A Young Appalachian Gone Rogue
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she has a nuanced vision of a region that’s been largely written off.
West Virginians tend to have an intense passion for their state personally, yet demur when approached by outsiders — assuming that the news of lost coal jobs, of opioid abuse, of health crises has poisoned the well for mutual respect. Not so with Katelyn Campbell, who wears her Mountain State flag proudly: When the 21-year-old graduated cum laude in the fall from Wellesley College, the all-women’s school known for producing Hillary Clinton, she wrote that her West Virginia public school education had “paid off in spades.” Even her online dating profile is unapologetic: “App-uh-latch-uh til I die. 9th generation West Virginian and lifelong activist.”
Sitting at Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream in downtown Charleston, Campbell mentions that the hipster do-gooder business owed its origins in part to the Back to the Land movement in the early ’70s. It’s kind of her schtick — with history informing present things. Campbell was just a senior at Charleston’s George Washington High School in 2013 when she made national headlines — after she protested her principal’s decision to solicit private donations to bring a pro-abstinence sex-ed teacher on campus. Her bold move earned her spots on the BBC, CNN and ABC, and speeches at nationwide conferences for pro-choice causes. Since then, she’s been given the Youth Advocating Change Award by Partners in Sex Education and the Young West Virginia Power-Building Award, a nod to summers spent volunteering for greater access to safe water and birth control in rural parts of her state.
More recently, she published a paper on how rural lesbian communes can provide a model for ethical buying in local economies, and was selected as a Truman Scholar, one of just 55 new graduates nationwide to receive the $30,000 scholarship. “She combines a highly developed knowledge of American history — and especially West Virginia history — with a commitment to real-life, on-the-ground social issues,” Paul Fisher, director of the Wellesley College American Studies program, said in a statement. Cecile Richards, CEO of Planned Parenthood, has cited Campbell in past speeches and gave her this digital shout-out last year:
— Cecile Richards (@CecileRichards) April 21, 2016
If history is about knowing the past to avoid repeating its mistakes, this young historian could become the moral conscience for a state in dire need of guidance. While it may seem counterintuitive considering the region’s much-publicized challenges, Campbell may be tapping into this vein at the perfect time. The plight of Appalachia is experiencing a moment in the national crosshairs: Hillbilly Elegy is a New York Times best-seller, and blue-collar voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania helped break the camel’s back last November. “The coast absolutely quaked as rural America — and Appalachia specifically — roared last election,” says former Kentucky state auditor Adam Edelen, a Democratic political strategist. “With the public imagination, it affords us an opportunity to galvanize people around some things.”
“My family was able to succeed in spite of the United States.”
The challenges are many. “We were meant to work and pull coal out of the ground to feed industry elsewhere,” not receive civil rights, Campbell says. That complicated relationship between workers and companies, where West Virginians desperately need business yet are often burned by it, continues with the advent of fracking — a natural gas bonanza that is financially lucrative for companies but ultimately doesn’t employ all that many people, says political scientist Scott Crichlow. Growing up with two environmental regulators as parents, Campbell remembers them coming home worried about a massive pond of coal waste uphill from an elementary school. “This dam was leaking, and if it broke, all these kids would drown,” she says. “That was a reality people were accepting because they felt they had no other option.”
Campbell has no easy political fit. A Bernie Sanders fan, she backed Clinton in November but would have preferred a more rural-friendly liberal. She is a lifelong Democrat, yet is considering switching to Independent after her state party nominated newly elected Gov. Jim Justice, a pro-life businessman who she criticizes for reportedly failing to pay many of his contractors. (Justice hasn’t responded to the criticism.) As she speaks, Campbell often challenges long-established narratives. Her family was long poor — her grandmother raised children during the Great Depression, feeding them possums and anything else they could scrounge while walking them miles to catch the school bus. Some would call it a story of American progress considering Campbell’s own educational ascent — but she disagrees. “My family was able to succeed in spite of the United States,” Campbell says. As a historian, she wishes she could trace that history back further, but … “when wealthy people die, their stuff is taken and archived,” she says. However, “when poor people die, their stuff gets thrown away.”
Based on past examples, the only way Jim Justice knows how to "save" West Virginia is through "cutting costs" by refusing to pay bills.
— Katelyn M. Campbell (@THEkateykate) January 17, 2017
Yet today, she believes West Virginia can be a fascinating place to “make it on your own,” thanks to its low cost of living. Campbell currently serves as the director of the Appalachian Queer Film Festival, one of a slew of nonprofit initiatives she works on. After leaving our conversation, I drive past Elkview — the town where Campbell grew up, barely a dozen miles north of Charleston and the largest city in West Virginia. When a coal-cleaning chemical spilled into the Elk River near here three years ago, Campbell and 300,000 area residents were without potable water for three weeks. Today, her hometown highway exit signs show five of six restaurants closed, casualties either of the failing economy, the recent flooding or both. It highlights the need for West Virginia to not just keep its natural resources, but also to retain its human capital. Campbell plans to lead by example on that front: “I want to be governor one day,” she quips, serious as can be.
*An earlier version of this article misstated the origins of Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream and misattributed that information to Katelyn Campbell.