By Xiaoyi Liu
Morgantown, West Virginia — Followers often think Gina Dahlia, the general manager for 100 Days in Appalachia, comes from New York or New Jersey. Dahlia, a lifelong West Virginian, knows the stereotypes. “Because you seem so educated, and well-spoken, and articulate, you couldn’t possibly be from Appalachia,” she hears people thinking.
Born the day after the 2016 election, 100 Days is an independent, nonprofit news outlet that shares content from Appalachia’s diverse communities with regional, national and international media organizations. It incubated at the West Virginia University Reed College of Media Innovation Center, in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and The Daily Yonder of the Center for Rural Strategies in Kentucky.
As a native of Appalachia, Dahlia saw 100 Days as an opportunity to redefine and reshape what people think of the area. “There is a whole other side to Appalachia that you are not seeing,” she said. “When people come to tell our story, they are really trying to tell the stories that are already established, which is that we are just a bunch of hillbilly folk.”
News reports have dubbed Appalachia as “Trump Country” since the 2016 election. “Everybody in the world was coming to West Virginia and doing stories about the coal-miners” after Donald Trump promised to reinvigorate the coal industry, said Dana Coester, creative director and executive editor of 100 Days. “And we are frustrated with the national narration of our region that was really one-dimensional.”
Before 2016, Coester and her colleagues had been working for two years trying to come up with an idea for their own digital news outlet, but it didn’t work out. Then the election happened, and they decided to launch 100 Days as a pop-up news site to cover the first 100 days of the Trump administration.
“It really took off. It grew audience really rapidly,” said Coester. “So we decided to just keep it.”
Photographer Nancy Andrews’s photo series “100 Days, 100 Voices” was one of the projects that helped to showcase the scope of diversity in Appalachia when the website initially launched. Andrews traveled throughout the 13 states in Appalachia and took photographs depicting diversity. She showed the varied faces, passions, issues and opinions from around the region.
“That really did kick off the entire 100 Days in Appalachia website,” Dahlia said. “We are going to help you visually see that we are surprising you and that we are not what you think we are.”
The story of Sara Berzingi, featured early on the website, was part of a 360-degree video series “Muslim in Appalachia.” The series invites viewers into the worlds of Appalachian Muslims navigating Muslim and Appalachian identity while challenging the stereotypes of both. Berzingi, a Muslim-Appalachian with Kurdish roots who has been calling West Virginia home for a decade, was asked in the interview about her response to immigration ban and her reflections on identity.
“We knew that she would not be the stereotype of Appalachia the rest of the world had been seeing,” Coester said. “It’s a way to provoke people into thinking differently about who we are.”
The Appalachian Region, as defined in Appalachia Regional Commission’s authorizing legislation, includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states along the Appalachian Mountains: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
However, people view Appalachia through a concentric lens, according to Coester, and focus on the core story about Kentucky and West Virginia, the heart of what most people think of as Appalachia.
“The region is as diverse as the communities and counties and states it represents,” Coester said. “The politics and issues and communities of southern Alabama are different than northern Alabama, and that’s different than what’s happening in Mississippi,” she said. “But that woven together, all of those community stories actually tell a really rich American story.”
Appalachia’s stories are America’s stories, Coester explained, and that’s why 100 Days has been trying to build the national audience. “We are not just talking to people in the region, we are talking to the rest of the world about the region.”
Initially, 100 Days was launched to push back on national sentiments that had reduced the region to narrow narratives. Now, national media are picking up and republishing the 100 Days stories.
“That’s exactly what we want to have happen,” said Coester. “That means producers, photographers, writers from Appalachia are now being distributed on a national platform, and that make sure those voices are getting out there.”
This locally conceived news outlet is still looking at the landscape of Appalachia. It will soon launch a community engagement series, Sunday Supper. Co-directed by food editor Mike Costello and religion editor Crystal Lewis Brown, it aims to host dinners in real life homes with accompanying families and conversations to address some of the pressing issues that Appalachia is facing, such as gun control.
It’s now two years – nearly 730 days – since the Nov. 8, 2016 election. So 100 Days clearly has a revised calendar. Coester said she would like to see 100 Days survive through the next presidential election – “because we will be able to come full circle from where we started,” she said. “And then we will see where we are after that.”