Allie Bailey, called her home in Scott County on the Cumberland Plateau the “reddest part of the state” and said kids there are raised to be rooted in honoring their parents, community and the Bible.
One of her high school classmates, Amelia Terry, added the many residents of the area don’t handle change well.
Bailey and Terry were part of a group of teenagers from Tennessee, Texas and Kentucky who participated in a virtual forum Thursday as part of the Conversationalist Series sponsored by Millions of Conversations, a non-profit movement organized to change political narratives that marginalize Americans.
The high schoolers have been meeting virtually over the past month to discuss the issues impacting their communities. Millions of Conversations collaborated with a Scott County group, Tennessee’s Schools Together Allowing No Drugs (S.T.A.N.D) to host the event.
The students shared a sense of needing to see more diversity in their schools and towns. Bailey agreed with Terry’s assessment, saying rural areas throughout the South are slow to changing, especially towns located along Tennessee’s Bible Belt. Terry added that “super churches” or mega-churches have played a role in divisiveness seen through the South.
The lack of diversity has meant that rural areas tend to be deeply rooted in conservative politics as well as a lack or resources to address growing problems such as the opioid epidemic.
Bailey added that students attending schools in rural areas tended to be unprepared to face the real world once they left their small towns to go to college elsewhere; schools tended not to teach about the world outside a small town.
Students from urban areas, like Nashville teen Mayowa Kassim, said that although they have a more diverse school population, southern cities still remained separated into socioeconomic strata of class and race. Kassim hopes that Nashville private schools will one day reflect the diversity of the city.
Marlie Thompson, a student in Birmingham, Kentucky, spoke of deep divides between public and private schools, with rates of illiteracy being high among children in the area. According to the World Population Review, 12.2% of Kentucky citizens are illiterate.
Students agreed 2020’s racial justice protests have given them hope for a more progressive South in the near future. In conservative states, students believe more progressive figures will run for office and push progressive values.
“Young people from across the heartland are actively working to solve the divisions in our country that transcend political parties and the divide between urban and rural America,” said Millions of Conversations Founding President and CEO Samar Ali. “We as a country should be listening.”