It is sometimes difficult for me – worldly woman that I am – to travel outside of the fair Bluegrass and not endure the occasional taunt, jibe and jab at my Kentucky residence – and, yes, born and bred; I am no transplant. But they can eat their stereotypical wordplays, friends. I have no accent (nary will you ever hear me utter a long “I” or drop a lonely “G” from its “-ing”); I loathe country music, and I am not a Republican. On the flipside, I have lived in France; I know that “carpaccio” is not part of musical terminology; I understand, love and properly use semi-colons (note: last several sentences). But it’s cool; (there’s another one!) I don’t take offense when someone from rural Idaho (Idaho…) dissess my roots. I play it off like a boss (yeah, I did just say that…sorry).
However, being from Louisville shields me from much of my Bluegrass brethren, and the stereotypes and hardships that I have faced for my heritage (trifles that they are) pale in comparison to those of my cousins to the East. The very word “Appalachia” conjures up many images, assumptions and emotions often fed to us by a mixture of photojournalism and “revealing” broadcast specials (I’m looking at you, Diane Sawyer). Reality and good television sometimes have a blurry line, as we all know in this age of the Kardashians (apparently we’re supposed to be “Keeping Up” with them). And while bridging the gap between these communities and the “other side” often gets muddled, there is one woman whose activism in these mountaintop towns was a true testament to her own mantra, “living social justice”.
Helen Matthews Lewis and her life’s work of social activism have gone a long way towards changing the societal perceptions of Appalachia and its people. Working to build bridges both locally and globally for these communities, Lewis labored hand-in-hand with other activists and cultural workers for the benefit of students, academics and coal-miners. Her very grassroots efforts of “practice what you preach” linked a bond between scholarship and activism that helped both change lives and encourage a deeper analysis of this often misunderstood region.
For the first time in her long career, the writings, notes, letters and memories of Lewis and her work have been collected into a cohesive volume. With the help of author Judith Jennings – along with Patricia Beaver – Lewis’ life is now documented in the compilation, Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia. With Jennings’ editing skills, Lewis and her social story of activism are brought to life in her words as the quest for social acceptance unfolded.
Jennings, currently serving as the executive director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women, will present Helen Matthews Lewis at The Filson Historical Society tomorrow, Tuesday, March 27th at noon. The author of an additional socially-charged book, Gender, Religion and Radicalism in the Long Eighteenth Century: The Ingenious “Quacker” and Her Connections, Jennings and her keen eye for women in roles of change is a voice not to be missed (and regardless of accent – you prejudiced Idaho-ians-ians…)
This event is free and open to the public, but reservations  are suggested. The Filson Historical Society is located at 1310 South Third Street.
Image: Courtesy of Kentucky Press www.kentuckypress.org