Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Amelia Kirby, November 14, 2015

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:02 - Childhood / Early political awareness / Struggles with identity

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Partial Transcript: Alright, it's November 14th, 2015.

Segment Synopsis: Kirby talks about her childhood growing up on The River Farm in Scott County, Virginia. She describes how it was a very close-knit community, though she was the only child on the property so she developed friendships with the adults that lived there. She says that regional issues, politics, and activism have always been big parts of her life because she was constantly exposed to that sort of work from a young age. Her parents and many of the others living on The River Farm were involved with the Highlander Center, and remembers her parents being very engaged in local politics. She describes the Pittston Strike in 1988 as being a significant experience that shaped her views on activism in the region. Kirby also talks about how she's always felt a degree of tension about her identity, even when she was growing up. She says that she doesn't speak with a distinct accent, and didn't grow up in the same cultural context as her peers, and so always felt in a way like she wasn't really from Appalachia, even though she knows that it's her home. However, she says that she's overcome that now, and when people question where she's from it doesn't bother her as much as it once did.

Keywords: Accents; Activism; Childhood; Community; Culture; Family; Identity; Organizing; Pittston strike; Scott County (Va.); Summit City; Upbringing; Wise (Va.)

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (people); Coal miners--Labor unions--Organizing; Coal mines and mining--Virginia; Highlander Research and Education Center (Knoxville, Tenn.); Pittston Coal Company

00:12:28 - Early recollections of Appalshop / College coursework

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Partial Transcript: This is probably a good place to pivot towards talking a little bit about App, Appalshop.

Segment Synopsis: Kirby talks about her earliest memories of Appalshop, including visiting the new building and being aware that people she knew and lived with at The River Farm were doing work there. However, she says that Appalshop didn't become a part of her daily life until she was 13 and her father started working for WMMT, Appalshop's community radio station. Kirby also talks about moving away to attend school at Hampshire College, and how in some ways the time spent away from home helped solidify her identity as an Appalachian. She talks about her senior thesis, which focused on the intersection of rural and urban populations within the prison-industrial complex (specifically the two maximum security prisons that were being constructed at the time in Wise County, Virginia--Wallens Ridge and Red Onion), and how the system intentionally sets those two groups against each other through the use of cultural narratives.

Keywords: Activism; Advocacy; Anthropology; Appalachian identity; Appalshop, Inc.; Christmas Ball; Colleges; Community; Dukes of Hazzard (Television program); Education; Identity; Nontraditional colleges; Powell Valley (Va.); Prison industrial complex; Prison system; Red Onion State Prison; Senior thesis; Strip mining; WMMT radio station; Wallens Ridge State Prison; Whitesburg (Ky.)

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (people)--Public opinion; Appalachians (people)--Social conditions; Hampshire College; Prison-industrial complex

00:27:39 - Work on Appalshop projects

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Partial Transcript: This answers a question that, that I had, which was it seems like, you know, the project of Holler to the Hood, Thousand Kites, and I'm going to talk about the name in a little bit to understand the differences.

Segment Synopsis: Kirby discusses the work she did on her senior thesis while in college, and how she got involved in Appalshop projects related to prisons in Appalachia. She says that she recorded a message that was played during WMMT radio shows that had a large prison audience, letting listeners know what issues she was researching and how to contact her if they were interested in corresponding with her. Once she left college, she says she was still interested in continuing work on issues related to the prison system, so she began working on projects at Appalshop dealing with those issues. Kirby discusses some of the projects she's worked on over the years, including running a radio show that allowed friends and family members to call in to communicate with loved ones who were incarcerated in local prisons. She says that eventually the prison supervisors got upset that the show was on the air--filing multiple FCC complaints and threatening to shut the radio station down. Kirby talks about the feedback (both positive and negative) that they got from community members, workers in the prison system, and inmates of the prisons.

Keywords: A Thousand Kites; Activism; Appalshop, Inc.; Hip hop; Holler to the Hood; Prison system; Radio shows; Red Onion State Prison; Rural prisons; Wallens Ridge State Prison

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Prison-industrial complex; WMMT-FM (Radio station : Whitesburg, Ky.)

00:42:37 - Fundraising / Goals and objectives of projects

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Partial Transcript: That's amazing. So they--I'm now understanding better the evolution of how Calls From Home came about.

Segment Synopsis: Kirby talks about how they did fundraising for projects dealing with the prison system in the face of the idea of "those people [inmates] don't deserve anything." She says that some of the more powerful, significant pieces of the project were driven by how to get funding (i.e. "What can we do to get money from this source?"). Kirby talks about how she eventually grew uncomfortable with how significant amounts of money that was being raised in the name of incarcerated people of color wasn't being spent in a way that benefited those individuals. She says that this played a large part in her decision to leave the project. Kirby also talks about the goals and objectives of the project. She says that for her, personally, it was about creating a dialogue between these communities that are being set against each other even though they're dealing with the same "big picture" issues. She says that they explored a lot of different ways to achieve this goal--doing the radio show, making a documentary, creating music/audio pieces, and even hosting a poetry exchange between inmates and community members.

Keywords: Activism; Appalshop; Fundraising

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Economic conditions; Appalachians (people)--Social conditions; Prison-industrial complex; WMMT-FM (Radio station : Whitesburg, Ky.); War on Drugs

00:52:32 - Reactions from the communities / Networking with other organizations and activists in the region

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Partial Transcript: This gets to--s--the, the next question I have, which is actually about community reaction?

Segment Synopsis: Kirby recalls reactions from different members of the communities that this project was trying to engage in discussion of prison-related issues, specifically a former corrections officer who had worked at Wallens Ridge in Wise County, Virginia. She says that at first he was very forthcoming with them about his experiences working in the prison, but then shifted into what the narrative is "supposed" to be ("those people..."). She talks about the correspondence Appalshop had with inmates in prisons, saying that there was such a large response they couldn't talk to each person individually, but did form a deeper dialogue with a select few who served as a sort of "advisory board" that informed Appalshop workers about what might be most effective. Kirby also discusses how Appalshop was able to network with other organizations and activists in the region through these projects, but says that she's not sure how many (if any) of these partnerships remain today.

Keywords: Activism; Appalshop; Community; Documentaries; Substance abuse; Wallens Ridge State Prison; Wise County (Va.)

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (people)--Public opinion; Prison-industrial complex

01:02:16 - Making of "Up the Ridge" / Reception of film locally and nationally / Film's influence in Letcher County

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Partial Transcript: Um, I guess, uh, from, from there, I--could we talk about the film for a little bit?

Segment Synopsis: Kirby talks about the making of the documentary "Up the Ridge," and how she went about interviewing people and the challenge of making them feel comfortable enough to openly discuss the prisons in Wise County. She talks about how the film ties in with the "big picture" project goals of starting a dialogue on economic, social, and political issues. She discusses the film's reception, locally and nationally, but says she can't speak to how the film is being used or what people think of it now because of her lack of involvement with the project from 2008 on. Kirby also discusses the attitudes of people locally, and whether or not the film has helped change their minds about the prison system. She says that Letcher County is planning to build a federal prison, and she struggled with how to best go about opposing that decision.

Keywords: Appalshop, Inc.; Documentaries; Film making; Interviewing strategies; Letcher County (Ky.); Prison construction; Up the Ridge (Motion Picture : 2006)

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Economic conditions; Critical Resistance (Organization); Prison-industrial complex

01:18:16 - Other work at Appalshop / Use of new technologies and social media in projects

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Partial Transcript: Well, thank you so much. And I'm, I'm gonna talk a little bit now about Appalshop independent of that project.

Segment Synopsis: Kirby talks about leading the Film Union at Appalshop from 2002-2004 and the emergence of new media and its effect on the work of Appalshop. She says that there were a lot of conversations at that time focusing on how to best use these new technologies to engage people in important issues in the region. Kirby also discusses the role of radio in the digital age, and why it continued to be the primary means of communication in prison-related work (namely, that inmates have access to radio, unlike smartphones and computers). She says that radio is very intimate, because friends and families were sharing deeply personal, private things that wouldn't normally be broadcast on a radio station. Because the prison system is so isolating, however, people didn't have many other choices if they wanted to communicate with loved ones.

Keywords: Activism; Appalshop, Inc.; Communication; New media; Radio; Social media

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Prison-industrial complex

01:26:32 - Working at Summit City

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Partial Transcript: Another dimension of your life in, in, in Whitesburg is Summit City, which came up early.

Segment Synopsis: Kirby talks about leaving Appalshop to work full time at Summit City, a bar/lounge in downtown Whitesburg from 2008-2012. She says that it was originally built as a coffee shop/cafe with the intention of making it a bar, when or if Letcher County voted to allow alcohol sales. She says that unlike a restaurant, a bar is a space with very little physical divisions that encourages discussion and exchange between people. Kirby recalls seeing an outspoken pro-coal local man having a discussion with the director of the Appalachian Community Fund (an organization that opposes mountain top removal mining) over a beer one evening, which reminded her of the whole purpose of Summit City--to serve as a space for people from all different backgrounds to come together and have discussions.

Keywords: Community; Drag shows; Economics; Summit City Lounge (Whitesburg, Ky.)

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Economic conditions

01:34:40 - Involvement with regional organizations / Work at Appalachian Citizens' Law Center

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Partial Transcript: Just as your involvement locally grew, it seems like, you know, especially in reading your resume, your involvement regionally grew over this time period.

Segment Synopsis: Kirby talks about her involvement in regional organizations such as the Highlander Center and the Appalachian Studies Association after she left Appalshop and Summit City. She says that it all goes back to her childhood growing up on The River Farm in Virginia where she had a lot of connections to these and related organizations. She talks about how all of the social, political, and economic issues in Appalachia are connected, and discusses some of the work she is currently doing at the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center.

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Economic conditions; Appalachian Region--Social conditions; Coal mines and mining; Highlander Research and Education Center (Knoxville, Tenn.)

01:40:21 - Appalshop's role in the region today

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Partial Transcript: Having been--having grown up and having a childhood memory in Appalshop, and then your family working there, and then you're working there, and then now you're having this larger, regional understanding...

Segment Synopsis: Kirby discusses the roles that Appalshop plays in activism in the Appalachian Region today, saying that she is most partial to the WMMT radio station and that she is very glad that it remains relevant and on the air. She talks about how everything in the region is in a state of transition--economically, socially, and politically--but believes that Appalshop is responding to those changes in an effective way, even though she is not as informed about current projects. Kirby also discusses the influence Appalshop has had on her views of culture, politics, etc. within the region and in a larger context. She says that Appalshop helped to shape her thinking about how to communicate about issues that are important to her. Kirby also talks about the changes Appalshop has seen over the years.

Keywords: Activism; Appalshop, Inc.; Communication

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Social conditions