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'It's Who We Are:' Appalshop Rebuilds Their Community

The first floor is completely scrapped. Bare. The skeleton of structural beams teases what once was Appalshop. 

A radio station, 150-seat theater and archive full of decades-old film and media are now memories, with a high waterline on the wall serving as a reminder of what is gone.

Appalshop, a government project turned non-profit, and the Appalachian community it serves had been washed away. 

According to the National Weather Service, relentless rain in combination with mountainous geography led to flash flooding that devastated Eastern Kentucky in late July 2022. Whitesburg, Kentucky, where Appalshop is based, saw the north fork of the Kentucky River flood to unprecedented heights. 

“I'm like, ‘Oh, I hope they understand why I'm not at work today,’ no idea that work is seven feet underwater,” said Willa Johnson, director of the films program at Appalshop. 

Beginning as a film workshop in 1969 during the war on poverty, Appalshop has grown and developed into a non-profit that focuses on telling the stories of the Appalachian community and training the people of Appalachia with different media skills. 

“I always explain Appalshop’s storytelling as ‘front porch storytelling’ or ‘kitchen table storytelling.’ We have a style of storytelling that is comfortable… and that is slow-paced and it reflects the way people talk and sound here and I never wanna get away from that,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who had just stepped into the role of director of films the year before the flood, was working on finding a subject for a new film. Although she and a group of professional filmmakers had started on a project, the new subject of the film became obvious after the flood. 

“We spent the next year collecting interviews and stories and people's footage from their phones,” Johnson said. “So on the one-year anniversary, we were able to have an event here where we showcased a new film that is made for our community. It is made with love for our community. I describe it as a love letter for people who went through the flood.”

Johnson said the event was meant to follow the traditional Appalachian practice of having a celebratory dinner after a funeral in order to commemorate the passing of a loved one. 

“It's sad, it's bittersweet, but you're getting to be with family that you don't always get to be with and share conversation and just heal together,” Johnson said. 

Appalshop’s community cookout event included board games, food and a popcorn truck that gave out free popcorn for the documentary screening. Although the building was still closed, over 100 people gathered in over-90-degree heat at Appalshop’s outdoor pavilion to celebrate the occasion. 

“I think that event, for me, was sort of the closing of a chapter of the flood for us,” Johnson said. “We have been in so much survival mode. Now it's time to figure out what's next, and I think that's the chapter we're moving into now.”

Appalshop has been working to restart the programs it lost since the flood. The theater, archive that stores old projects and film, and the Community Media Initiative, which provides media training and technical assistance to organizations throughout the community, were all lost during the flood. 

“It felt so helpless because you can't fight nature. It's gonna do its thing, the waters are gonna rise, and then you have to clean up the mess,” said Jessica Shelton, director of the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop. 

Another program that was lost during the flood was WMMT, Appalshop’s radio station. Also referred to as “Possum Radio,” WMMT is a 24-hour radio station that broadcasts not only music, but also covers social issues facing Appalachian communities. According to their website, WMMT provides the people of Appalachia with a way to express their creativity and get involved in the community.

Johnson said Appalshop worked as quickly as possible to find a way to continue WMMT’s broadcasting after the flood. After modifying an RV, WMMT was able to start broadcasting again out of their new mobile studio nicknamed the “Possum Den.”

“We were just coming back from the pandemic, literally just like a couple of months getting to be back in a building together, and then we lost it again,” Johnson said. “That was a really hard thing to lose in the immediate disaster because when your internet and everything goes down, you turn to radio. Our radio station was underwater, so being able to create community stories and have DJs coming back in… that's been really instrumental.”

Although the variety of work may be difficult to manage on some days, it's this variety that has allowed Appalshop to increase its outreach and grow the relationship with its community, Johnson said. 

“The beauty of all of this happening in one place is that there's so much room to collaborate,” Shelton said. “As Appalshop has grown… you feel the significance, just because of all the programming we do now.”

Johnson agreed that while it may be easier to focus on one thing, she doesn’t think Appalshop’s impact “would be as grand or as overreaching as it is.”

Appalshop’s connection with the community has allowed the non-profit to continue doing a variety of work, specifically shifting to more community-focused work directly following the flood. From dropping food off to where it was needed to spreading information about where to donate, Appalshop’s connection with the community allowed for greater mutual aid work, according to Shelton.

“I really love that I was able to pivot to community work after the flood,” Shelton said.

She recalled running $200,000 through her Venmo account that went directly to people for things they needed like food, clothes and other supplies. 

“I wouldn't have been able to do that if Appalshop didn't have this community platform and broader community outreach that was already in place,” Shelton said. 

Although Appalshop was founded in Whitesburg, its outreach hasn’t been confined to just Eastern Kentucky.  

“We've had films screened globally… that's always the thing that sort of shocks me is to hear those stories about an audience in Indonesia being like, ‘Oh, that's similar to what we experience,’” Shelton said. 

When Appalshop (then known as the Appalachian Film Workshop) was founded, the original goal was for students to learn how to work with film so they could then leave and find work. As the war on poverty became more prominent and Appalachia became “a stereotypical poster child” for what poverty in America looked like, the students of Appalshop decided to stay in Appalachia in order to tell the stories of their own community, Johnson said. 

“Training young people from the region to get a camera in their hand and document their community, through their eyes, was a look at Appalachia no one else had taken before,” Johnson said. “They didn't want to leave and tell the story of another community; they saw the value of the story of their own community.”

Since officially becoming Appalshop in 1974, the organization has continued to fight the stereotypes that have marred Appalachia while simultaneously growing its relationship with the Appalachian community.

“I hope it feels like the community is who we are. Not just like we're the voices all the time, but that we are embedded and know who those voices are to go to,” Johnson said. “To me it’s so organic that it's hard to say how the community impacts us because I think — I hope — that at our absolute best, we are the community.”

After three difficult years of dealing with the pandemic and the repercussions of the flood, Appalshop is still continuing the work that it started over 50 years ago. 

“I think I'm seeing so much hope and excitement and understanding of what Appalshop is regionally versus just locally that it makes me really excited about what we can do and who we can reach and who we impact,” Johnson said. 


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