I didn’t even consider myself, at that point in time, as Appalachian,” admitted Joe. “My mom’s side has been in East Tennessee for many generations, but we never kind of took on that Appalachian identity.”

 

The reality set in when his friend invited him to participate in the impetus that would become the STAY Project, a network of youth activists whose focus is ensuring Appalachia is a place where there are resources that afford people the ability to stay and work in the region. When they asked him to point to Knoxville on a map, well…

 

“Everybody started laughing because it was like, yeah, duh, Knoxville is right in the heart of it,” he laughed.

 

It was in that moment, and the time that soon followed, when the seeds of organizing would implant themselves into the heart of Joe, and the region would reap the rewards.

 

Joe, and his generation of Appalachian descendants, grew up hearing the stories of negative health effects and environmental destruction caused by the coal industry, and they are picking up the baton from those who opted to fight back.

 

“What I love about our region is our ability to dream and act,” said Joe. “We just don’t stay in the dream space. We actually put movement and action behind our dreams to make different realities materialize. It’s been within the past generation really where I can see the action, that’s what’s new or fresher for me.”

 

This concept is at the heart of the STAY Project, when too many of the region’s rising cultural influencers felt they had to leave their home to advance their gifts. “That myth just really bothered me, this notion that you have to leave the region to be successful,” said Joe. “The STAY Project is allowing and creating mechanisms to stay and to thrive. That’s a part of the Waymakers work, too.”

 

As its executive director, Joe now stewards the Waymakers Collective, which is, in its simplest form, an Appalachian arts and culture assembly. But more liberally, it serves as a novel philanthropic resource, a pool of support and encouragement for artists, and a champion of Appalachian diversity.

Native American playing handcrafted flute
Fred Keams, a Navajo flute maker from Harrodsburg, Ky., performs at the 2023 Waymakers Collective. Annual Retreat.

 

It’s that last one – diversity – that can often get overlooked when referencing the region. According to the Appalachian Region Commission’s 2014–2018 American Community Survey, 9.8% of the region’s minority population is African American, 5.3% Hispanic/Latino, 3.8% other. Though small in number, this population is growing; 19% in 2018 vs. 16.4% in 2010.

 

And pushing this narrative is part of what the Waymakers Collective encourages its members to do in their local communities.

 

“It’s a pushback to the way the powers that be want a kind of monoculture to make us fit into these narratives of whiteness and founding fathers,” said Joe. “I’m surprised by how many people don’t realize how large of a role Black people, people of color and other communities are a part of Appalachia. We exist in the mountains!”

 

He credits authors like Dr. William H. Turner, Crystal Wilkinson, Frank X Walker, among others, for putting the lineages of the area’s Black people into the Appalachian canon. Yet now, there are others to consider.

 

“Now it’s not just Black folks, right?” said Joe. “It’s immigrants who have been moving into the region. So how are we uplifting their stories and cultures that are now being added to this mix of what it means to be Appalachians so we can continue to expand based on who’s actually living and working here.”

“I’m surprised by how many people don’t realize how large of a role Black people, people of color and other communities are a part of Appalachia. We exist in the mountains!”

Because if you ask Joe, even if you’re a recent transplant to Appalachia, you absolutely get to claim the region as your own. “The truth of the matter is, things are constantly changing,” he explained. “There has never been one stagnant Appalachia, in my opinion. It’s always been in a state of flux.”

 

It’s similar to the conversation he’s had with other Black people, he says, in “what does it mean to be Black?” Who gets to draw the line in the sand? And why?

 

“I think that doesn’t serve the region well when we take those stances,” said Joe. “People are already wanting us divided because that serves certain people’s interests, but it doesn’t serve our interest on the ground.”

 

Let’s not forget that not all people of color in this region came to this country by way of Africa; the indigenous people of this land are also people of color.

 

“Like, why don’t people automatically recognize the fact that they were literally here first?” laughed Joe. “It’s one of those things that gets whitewashed to be candid.”

 

We’ll talk more about the Appalachian gatekeeping paradox and striving for systemic change in the second half of this series.

 

*name changed to protect privacy

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