Care and Caring: It’s an Appalachian Thing

Kay Halasek

Care. This is the sentiment I recall most clearly, the memory most palpable to me as I reflect on my years living in Flatwoods, Kentucky, and the now nearly forty years my mother has continued to live there since I left to go to college in Georgetown, Kentucky, and later graduate school in Arizona and Texas. Such a memory of care, philosopher Nel Noddings tells us, is integral to the ethic of care that springs from “natural caring,” those acts motivated not by duty but by a desire to “act on behalf of the other because we want to do so” (“An Ethic” 699).

I found my sentiments about the care that permeates and defines relationships in Appalachia echoed by Kendall Bilbrey, a native of Wytheville, Virginia, who is quoted in the “Millenials Return” page on the “Saving Appalachia” website: “‘The people I met [when in college in the greater Washington DC area] didn’t have the same sense of caring and support and neighborliness that people back home did’ Bilbrey said. ‘I never thought of that as an Appalachian thing.’” Like Bilbrey, I never thought of the sense of caring I experienced in Flatwoods as a teenager as “an Appalachian thing,” either. It was just how people were. It is, though, I’ve come to realize, decidedly and perhaps uniquely an “Appalachian thing.”

Flatwoods—a town of about 7500 residents located just to the north and west of Ashland—is more affluent than most comparably sized Appalachian towns such as Pikeville, due in part, I imagine, to its proximity to the Ohio River and affiliations with historically strong regional steel, coal, petroleum, and railroad industries. But like Pikeville and other smaller towns in eastern Kentucky, Flatwoods (and neighboring Russell) is a community whose citizens are actively involved in their churches and volunteer organizations. It has its share of evangelical and Pentecostal churches as well as mainline Christian denominations and a growing LDS community. The churches—along with area social service agencies and organizations—collectively comprise a network of what Noddings terms communities of care (“Language” 54), institutions that support “carers” (those who give care).

I was reminded of my own deep personal connections with Flatwoods and Noddings’ concept of an ethic of caring this past June when my mother suffered a stroke. At the hospital and rehab facility, she was in the hands of professionals (many of whom are natives of the area) who embodied Noddings’ concepts of receptivity and relatedness, who enacted caring as a relationship through their attentiveness to her (“Language” 53), not simply as an obligation imposed on them by their professions. Although by early August my mother was back in her own home and by the end of the year driving again, the stroke had put her in the hospital for several days and then in rehabilitative care for nearly eight weeks. During my mother’s hospital stay, my family and I were able to be with her, but as the summer progressed, our visits to her at the rehab center were limited to only three or four days each week. And after her return home in August and the start of the fall semester at OSU, our trips became even less frequent and limited to a couple of days (at most) on occasional weekends.

Although our trips became less frequent, the attentions of my mother’s neighbors and friends were unfaltering. Karmen and Jim had her over for dinners. Doug still puts her paper inside her storm door each morning and takes her trash to and from the street each week. Denny plows her driveway—as he has for years. Roger and Toni bring over soup and help with home repairs—and Roger built the ramps that lead to her front door. Peggy and Leon (backdoor neighbors from the 1970s and 80s) bring in Meals on Wheels. She is surrounded by care and carers. These folks’ gestures of care are second nature, common (in the sense of familiar and ordinary), done without flourish. They’re not instances of “paying it forward.” They do not anticipate return or repayment. Caring is not a contractual exchange or transaction. These folks are not stockpiling good works against some anticipated future drought or meager harvest, times when they may be in need. They simply tend to others.

I do not myself conduct research in Appalachian studies, but Noddings provides me a means through which to reflect with my own sense of care on my life and relationships and those of my mother. Noddings’ concepts of natural caring and an ethic of caring provide me the means through which to characterize just one element of this Appalachian community and her people.

My mother, Erma Halasek Slavens

Kay Halasek

Kay Halasek


Kay Halasek is an Associate Professor in the Department of English whose research specializations are rhetoric, composition and literacy. 


References Advameg, Inc., 2016. Web.

Noddings, Nel. “An Ethic of Caring.” Reprinted in Ethical Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2013: 699-712.

Noddings, Nel. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Print.

Noddings, Nel. “The Language of Care Ethics.” Knowledge Quest 40.4 (2012): 52-6. Print.

Weisser, Ryan. “Saving Appalachia.” 17 March 2016. Web.

Dangers of “damage-centered” research

Lynaya Elliott

When you think of Appalachian stereotypes in the media, it’s not surprising that those outside the region may point to images of boarded-up store fronts, aerial views of dented mobile homes, and rusty automobiles. Last year, The Guardian published a four-part series, America’s poorest white town: abandoned by coal, swallowed by drugs, one of which focuses on high rates of obesity, drug addiction, and post-coal economic devastation in Beattyville, Kentucky. Area spotlights like these often do so with the goal of shedding light on economically-depressed areas in order to leverage resources for these communities. However, what toll does it take on a community when the national spotlight portrays it as damaged? It’s not news to me that my hometown faces economic challenges or that my community is struggling with the grip of opiates on our loved ones, but that isn’t all that comes to mind when I think of home.

For Appalachian communities, we’re no stranger to these stereotypes of poverty in the media beginning with the hordes of journalists that flooded the hollers of Eastern Kentucky in 1964 when President Johnson used the region as a high profile symbol to gain support for his War on Poverty. Images of rickety shacks, coal-dust covered faces of miners, and barely-dressed children flashed on television screens across America.

President Johnson on his 1964 poverty tour. (Cecil Saughton/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

President Johnson on his 1964 poverty tour. (Cecil Saughton/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

What does it mean when our communities have no control over how our stories are told and what images are used to convey them?

In 2009, Eve Tuck, Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at State University of New York published an open letter for communities, researchers and educators to consider long-term results of “damage-centered” research. Speaking of her own Native community in Alaska, she explores the effects on a people when we begin to “think of ourselves as broken”. She takes on the ethics of research and cautions those who do work in disenfranchised communities to reconsider the effect their roles have on these groups. (Tuck, p.422). Referencing communities of color, indigenous people, and those living in poverty, she distinguishes that while research may addresses the social and historical factors that shaped this disparity, without the context of colonization and racism at the forefront, “all we’re left with is the damage”. Tuck suggests that through a framework of desire, communities can recognize our sovereignty and cultivate the vision and wisdom of our communities for a collective movement forward implying damage-centered research stalls progress (Tuck, p. 417)

Rewriting the narrative about Appalachia is not an easy job. We must rethink our roles in research especially when we grapple with the insider/outsider effect and attempt to find solutions for it. We must ask what steps can we can take to ensure a mutually-beneficial goal for both the research and the community it hopes to serve? How can we better work with experts from within the communities to shape the questions we ask? What effects will the data have on our subjects?

But part of rewriting the narrative is letting our communities speak for themselves. We must support the work of people like Roger May, a native of West Virginia, whose work Looking at Appalachia focuses on redefining the images of the region. He accepts submissions from people in the Appalachian region and collectively exhibits these works to portray, more accurately, the cultural richness and complexity that can be found in our home counties.

Tuck’s letter was especially empowering for me to reiterate the importance of increased involvement of Appalachian students and faculty in higher education including leading those research efforts in our own communities. Our complex lives are ones of both damage and desire and who better to tell the story than those of us who have climbed these hills?

Brien Vincent. 6/18/2014. Rural Action Watershed Restoration AmeriCorps member Rand Romas leads a pond study as part of the KEEN summer camp at Lake Hope State Park near McArthur in Vinton County, Ohio.

Brien Vincent. 6/18/2014. Rural Action Watershed Restoration AmeriCorps member Rand Romas leads a pond study as part of the KEEN summer camp at Lake Hope State Park near McArthur in Vinton County, Ohio.

Andrea Morales. 09/03/2014. Jacksonville, Athens County, Ohio Labor Day Parade

Andrea Morales. 09/03/2014. Jacksonville, Athens County, Ohio Labor Day Parade

Stephen Speranza. 3/15/2004. Wilmerding, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

Stephen Speranza. 3/15/2004. Wilmerding, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

Lynaya Elliott is Department Manager for the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She also serves as one of the program leaders for the Community of Appalachian Student Leaders and a co-facilitator for The Appalachian Project. 



Tuck, Eve. “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities.” Harvard Educational Review 79.3 (2009): 409-427.

McGreal, Chris. “America’s Poorest White Town: abandoned by coal, swallowed by drugs.” Guardian US, 12 November 2015. 20 December 2015.