Pardon Our Progress

One of my favorite professors would often repeat a familiar question in order to drill the students into accepting the inevitable: “What do organizations always experience, no matter what?” The answer, of course, was “change.” When I formally studied leadership, the idea of change being a constant was not a new one for me, but the impetus behind how we respond to it, wield it for good (or bad)—now that is quite a bit more complicated, and a whole lot more interesting.

A foremother for American settlement work was Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House. In an April 25 New York Times Opinion piece, David Brooks remarked about her: “Addams was convinced that everyone longs for beauty and knowledge. Everyone longs to serve some high ideal. She believed in character before intellect, that spiritual support is as important as material support. And yet ‘the soul of man in the commercial and industrial struggle is under siege.’” Of course, idealism like this is often castigated by pragmatists, and there has been, no doubt, reason for such cynicism in the wake of real, tangible problems that are abundantly clear and all around us. But if we are here to serve our communities in a mutual sort of way—also very real and quite tangible—we can certainly achieve both action and virtue, like beauty and knowledge.

Did you know Knott County is considered a “food desert?” According to the USDA Economic Research Service, residents in our locale are considered “low income” and “low access,” meaning residents do not have accessibility to an abundance of food choices within a walkable ½ mile. These factors, among others, create food insecurity, a situation in which parents, for example, may not know how to healthily nourish their families, have access to a variety of food options, or both. This notion led us, in 2013, to become a Grow Appalachia partner—work about which we are very proud. We started working that year with eighteen families, and this year serve upwards of 60, all in an effort to help our friends and neighbors learn to raise, prepare, preserve, and perhaps even sell, healthy food.  This is one way we can combat the scourge of food insecurity in our local community, a real issue having significantly experienced negative health outcomes.

Imagine my surprise to get a call from a friend around the end of January saying, “I have access to two large greenhouses. They have a ton of capacity and can raise mountains of food. I don’t know what all you’d need to do, but if you want them, they’re yours.” Quick response led us to begin the process of moving two greenhouse structures from their current home in HiHat to our campus, a process that has not been quick, but is changing our landscape in ways I could not have imagined upon embarking on a new year just a few days earlier. I always knew we’d try to get into this business—it just made sense—but I had no idea it would be now, or this way.

These greenhouses have the capacity for both hydroponics and aquaculture work and production. These are no backyard greenhouses—work and production should probably be written more like WORK and PRODUCTION in an effort to adequately explain the possibilities. We’ve had to make strategic decisions regarding staffing, land use, expenses, a shift in some of our work, and new alliances and partnerships. This all has incredible promise (and a little bit of risk).

When you drive by the Settlement’s campus, along Hwy. 160, you’ll notice land movement at the site of the old Combs house as well as across the way adjacent to the old Hindman High School gym. We are grateful for the support of Dr. Jennifer Lindon and Hazard Community and Technical College, which is allowing us to utilize a piece of their land to achieve part of this goal. Our partnership with them will continue to yield, literally, good and abundant fruit (and vegetables, and maybe tilapia. Clams, anyone?).

We are unapologetically moving forward, despite resisting some surprising winds of change. We believe we must embrace this historic opportunity for the thriving of our community, and we anticipate being online and running in late spring/early summer. I hope you’ll come by and see what’s going on.

What we are experiencing is a little of what Jane Addams must have embraced over a century ago in her Chicago enclave. “Addams had amazing capacity to work from the specific case to the general philosophy, and had the ability to apply an overall strategy to the particular incident. There are many philanthropists and caregivers today who dislike theory and just want to get practical. It is this sort of doer’s arrogance and intellectual laziness that explains why so many charities do no good or do positive harm.” We believe it is okay—right, even—to approach a just transition in eastern Kentucky by being both practical and theoretical, by getting the job done and by understanding, philosophically, why such a job matters in the first place. Like Addams, this is not work we are doing “for” our community, but an endeavor we hope to experience alongside it. We are humbled by the opportunity to take the lead. So, pardon our progress, and jump in to be part of it! We all benefit when we work together!