J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, taught me that some of his experiences in Appalachia weren’t that different from my own, writes Jamil Jivani.
If you had told me 10 years ago that my best friend from law school would be a self-described hillbilly, I’d have laughed in your face. But you’d have been right.
I first met J.D. Vance during our law school orientation at Yale University a decade ago. We attended a wine-and-cheese reception. I didn’t know so many different kinds of cheese existed. And I had never tasted wine before. Needless to say, I felt out of place. Across the room stood a fellow student who seemed equally unfamiliar with wine and cheese.
We went on to develop a strong friendship, forged through moments of shared discomfort over the course of our three years in the Ivy League. We were by one another’s side for awkward interactions with professors and classmates, life-changing job interviews, and hundreds of hours of studying. We became such good friends that I eventually performed the Bible reading at his wedding.
Growing up in the Toronto area, I never met a person who’d call himself a hillbilly. Most of my neighbours were the children of middle- and working-class immigrants, and we understood terms like hillbilly to carry negative, even comedic connotations. Like Cletus from The Simpsons. But my friendship with J.D. taught me that his Appalachian family and friends aren’t so different from my own. The challenges that many Appalachians experience — poverty, addiction, fatherlessness, inadequate health care — are challenges seen and felt by my loved ones, too. And the positive qualities possessed by many Appalachians — loyalty, resilience, striving — are qualities we also hold dear.
Jamil Jivani is an award-winning lawyer and author, who serves as the Government of Ontario’s first-ever advocate for Community Opportunities. He also leads a youth-focused research nonprofit, Road Home Research & Analysis, which is supported by the Pinball Clemens Foundation, and hosts a weekly radio show, “Tonight with Jamil Jivani” on Newstalk 1010.