Powell County, my home in Kentucky, is a mirror image to the 50 counties in eastern Kentucky. The real hillbilly elegy is when you can’t pull on your bootstraps without your shoes breaking, and the payday loans won’t take a chance on you. It’s a whole lot of moms snorting pills to cushion the abuse or prevent the Percocet withdrawals. It’s mamaws raising grandkids on food stamps because their only parent is in jail. Its families hoping the McDonald’s employees don’t run you off as your kids use the internet to do homework, all because they can’t get internet at home. It’s hoping you can muster the courage to stand in line with 100 people at the food bank. It’s a dark, cold single-wide up an icy, muddy holler that uses an oven as their only source for heat. The school bus certainly can’t get to you, much less the good Lord to ever visit despite the many invitations to come.
My experience in Eastern Kentucky is not uncommon. Often, people at home are told to sit down and shut up — they’re not worth the trouble. What often goes unnoticed is the perseverance of the people in Eastern Kentucky. Despite all the challenges, my community stands together to speak up for one another, no matter what. Its families pulling together to support one another, people who will give their last dollar to ensure that no kid goes hungry and has a warm jacket. It’s communities of very different beliefs standing with you to support one of their own. They may say ‘bless your heart’ a few times, but you can always expect them to have your back. This culture is what distinguishes Eastern Kentucky and makes the people here worth everything. I owe my community everything.
The lessons from Eastern Kentucky transitions well to my experience in defending the First Amendment on campus. In creating a student coalition across Kentucky, enjoining representatives from organizations at each public campus, I approached these student leaders with the lessons I learned from home. College Democrats to College Republicans, LGBTQ groups to groups with a more traditional view, and Federalist society chapters to Divest: we certainly disagree with one another. We, however, knew to protect our First Amendment Rights on campus, we had to learn to stand with one another.
The ability for us as students to face all the odds and to bridge our many differences is a strength that is not only uniquely Kentucky. It is an understanding that is distinctively taught by the people of Eastern Kentucky. It is my hope that people like me — a gay first-generation student from the hollers — is proof of what is possible when we learn from the people of Eastern Kentucky. Whenever Eastern Kentucky is depreciated, I hope our work is evidence to what can be learned from within the hollers of Kentucky, including what is possible in ways to bridge the divide and protect the First Amendment.
-Michael Frazier, student at the University of Kentucky, LGBTQ and First Amendment Rights Activist
Michael Frazier, is the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award honoree for the education category for working to eliminate free speech zones on campus and successfully leading the effort to draft and enact the bipartisan Kentucky Campus Free Speech Protection Act.