On the Road to Kingdom Come: The Higher Ground Project

On the Road to Kingdom Come: The Higher Ground Project

By Savannah Barrett

There’s an imagery associated with places like Harlan County, Kentucky. Deep in the Southeast corner of the Commonwealth, Harlan County is the capital of the central Appalachian coalfields. The region has a history of news-worthy stories, often plagued by misfortune. Some of the most significant labor disputes took place here, and the national hit drama Justified continues to enthrall audiences with its depiction of Harlan County as the exotic badlands of Kentucky. While more than one-hundred years of media documentation is centered on this place, few of these common narratives have been told by folks from the Harlan County community.

The Higher Ground project has a mind to change all of that. Anchored in the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College (SKCTC), the Higher Ground project is a community arts initiative that utilizes storytelling, theater, music, art, and design to address the systemic issues of the county and give voice to its citizens. Higher Ground is based in Harlan County, a coalmining county of 28,000.

Rut Panels

Photo credit: After Coal project, Photographer Appalachian State University Student Ben Rorick

The project began in 2001, when SE KCTC students initiated a conversation about the community’s assets. These conversations grew into an oral history project, which led to the formation of a community coalition and eventually, an application for major foundation support through the Rockefeller Foundation’s Partnerships Affirming Community Transformation Program.

Higher Ground’s Program Director Robert Gipe and his students saw a different vision of their community than the one popularly communicated to them in popular culture, and wanted to explore the strengths and advantages of their place. Most of all, Gipe explained that they “wanted to take advantage of the untapped creativity in the community.” Over the past twelve years, the project has expanded to engage thousands of local people in art-based civic dialogue.

Higher Ground Performance.
Photo credit: After Coal project, Photographer Appalachian State University Student Ben Rorick

Now on their fourth major community theater production, the Higher Ground plays are celebrations of the community’s assets. Using both music and issue-driven content, these plays are well known for their deeply moving storytelling. They’ve mastered a formula for exploring the toughest problems taking place in their community in a way that invites folks from both sides of party lines to explore the issues.

As Gipe explained, these aren’t plays produced to change the minds of what other folks think about Harlan County, but to encourage the local citizenry to consider what they were going to do about it:

Early on, folks were cautious about talking about the hard issues in their community. The first play used the metaphor of floods (drugs were a new type of flood), and in floods we help each other out regardless of class and race…. In the second play, we looked at personal accountability. It’s easy to think about drug abuse as a thing that’s come down on us like bad weather, but we also have to look to ourselves. What do you do when you invite the prodigal back into the house and they burn the house down? What are we going to do about it?

The first play dealt with issues of drug abuse, but the themes addressed evolved from that point. These productions have explored everything from bullying and gossip to land use, the local culture of coal mining, the OxyContin drug crisis, the role of women, and the region’s African American history.


FogLights Performance.
Photo credit: After Coal project, Photographer Appalachian State University Student Ben Rorick

One play even considered the outward migration of Harlan’s youth and the tough decision of deciding to stay or leave their community in search of opportunity. Much of the work is based on the oral histories and storytelling of community members. The Higher Ground Project’s fourth production, FogLights, is focused on the uncertain future of the community.

The future is precisely where Higher Ground’s attention is concentrated. Much of Gipe’s work is devoted to finding ways to pass on this community-driven project to the next generation of leaders. While many of the young people involved in Higher Ground have been paid in college credit in the past, Gipe is now focused on securing resources to pay the young leaders. Many of these students are the first in their family to attend college, and he’s concerned about the paradigm of accruing massive student debt without significant opportunity to continue working in the Harlan County community.

His challenge remains the same as many working across arts and community development in small places: How do we hold on to this generation?

“The hope is that the body of work has created a shift in consciousness about how people can be together. In rural communities there are lots of good people that don’t always get to find each other to do things. Higher Ground has been a gathering place for lots of people that get it in different ways to come together. People move in and out of performance but continue to contribute to the community. People come to it for different reasons, but everyone gets that it needs to exist as a lot of different things.”

Higher Ground set artwork.
Photo credit: After Coal project, Photographer Appalachian State University Student Ben Rorick

While Higher Ground is well known for theater, the project has lead the community in the creation of five mosaic tile public art pieces; a community photography project with more than 600 participants; thirteen youth arts events as a part of the Crawdad Student Arts Series; a collaboration with Kentucky Educational Television about the project; and public performances in Georgia, Tennessee, Washington D.C., and West Virginia. They are also raising funds to transform a two-story store front into an art/maker space in Cumberland. They’ve been using it for art classes and stage design for the Higher Ground performances. They’re also working with other regional colleges and universities to expand their arts-related coursework to include upper level courses.

More than 5,000 people have participated in the Higher Ground project, and more than 6,000 have seen at least one performance. Over 15 guest artists and 40 local people have been employed by the project. These are impressive engagement numbers in any community, but are exemplary in a county of fewer than 30,000.

The Higher Ground Facebook page describes the project’s impact beautifully: “The Project has given rise to thousands of opportunities for community members to create and in the process, talk to one another about what they want for this place. The project has expanded our ability to reflect and plan, and to apply what we have learned in the creative arena to other aspects of community life. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of us have changed what we think of as possible. Continuing to tell new stories is important, particularly in a place where so many feel the story is at its end. In continuing to create, we believe, we embody hope. We become the future.”

To find out more about the Higher Ground Project, visit: https://www.facebook.com/highergroundinharlan