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Edmonds Cain’t Never Could Do Nuthin’! ~ Mountain Wisdom - Theo Edmonds


Edmonds Cain’t Never Could Do Nuthin’! ~ Mountain Wisdom

by Theo Edmonds

I grew up in 1970s and 80s Appalachia. From an old Sylvania TV in Breathitt County, I watched the “culture wars” of the era play out on one of the three stations that we could reliably get. The news stories that I saw made me feel very scared and very alone. I could dance though. And so I clogged hundreds of hours every year to free my soul and to seek safety in dancing.   

In 2017, I read a report that Breathitt County was one of 10 counties nationally where newborn children are expected to live less years than their parents. Three of the other 10 are the adjoining counties to Breathitt. During the past couple of years, there have been numerous negative news stories and lists of various kinds which focus on the challenges faced by young folks in Breathitt County. 

In today’s hyper connected world, where media infiltrates all aspects of our lives, how do my people seek safety when others are telling their story for them? 

Remembering my own childhood, I wondered how the young people in Breathitt today must feel when they are constantly bombarded with negative messaging about who others think them to be. Research shows that in the same way lead puts toxins into the environment, the constant drumbeat of negative messaging releases social toxins that impact our emotional and physical wellbeing. 

As both an artist and health innovator and researcher, I’ve had the privilege of working with diverse groups and businesses across Appalachia and the South. Though each is special and unique, one thing is consistent across them all: the story each believes about its culture either ignites wellbeing, opportunity  and imagination among its participants, or hijacks it. 

So, each time I begin working with a group, I focus on a series of questions that have the power to change what people think is possible.  

  • Who tells your story?  

  • What story do they tell?  

  • Who benefits from your story being told a certain way?  

  • What possibilities exist for a new story to be claimed and owned?   

These are powerful questions for thinking about how culture and policy can become self-fulfilling negative outcomes, or they can become assets and tools for young people to use in in unlocking their creative potential. 

All my family still lives in Breathitt County. My granny is 100 this year. Papaw died more than a decade ago. For 50+ years, they ran a little country store in a rural Breathitt community called Highland. The store was next door to a school, built not long after the civil war. It’s where granny went (1st-12th grade). Education was a value. The entire community took part in making sure it happened for young people. Granny was postmistress and mentor to generations of kids who came to her for help with almost everything. If she didn’t know the answer, she would work with them to figure it out. 

Papaw would regularly take people in our community the 15 or so miles back and forth to town for doctor’s appointments. He would haul coal to help people stay warm in winter. I never saw Papaw say no to anyone who needed help. Papaw himself had been raised by his grandmother. His mother died in childbirth and his father was not around much. In part, I am convinced this is where his deep humanity came from. 

In this little mountain community, it was understood that we were all in this life together. If one family needed help, it wasn’t just their problem. Everyone had a role to play in helping to solve it. This is how granny and papaw lived their lives. 

They were part of an informal community support network who worked together — farmers, teachers, preachers, artisans and the like — to reduce the impacts of poverty, improve health, and increase education and access to information. 

Unlike Facebook, this was the type of connected social network that  helped everyone to have MORE  time and accomplish things in life that were meaningful because the work to be done was distributed. 

As a result, generations of families in our poor Appalachian community were able to pursue dreams of every shape and size. And, everyone has dreams. Dreams are not a one size that fits all thing. 

It’s expensive to be poor. 

For all of our discussions about the effects of poverty, “time poverty” is one of the things that I believe we are not yet talking about in a meaningful way. 

In an article from The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes

“The world has its thesis on wealth inequality. But it lacks a comprehensive way to talk about something larger — the myriad forces that exacerbate inequality that have nothing to do with ‘capital.’ 

Let’s call it Total Inequality. 

Total Inequality is not merely income inequality (although it matters) nor merely wealth inequality (although that matters, too). Total Inequality would refer to the sum of the financial, psychological, and cultural disadvantages that come with poverty. Researchers cannot easily count up these disadvantages, and journalists cannot easily graph them. But they might be the most important stories about why poverty persists across time and generations. 

It’s expensive to be poor — in ways that are often quantitatively invisible. Research on the psychology of poverty suggests that not having enough money changes the way that people think about time. It’s hard to prepare for the next decade when you’re worried about making it to next Monday.” 

We all have 24 hours a day. 

In poor communities, making healthy choices may be a luxury if a person is working two jobs, can’t find a job, is taking care of a sick parent, or is trying find ways to help a loved one in the grip of addiction. 

Time poverty is further compounded in many Kentucky communities of due, in part, to any number of “isms”. Research shows that the cumulative effects of the “isms” in general (racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, etc.) are literally making us sicker and killing us sooner.  

We all have a limited number of years in a lifetime. Access to medical services. Family and social support. Educational opportunity. Place-based jobs. These have been proven to increase both life expectancy and quality of life.  

In Breathitt County, it is a statistical fact that the average life expectancy is about nine years less than the average American. There are roughly 13,000 people who live in Breathitt County. Just doing some basic math, this means that cumulatively, Breathitt County families have 42,705,000 fewer days than the average American community of a similar  size. 

42,705,000 fewer days to live, work, worship, learn and play. 

42,705,000 fewer days to love and laugh. 

42,705,000 fewer days. 

But when I think about my home, I don’t think about statistics. I think about the people I love and the things I do in life that hold meaning for me.  

The goal for most of us is doing things in life that have meaning. Health helps us do the things we care about or holds us back. Different things are meaningful to different people. One size does not fit all. Health, when combined with creativity and empowerment, transforms what a person can’t do into what a person (or community) can do.  

This is why health justice should matter to us all.  Business, health and cultural leaders working together, in a common cause. 


Some people will always say we can’t change things. I call BS and remember the words of my mom’s late dad who I called Pa, a farmer and preacher, who would always remind me that “c’aint never could do nuthin.” 


When business, education, faith  and science work together, and are combined with the energy and power of arts and culture, a new way forward emerges: a way that supports the wellbeing of a community. A way of hope, trust, and belonging that is not small or isolated. A way that reveals “a bigger us.” As James Baldwin wrote, this is the precise role of the artist: “to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” 


We invite you to reflect on the questions I posed earlier in this piece and share your responses:  

  • Who tells your story?  

  • What story do they tell?  

  • Who benefits from your story being told a certain way?  

  • What possibilities exist for a new story to be claimed and owned?   




Theo “Alan” Edmonds, from Jackson Kentucky, is a faculty member at the University of Louisville School of Public Health & Information Sciences’ Center for Creative Placehealing  and  the co-founder of IDEAS xLab . 


This column is brought to you by Our Breathitt, a community arts and health experience bringing together artists and Breathitt Countians from across Kentucky. Project is organized with IDEAS xLab (an artist-led nonprofit), and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Starting in August 2019, five collaborating writers, each with their own perspectives and ties to the county, will offer weekly columns and audio stories for radio and podcasts. Contact us at 859-397-1317 to join this conversation by leaving a voicemail with your response to the questions we raise and adding thoughts of your own! You may hear your responses incorporated into future posts and narratives! You can also email at We hope you will mark your calendars and join us at the Our Breathitt Summit, October 11-12 in Jackson, Kentucky. Information at