There are dynamic social-impact organizations all over the US, and the Appalachian region is no exception. In fact, social-impact work in Appalachia is often deeply rooted in loyalty to the region, with its unique environmental challenges and increasingly diverse population. Many nonprofits keep their focus local, building strong communities and creating sustainable ecosystems.
Appalachia’s diverse roots
There’s no universally agreed-upon definition of Appalachia’s boundaries, but according to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the area spans 420 counties across 13 states, totalling around 25 million residents. The region’s history is vibrant and complex, shaped by immigration, cultural fusion, and the contributions of Black, Hispanic, and Native American residents. Modern Appalachia is home to rural communities and urban hubs, including Birmingham, AL, and Pittsburgh, PA. When Appalachia shows up in popular culture, the portrayals frequently fall back on stereotypes presenting Appalachians as poor, uneducated, violent, and prejudiced "hillbillies." Kentucky-born writer J.D. Vance made headlines with his 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy (later adapted to the screen for Netflix), a book several readers criticized for perpetuating these stereotypes.
Historian Elizabeth Catte, who hails from eastern Tennessee, confronts these myths head-on in her own book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, describing Appalachia’s ongoing history of civic activism, organized labor, and interdependence. And nonprofits across the region are helping define Appalachia in their own way.
Energy and environment
Appalachian Voices, Boone, NC
Coal mining has a long legacy in Appalachia, and it shows in the environment: industrial mining techniques like mountaintop removal affect the region’s land, water, and air quality.
Based in North Carolina with offices in Virginia and Tennessee, Appalachian Voices is one organization advocating for clean energy and land restoration. Besides working with government departments, Appalachian Voices hosts community forums and explores alternative options for energy and land use, including a push for solar facilities.
Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Birmingham, AL
Western Alabama’s 180-mile Black Warrior River provides drinking water, recreation, hydroelectric power, and rich biodiversity. Like many bodies of water in the United States, it’s faced a scourge of pollution.
As the only nonprofit dedicated to this river and its watershed, Black Warrior Riverkeeper keeps government and industrial agencies accountable for protecting this Alabama resource. They also run an active volunteer program and offer plenty of concrete activism tips.
Grassroots organizing and education
Highlander Research & Education Center, New Market, TN
Highlander’s a busy place—a hub of cultural programming and grassroots organizing workshops for and by Appalachians of all ages. As their website states, "Everyone is a teacher, everyone is a learner, and everyone contains within them the seed to make change."
Initiatives include the Greensboro Justice Fellowship, a yearlong community action fellowship honoring five Greensboro, NC activists massacred in 1979 by white supremacists; the youth training program Seeds of Fire; and the We Shall Overcome Fund dedicated to Black Appalachian organizers.
Appalachia–Science in the Public Interest (ASPI), Mount Vernon, KY
This Kentucky nonprofit centers on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education as a critical aspect of environmental justice.
Their seminars cover practical topics like sustainable food systems and organic gardening, often using the ASPI outdoor classroom near an old growth forest and a nature preserve. They’re also dedicated to service learning programs where high school and college students get their hands dirty in environmental fieldwork.
On the advocacy side, ASPI works with Kentucky Solar Partnership to promote solar energy use, and they help businesses, contractors, and others make the sustainable energy switch.
Nonprofit training and resources
Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), Washington, DC
A federal economic agency focused on Appalachia, ARC is a kind of think tank supporting Appalachian nonprofits engaged in more direct action. After the COVID-19 crisis hit, ARC formed the Appalachian Nonprofit Resource Center as a virtual training spot and clearinghouse for (free) content addressing common organizational issues like fundraising and finances.
These resources are available to any social impact organization, though they’re designed with Appalachian organizations in mind. Nonprofits in Appalachia can also apply for the center’s more extensive technical training program.
The Graduate School at Appalachian State University, Boone, NC
If you’re looking for tailored education in the social impact sector without the stress or expense of a degree program, Appalachian State University’s graduate school has a competitive Nonprofit Administration Graduate Certificate program available to grad students and working professionals alike.
Course topics range from grant writing to budgeting and communications, and alumni join a wide network of nonprofit leaders through the university’s Masters in Public Administration (MPA) program.
If you live and work in Appalachia, or identify as Appalachian, what are your favorite local resources and programs? What areas do you think Appalachian nonprofits should focus on in the future? Feel free to share in the comments.
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