HAZARD – Civic engagement represents an important aspect of building a better future, and Kentucky has some work to do in that regard, according to Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes.
Secretary Grimes led a roundtable discussion Wednesday at Hazard Community and Technical College, which included a panel of several local leaders in politics and community development. According to a recent report her office issued on the civic health of Kentucky, the state is actually above the national average in categories such as political participation, but falters in others, such as volunteerism.
“We’re doing well in some areas, but we’re failing in others,” Grimes said.
Wednesday’s meeting was one of a series of similar discussions Grimes has held across the state since last year, and she said she hopes to glean ideas from leaders on how to improve Kentucky’s community engagement, social connectedness, and political action.
A portion of Wednesday’s discussion centered on connecting with the area’s youth and encouraging them to volunteer their time to causes in the local community. Sen. Brandon Smith, of Hazard, said participation in organizations like the Boy Scouts is down, and it will be up to adults to re-engage younger people.
“Every single one of us shares the exact same responsibility in solving this,” he said.
Helen Williams, a teacher at Hazard High School where students are encouraged to volunteer their time, urged adults to simply be present as way to present kids with role models. She said students want to help their communities, and cited her school’s response to gather needed materials for victims of the March 2012 tornadoes as one example of how the students at Hazard High School are serving their region.
“They need to know there are adults they can model after who really care about what they think,” Williams said, “because these kids want to make a difference.”
Doug Fraley is the vice president of student services at Hazard Community and Technical College, and spoke on the importance of education in developing a more civic-minded state, especially the role of parents as the first educators in a child’s life. Ultimately, he said, kids from rural areas, like he was, need to know that there exists a chance for a future better than the present.
“We’ve got to sell hope and opportunity,” Fraley said. “Education is hope and opportunity. It worked for me, the guy from the head of the holler.”
This region in Eastern Kentucky, specifically, has many people who have the time and talent, and according to a recent study, even the wealth to effect positive change at the community level, noted Gerry Roll, director of the Community Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky. But in many cases, people may not know how to begin the process.
“I don’t believe we have a lack of will, I think sometimes people see a lack of opportunity,” Roll said.
The community foundation is one organization seeking to facilitate that process of bringing people together, and in terms of the region’s abject poverty, Roll said she would like to see a regional approach. Here in Perry County, a quarter of the population remained in poverty in 2011, and it will take people working together to bring new ideas to the table and new approaches for a more diversified economy.
“We believe that if we can connect our local community, and start to connect our contiguous counties and start thinking of ourselves as a region, then we’re really going to start moving the dial on poverty,” Roll said.
Grimes will hold her 15th and final scheduled roundtable discussion at the University of Pikeville on May 1, beginning at 11 a.m. Other discussions have taken place across the state, including in Louisville, Elizabethtown, and Morehead.