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who'll sing this song?

For me to wholly claim Appalachia would be theft. I've lived there intermittently for the last ten years - I went to college in Kentucky, but on its periphery, and my family lives in east Tennessee, where I have also lived and worked, off and on. So I know more about the region than probably 90% of people in DC, but I can't say it's mine really, not like my friends who grew up in Laurel County or Ashland or Hazard. I only know it as an adult.

But if you spend any real amount of time there, the region gets under your skin, makes you want to rise to its defense even if you haven't earned the privilege. It's hard to explain to an outsider the sweet burn of peach moonshine, or the joyful feeling of stomping to a banjo's rhythm, or the way an abandoned trailer, surrounded by rusting barbed wire, looks in the fog. It's poor, yes, and different from other places, but it's complicated and beautiful too. And if I, an Appalachian Johnny-come-lately, feel this many conflicting emotions, imagine how much love and frustration must be felt by a person who carries the region in their blood - especially when they see how outsiders view them.

The rest of America has always enjoyed a strained relationship with this pocket of the country, with its poverty and luminous strangeness. (For an introduction to this issue, I always recommend Elizabeth Barret's documentary Stranger with a Camerawhich chronicles the death of photographer Hugh O'Connor in Letcher County, Kentucky.) A friend recently sent me a review of a new Brooklyn restaurant that looks like a parody of Appalachia, like some sort of weird poverty theme park where you can pretend to be poor and have a corn dog with a Budweiser. To the reviewer's credit, he castigates the owner for cashing in on a place he doesn't even understand. (Sample quote: "I doubt if he is aware or even curious to inquire how that barn he bought became fallow.")

However, he falls into another trap, which is the pity of the well-meaning outsider. In his review, he says that "(t)he miserable condition of Appalachia, a region that runs from New York to Mississippi, is as raw a wound and as deep a shame as a decapitated strip-mined peak. Poor, poor and damned poor are the mountain people who still live there, though as Ronald Eller notes in his bleak study Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, there’s not that many of them." It echoes Annie Lowrey's recent piece in the New York Times, "What's The Matter With Eastern Kentucky?", which notes "the desperation of coal country."

Well, yes, but.

There's no arguing with the fact that much of Appalachia is poor - very poor, poor in ways that might surprise you if you've never been. And yes, it is derided and/or ignored by much of America, because these issues, and our political complicity in them, are hard and painful to deal with. But there's also no arguing with the richness I've experienced there, even as an outsider, and the cultural and artistic offerings the region provides. My parents live outside the Storytelling Capital of the World - that's not my opinion, that's an official title. The Amish fried donuts at the Johnson City Farmers' Market are better than you can believe. And we're always coming up with new ways to make meth. (Joke. Joke.) 

The way we view Appalachia echoes the way we view most of the "developing" countries of the world - as places in dire need of our noblesse oblige, rather than as whole, complex entities with things to offer as well as needs. You can be desperate and still be beautiful, in ways that have nothing to do with your desperation. You can be financially rich, but still blind to what the country around you provides.

Poverty like Appalachia's cannot be ignored, but it's also not the sole defining characteristic of its towns or its people. And maybe we should care about it because its existence impedes us from accessing what lies within. When all we can think about is how much a place lacks, it's easy to miss how much it has to offer. 

And I'm going to be honest with you here: I've rewritten this post five or six times, because, as I noted at the beginning, I'm only beginning to understand the region - I can only speak for myself and my own experiences. (For a more nuanced defense from a true native, I strongly encourage you to read Silas House's recent editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal.) So, given the amount that's already been taken from Appalachia by outsiders over the course of the last century, I hesitate to write any more than what I already know. But what I want to convey is that it's worth knowing, all of it. The whole picture.

 

 

 

 

 

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love is the driver: or, about that Reading Rainbow Kickstarter

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(Cross-posted from Hearts+Minds.)

Over the last few days, every social media platform I know has been lit up with posts about LeVar Burton's attempt to restart and remodel Reading Rainbow. By and large, the overall coverage of the project has been extremely positive, which makes sense; in addition to being a terrific show, Reading Rainbow hits all the right nostalgia buttons for a pretty wide swath of the population. I mean, it's difficult to criticize the mission of a project that includes both Reading and Rainbow in its name. 

One notable critique, however, appeared from Caitlin Dewey on the Washington Post's Intersect blog, and I think it's worth addressing. Among the concerns Dewey highlights: that the project is out of step with the digital reality of children in poverty, and that it ultimately addresses the wrong issue - it focuses on teaching kids to love reading, when they might not know how to read at all. 

First of all, there are a few basic facts here that I would dispute. For example, she points out that low-income kids are more likely to access the Internet at home via mobile phone, which is totally true, but ignores the fact that the program is (at least in part) designed for teachers in classrooms, where desktops and laptops remain the primary means of Internet access. She also notes that the service will cost money, which is true as well, except for "disadvantaged" classrooms, where access to the new platform will be provided for free. My beef with inappropriate and inaccessible technology is well-documented, but honestly, I don't think that's as much of an issue here.

What I find more problematic, however, is the idea that we can't focus on both literacy education and fostering a love of books. Reading is a skill that only improves with practice, and as anyone who's ever studied a musical instrument can attest, no one wants to practice unless they're enjoying themselves. The kids who are struggling with literacy are the ones whose parents don't have the time, the resources, or the ability to read to their kids, to let their kids see them reading, to spark that flame that lights the way for a lifetime of learning. To succeed, they need that extra drive, that extra grit. They've got to want it. It's the desire that, at least in part, motivates the learning.

So I don't think it's wrong for us to expose kids to books, and the wonders they hold, in as many places as possible. In fact, I think it's helpful for kids to see reading in action, to connect stories to books and books to joy. It certainly can't replace literacy education, but it's far from irrelevant.

Now, is this project everything I'd dream of? Not necessarily. My heart still lies with public television, which remains the most accessible medium we have. Do I wish that the general public would devote this much time and focus to other, less flashy education issues? Of course. But this is still a good idea overall, and it's one that deserves our support. And if you have any doubt about the program's potential for inspiration, go check out some of the old clips on YouTube. You don't have to take my word for it. 

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thanks to listeners like you

(Cross-posted from Hearts+Minds.)

"It is because of NPR," my Uber driver told me this morning. "All because of NPR!"

He was referring to his knowledge of English, which he acquired almost exclusively from - you guessed it - National Public Radio. "I have RFI [French public radio] access on my phone, but my teacher and my wife said, 'No. You should listen to NPR.' And now? RFI? Never." (He added that his favorite host was Kojo. Obviously.)

I have no real new observations here, except that I love being reminded of how powerful effective media can be for educational purposes. When I hear stories like this one I think of my father, living as a child quasi-refugee in France, getting his first introduction to America from Tom Mix Westerns; of my old friend Yuriy, who once told me that he learned English from the reruns of DuckTales they broadcast in his city in Ukraine; of my host brother in Korea, who learned the word "undertaker" from the name of his favorite American wrestler. (Yes, really. And yes, I'm counting it.)

And, of course, now of this man, a former executive with Coca-Cola in Cameroon whose daughter is in the US Navy and who's working on a novel about the experience of the African immigrant in America.* I'm glad that the mediated, highly enunciated NPR accent has proven its worth. And I'm glad that we make it freely available to all Americans, new and old.

 

*It was a long ride. 

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I hear America singing

Here's your daily dose of cultural diplomacy: an American diplomat singing on Pakistan Idol.

This is the sort of development story that often gets relegated to feature/"human-interest" status: look how cute it is that they're all singing together! Look, they have a television show just like we do! Consider the fact that I learned about the story of Philip Assis, Cultural Affairs Officer in Karachi, through BuzzFeed - a site that is also currently featuring the stories "17 Celebrity Hookup Confessions" and "Facts All French Fry Fanatics Should Know." (I'm not clicking on that until they tell me how many facts.)

Which is a damn shame. Because people watch Pakistan Idol, just like they read BuzzFeed. America needs all the positive publicity it can get, particularly in a country where our relations remain somewhat dicey. If this is where the kids who will someday be Pakistan's soldiers and diplomats see that some Americans are trying to build bridges, so what if it's silly?

And, by extension, I'm actually sort of glad that this appeared on the site it did. Okay, BuzzFeed isn't the Economist. But that means that people who don't usually have a reason to think about Pakistan have now learned a few useful things - how US diplomacy is implemented, for example, and that Pakistanis (just like their American counterparts) enjoy watching people make fools of themselves on live television. It's not much, maybe, but we have to start somewhere. And maybe the set of a television show isn't a bad place to start.

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following the signs

I love Sesame Street for a lot of reasons, but I think what might have triggered my initial infatuation was its song parodies. As has been previously documented, I was a super weird kid*, and I distinctly remember watching Patti LaBelle sing "How I Miss My X" and feeling delighted - not just because it was clever, but because I felt like I was getting the adults' joke. It was a secret club, and by virtue of being a nerd, I had found my way in.

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago as I finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy (yes, I just read them, yes, I am sorry I didn't listen to everyone who told me to read them four years ago). Around the same time, I came across a link for the Sesame Workshop version of book 2, "The Hungry Games: Catching Fur." First of all: awesome. Second of all: the very existence of this video inadvertently highlights one of the most overlooked and (I think) one of the most important aspects of the books.

Obviously, the Hunger Games, as an event, are a huge viewing event for the members of the Capital. Something Katniss mentions a few times, however, is that the Games really aren't for the elites; they're there to remind the Districts of their powerlessness. The whole shindig is ostensibly for one audience, but, under its surface, has a completely different purpose. 

This is a level of media analysis that I think is often missing from the coverage of so-called viral videos and other marketing tactics. Sesame Street's target audience (3-5 YO) probably doesn't care much about the cleverness of the takeoff, just as they don't really care about the borderline-Dada parody "Homelamb." (At least I hope they don't, because I'm pretty sure Homeland is not appropriate for children.) Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit that relies on the support of Viewers Like You. The whole point is to remain present and worthwhile in the minds of supporters, so that it ultimately has the resources to provide the educational programming that is targeted at children. Similarly, the amazing PBS remixes that came out last year are clearly focused on people who *used* to watch Reading Rainbow, and who would potentially donate to support the network if they felt that it would provide some sort of cachet.

(I'm going to embed one of the Mr. Rogers videos here, because it is required viewing. Be prepared to choke up a little bit.)

In my first gig out of grad school I was doing ICT consulting for governance projects, and I did a little bit of side reading on semiotics and the art of signaling. The intersection between these areas of study and international development seems to me to (also) be important and overlooked - don't we need to know what people want to say about themselves before we offer them something that allows them to speak, literally as well as metaphorically? Side note: if you have any recommended readings here, I'd love to hear about them.

At any rate, this is one of the many things that Suzanne Collins got right in her book, and it's one of the many approaches that Sesame Workshop has gotten right in their work. I'll be looking for more examples of the interaction between mission-driven work and semiotics (MAN, that sounds dry, but it's not). If you come across any, please let me know.

 

*I really wanted to find a clip from the 30 Rock episode with Carrie Fisher, where a preteen Liz Lemon watches Laugh-In (or its surrogate), looks at the camera, and says, "It's funny because it's true." I don't know if I've ever seen a more accurate representation of my childhood on television.

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MoFT: Welcome to Night Vale

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Corinne suggested I listen to this podcast, which apparently has developed a strong fan base among the rest of the Internet. It's presented as a community radio update for a town straight out of HP Lovecraft, and it is SO GOOD. That having been said, I cannot guarantee that you will like it. It's not for everyone. 

I think a lot of my affection for it comes from the fact that, as previously documented, I've lived in a LOT of weird places, none of which seem to know that they're weird. I've been working on the Great Bradenton Essay, in a variety of iterations, for what feels like forever, and I still haven't gotten a handle on it, because here are just a few of the things that make that town unique: 

And now my parents reside in a small town in Appalachia with a radio station that is unironically named WETS, and they live in a house next to the most polluted lake in the entire state and have a regular source for buying moonshine. In case you hadn't guessed, it's a weird place too.  And I live in the District of Columbia, a city that keeps electing Marion Berry, so.

Again, none of these places plays up the weirdness. In fact, I would venture to say that they don't actually know that a lot of things that happen there aren't...normal; I grew up joking about how Bradenton was crazy, but I definitely didn't get the full picture until I left the state and realized that when I talked about my childhood I got a lot of weird looks. What I'm trying to say is that no one has adopted a tourism slogan that says, "Visit East Tennessee. It's WACKY!"

So that, in a nutshell (a large nutshell), is the main reason that I like Welcome to Night Vale. Despite the fact that the town includes hooded figures, the Sheriff's Secret Police, a glow cloud, and a dog park that you are NOT TO GO NEAR, the presentation as community radio really drives home the fact that this is the town's normal; there's no wink-wink involved. And I think that underscores the fact that there's no such thing as normal, really, not when you get down past the surface of a community. Besides, is there really that much of a difference between a glow cloud and a mysterious scent of burnt oranges that pervades the morning air?

 

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