Back in the late ’80s and ’90s, when I had occasion to visit, the Appalshop media collective in Whitesburg was one of Kentucky’s most exciting places—a renovated warehouse chock-full of talented people, people who were alive with the chance to do worthwhile work in film, music, and theater, and to tell truthful stories about a neglected, misunderstood, and maligned region.
The radio station was the most interesting in the state—in several states for that matter. There were people who’d helped make Academy Award-winning documentaries; people who’d worked with Martin Luther King Jr.
But the most charismatic guy in the place wasn’t a filmmaker, a musician, or an actor. It was the one who called himself “a freelance bureaucrat,” wrangling grants, dealing with distributors, and doing other work that made everything else possible.
If you talk to people who were at Appalshop then, you’ll hear that Dee Davis was not just a functionary, but a force—one of the people who defined the place. He did it with a droll air and an especially light and informal touch.
“A place that calls itself a cooperative…how true that is, is defined by how the people with the most influence carry themselves,” says Robert Gipe, director of the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, who worked as Appalshop’s marketing director in the 1990s. Davis “might disagree with the majority, sometimes, but there was very much the sense that he wasn’t going to put himself above anybody.”
Davis left Appalshop in 2000 to start a new endeavor—the Center for Rural Strategies (www.ruralstrategies.org) headquartered less than a mile away from Appalshop in Whitesburg.
Where Appalshop was (and continues to be) primarily interested in telling stories about central Appalachia, the Center for Rural Strategies (CRS) takes the whole country as its theater of operations and has partnered with organizations in Kenya and Australia. Where Appalshop has always been exclusively focused on media, Rural Strategies adds public advocacy and coalition building to the mix.
The Center’s goal is as simple, and profound, as changing the meaning and connotations of a single word—the next to last one in its name: rural.
Home at Appalshop
Dee Davis might have easily taken a path that led him away from eastern Kentucky. After growing up in Hazard, he attended the University of Kentucky, graduating in 1974, then went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh to study creative writing.
But for reasons he still can’t articulate clearly, he was drawn back to the mountains. “It was always important for me to see if I could come home and do something worthwhile,” he says.
Davis had worked at Appalshop during and after college, and after graduate school he served a brief term as president and chief fund-raiser. He quit, then returned in 1982 as executive producer of Appalshop Films and Television. He stayed in that job almost 20 years.
When I ask Davis about tangible accomplishments in those days, he jokes “Nobody got indicted,” then mentions the controversy over the Appalshop documentary On Our Own Land.
The film, an attack on the abusive mining contract called the broadform deed, had inadvertently been scheduled for broadcast on KET the night before the November 1988 election—when a constitutional amendment restricting the broadform deed was on the ballot. Concerned that the piece only took one side of the issue, and that there was too little time for coal companies to come up with a response, the network decided to pull the show; Appalshop decided to take the argument to the public.
Judi Jennings, executive director of Louisville’s Kentucky Foundation for Women, was heading up a major fund-raising effort for Appalshop at the time. She observed Davis’ blend of calm and steadfastness to principle in such a contentious atmosphere. She recalls the mayor of Whitesburg coming up the steps of Appalshop’s headquarters, yelling that they were trying to ruin the town.
Davis called a meeting of the staff to lay out the controversy. “It was just real calm, but real principled, and it gave room for people to do what they thought was right,” Jennings says. “It wasn’t like ‘Are you for me or against me?’”
In the end, On Our Own Land aired as scheduled, but was accompanied by a half hour from a coal company spokesman and a phone-in discussion. The broadform deed amendment passed resoundingly.
Davis’ time at Appalshop wasn’t all battles over coal and airtime. Thursday mornings he broadcast a wonderfully dry, amusing, and informative radio show called The Men’s Achievement Hour/Human Potential Show. (The show ran on Appalshop station WMMT through 2008.)
Robert Gipe recalls Davis’ show as a combination of the trenchant—the on-air analysis of news articles was “one of the best-written ongoing media series I’ve ever heard”—and the transcendentally silly. A recurring gag was coverage of the mythical Paw-Paw Festival. The grand marshals were Mamaw and Papaw Paw-Paw. Instead of a parade, the festival held a car-top regatta—people floating on Lott’s Creek (in Knott and Perry counties) on vessels made from automobile roofs.
Another riff Gipe remembered was that Davis always seemed to portray himself as “the kid that got paddled a lot at school.”
“At some level, he’s always identifying with whoever is on the short end of the paddle in life,” Gipe says. “Kids get paddled for a lot of reasons: they get paddled for not being from the right place, or being too smart, or not smart enough.
“His idea (was) that the people who were sharpest were being overlooked or persecuted.”
Spokesmodels to the world
In 1998, Davis and his wife, Appalshop filmmaker Mimi Pickering, had made some extra money doing media work in several local political campaigns, and decided to use it to convene meetings of like-minded colleagues to think about rural issues.
“We felt like we’d done a lot of work in Appalachia over the years, had a lot of success, and things weren’t getting any better,” Davis says. “So we started thinking ‘Maybe there’s a different route, a different approach.’”
And Davis had noticed that people he met in other rural areas, from South Dakota farm country to the Sacramento Valley to coastal Maine, were “facing the same challenges, and in the same straits.” They seemed to view their problems through a local lens, when their true source might be systemic, on a national or even international scale.
With grants from the Ford Foundation and other groups, the Center opened in June 2001 in Whitesburg. Its first big splash came from its 2003 campaign against the proposed CBS series The Real Beverly Hillbillies, a reality show that would have set up a poor rural family in an LA mansion. It was a nice bit of media jujitsu, turning the tradition and prominence of CBS against itself. According to Davis, however, the Center was planning to be a behind-the-scenes organizer of the campaign, with other spokespeople. But the Center’s name was on The New York Times ad that first gave the issue a wide airing, and reporters wanted to talk to the organization that had placed it.
“We found ourselves learning to be spokesmodels,” says Davis. “It was a very interesting tutorial on how the media works…You’d go on these talk shows and find out that everybody was crazy.” During a Philadelphia radio appearance, listeners were calling up to tell him—as if it were a telling and cutting blow—the North had won the Civil War. “It was hard to explain to them that my part of Kentucky stayed with the Union.”
Davis says “nobody thought we were going to be successful” in the campaign. For the Center, it constituted success just to raise the issue that it was wrong to employ rural people as national laughingstocks. But CBS dropped plans for the show.
Davis told National Public Radio’s Scott Simon a few weeks after the 2008 election that “we don’t have to think of ‘rural’ as a deficit. We can think of it as a strength.”
In our conversation, he elaborates: “All of our communities have assets and strengths that we are not necessarily inclined to see the first time we look at them. It’s just how we look at it, right?”
What doesn’t make sense, in Davis’ view, is “trading short-term gain for long-term loss”—the bad bargain he sees being made in mountaintop removal mining, and what has led to the despoliation of the Gulf of Mexico by the BP oil spill. “The strategies that win more times than not are investing in your people and taking care of your community.”
He compares the typical style of rural development—using tax incentives to attract a manufacturing plant to locate in their county—to “cargo cultists waiting for the next ship to disgorge its contents, hoping something will float through.”
Francisco Guajardo, an educator and activist in south Texas who is the vice chairman of the CRS board, calls Davis “the storytelling administrator,” one who uses storytelling as a way to move his organization forward. But he notes that unlike many other gifted storytellers, Davis has a gift for listening as well as talking.
“He has a particular gift for finding stories in others…helping others find their stories,” Guajardo says. As an example, he points to film work the Center has done in the rural areas that were ravaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. (Small pieces have been released in a variety of forms—as theatrical short subjects, online videos, even as part of Oprah’s Angel Network—and a feature-length film should be finished this month.) Guajardo says that “the very respectful” way CRS approached different groups created a collaborative atmosphere that he sums up this way: “We want to help you, and you can help us. We’ll tell the story together.”
“The effort that CRS has put into telling stories of the Gulf Coast have really reframed that debate and helped people, both in Congress and otherwise, realize that that tragedy was more than just an urban one,” says Justin Maxson, president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, and a member of the Rural Strategies board.
“Dee’s a master at connecting systemic issues or problems with individuals and their conditions,” Maxson says. “He knows policymakers and legislators respond to individual stories, not just ideas.
“And that is what the Center’s about, making these stories part of broader efforts and campaigns for change, so that they’re not individual voices in the wilderness but a joint voice in a choir that policymakers can hear.” And in a targeted, tactical fashion. For example, the Center used stories of economic development in rural areas as part of its campaign to ensure that the provisions of the Community Reinvestment Act, up for renewal by Congress in 2004, continued to apply to rural areas.
Soul of a poet
But while Davis’ policy acumen keeps his organization fresh and relevant, his career possesses a quality that suggests those years studying creative writing weren’t wasted. Guajardo says, “He has the soul of a poet, and of an artist.”
Certainly, any Kentuckian can feel the poetry in this vision of rural life, from a piece he wrote about pickup basketball:
“We videotaped Tom Daschle in Lake Preston, South Dakota, last year. We asked him what made rural communities special. He said it was because everyone is needed, that in small towns you couldn’t afford to leave anybody out, that the community had to have everyone contribute. What I know is that in small towns everybody gets to play, even guys who have grown old and embarrassingly slow, and who have been humbled time and time again trying to figure out what is an asset and what is a handicap.”
That wholehearted feel for his own place has also turned out to be one of Davis’ most strategic qualities.
“There are lots of good communication consultants out there, but Dee, from Hazard, Kentucky, is as authentic a rural person as you can get,” says Justin Maxson. And it’s that authenticity—and, as Guajardo observes, the sophistication and insight to recognize and encourage the authenticity of people from other rural settings—that’s allowed Davis to create a career of connecting the place he came from with people around the world.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: >MORE ABOUT THE CENTER FOR RURAL STRATEGIES
To read about other projects Dee Davis and the Center for Rural Strategies staff and partners are working on—including a rural news Web portal, youth stories, an online archive of contemporary rural photography for media use, political initiatives, and more, go to Rural Strategies.