National Organizing Call: Appalachia

National Organizing Call: Appalachia

This past July, a group of people committed to the call for a new Poor People’s Campaign from Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Louisiana took part in a tour of Appalachia to build relationships with communities there and learn from them about the conditions they’re dealing with and the enemies they’re facing. Below are excerpts from one of our National Organizing Calls, which we held after the Appalachia tour and featured reflections from participants and from leaders who we met while we were there.

Catherine Flowers (Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, Equal Justice Initiative, Center for Earth Ethics – Alabama)

Since the trip, I’ve been reflecting on the issues encountered during the tour, especially in West Virgina. When we got to West Virginia, we were able to see firsthand some of the environmental injustices taking place there related to mountain top removal. During the visit, we went to a rural community, where the family compound was deserted. The water had been poisoned as a result of mining and thus the family could not live there. When the family visits the area, they have to bring their own water as well as use outdoor toilets or the type of portable toilets one brings in for events. It was very painful to experience how such a beautiful area has been raped and made uninhabitable.

My uncle was a coal miner, who died from black lung disease. This was one of the many connections I made to the communities we visited. The narratives were powerful. A lot of the stories that we heard dealt with illnesses resulting from people either working in the mines or living near areas where mining was taken place. I don’t think we really understand as a nation the extent of the types of illnesses that people are going encountering. This was also evident when we viewed and screened the film, Blood on the Mountain.

Most of all, one of the things that stuck with me throughout this whole experience, especially in West Virginia, is that the people have a sincere desire to take care of their families. It is that desire has been exploited. It’s been exploited to the benefit of the people who own the mines, as well as those that control the economy, and they’ve changed the narrative to pit people against each other, while making money. I hope that out of this we develop some life long connections. I know I did with people that I rode in the car with and the people on the trip that I had not met before. And I’m hoping that out of this we can keep developing these ties and working together to find solutions to support each other.

Cherri Foytlin (Bridge the Gulf Project – Louisiana)
I just really appreciate the hospitality of everyone while we were there, it was really good meeting with everyone, like minded folks, who had been through a sort of similar trauma and situations that we have here in the Gulf Coast. I was struck with the unique history of the communities Appalachia with the mining industry. And it’s devastating to see the strip mining and the water woes and similar situations that we have [in the Gulf Coast].

I was struck with the industries that are coming in now such as the fracking industry, and how it seems like it’s kind of a similar road, and also the prison industry in particular, and how a big part that’s playing with the economy. And that’s similar to us in the Gulf Coast. So we’ve been interested in looking at and being forewarned of some of the things that people might want to bring in as alternative industries here. It’s very concerning that it is still industries that buy into eating people up. It’s all about consuming, and in most cases the things they consume are our family and our lives.

There has to be another narrative, there has to another way that people can still support their families and not ask to have to buy into this whole idea that we have to survive at the expense of each other. And also, how these systems over the years have been set up in a way to step on people of small means. And how wonderful it was: the stories that came out of the miners’ unions themselves. And it’s sad, that there’s been so much devastation left and right, but at the same time those resistance stories don’t get shared in history or classrooms. And we have many of the same stories, and those are what we have to pick up amongst our people.

If you’re still alive on this Earth today, you do not come from a long line of survivors: You come from a long line of resistance. We’re just people after people standing up to these systems that have been put in place to destroy us. So many people are so asleep out there, and they think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And they don’t know their own history. And if they did, they might be inspired to understand that that’s you are, who we are: we’re all resistance. Otherwise we just wouldn’t have made it.

I was just really inspired by hearing those stories and realizing that as harsh as things are, there’s always those people that have been there, always, who have done their best to protect their families and to support each other. And here we are, the Poor Peoples Campaign, people from all over the country, coming together and in that very same spirit of supporting each other. Lifting up our stories and our battles and making that something we can all share and be a part of. I thought it was magnificent. And I’m eager to continue to share what I’ve learned and find ways that we connect across the country from the Gulf Coast to Appalachia and onward: to make this something that really helps people to see that we are all in this together, it’s all the same thing.

Eva Westheimer (Center for Coalfield Justice – Pennsylvania)
This is Eva, and I’m a community organizer for the Center for Coalfield Justice. The first stop towards the Poor People’s Campaign on the Appalachia tour was in Pennsylvania, and it was a two-day trip working and learning from folks around this area, including HOPE for La Belle.

A little bit of background on the Center for Coalfield Justice: we are an environmental justice nonprofit here in the area working in the two most Southwestern counties in Pennsylvania (Washington and Greene Counties), bordering Ohio and West Virginia, and we have been around for 21 years. At the Center for Coalfield Justice, we address all the issues in our community from cradle to grave, from the entire mining process and shale gas issues and all extractive industries in our region. And we have over 2000 supporters and members in our area.

We work through advocacy, organizing, and education. With organizing we work specifically from the ground, with different communities fighting specific issues. In a minute, I’ll pass it on to Jeremy who’s a part of a group we are working with called HOPE for La Belle, who are doing some incredible work in their community. And we also do work with a group of retired coal miners who are fighting to get their health care reinstated and with a group of community members who are fighting a proposed mine.

We have been fighting for the past ten years to protect a State Park. The lake that’s in the State Park, which is the only State Park in the county, was destroyed in 2005. We’re continuing to work to protect that area, because last week we were notified that they will never be able to restore the dam, to recreate the lake, even though there was a settlement in 2013 to restore the area, where the company gave the state 36 million dollars for its damages.

Jeremy Ulery (HOPE for La Belle – Pennsylvania)
Thank you, everyone, for giving us the opportunity to speak about what’s going in La Belle, PA. My name is Jeremy Ulery. I’m a resident of Southwest Pennsylvania, in a small town called La Belle: you wouldn’t probably find it on a map.

Just to give you a little bit of background on some of the conditions that are going on in our community right now: we do live right next to a coal refuse fly ash plant, and also a significant amount of fracking is going on in our area and creating some severe issues with our drinking water. Our main issue that we have though is the coal ash. They’ve been dumping it there for years, they haven’t done it right since the get go, and really it’s never right to dump it anywhere. What they do is prey upon small towns and areas like mine, where you wouldn’t find the town on the map if you looked for it. They don’t cover the trucks, there’s fly ash along the roads, on people’s homes, and it’s creating a lot of detrimental effects to our community. Numerous town members have died from very rare forms of cancer; a magnitude of respiratory and bronchial issues that the people are facing; rashes on their arms, their legs, different parts of their body. And in general it’s really taking a toll on our town, and the lives that we’re leading right now.

And it’s unfortunate that we’re facing what we are, and we’ve tried and tried to stand up, but our voice at times seems like it’s not heard. I want to give a lot of thanks to the CCJ organization, especially Eva for being our organizer. We’ve made some great strides in the last seven months that we’ve been meeting. What we are trying to do to combat this problem, is we are wanting our town members to come together. Because really if you talk to anyone in the area they’ll tell you that it can’t go on any longer. So we’ve begun to organize, we’ve begun to have meetings, grassroots [organizing], we developed our name, what we stand for, our charter, our mission.

We’re doing everything we can to get the word out. Of course you know you always face challenges. People want to know what you stand for, people want to find out if it’s worth their while, or if its something that was done before. The reason why we face some of that adversity is due to the fact that we’ve had numerous different law firms come up and state that they wanted to represent us as a community and there have been a lot of empty promises. And basically a lot of the residents of the time felt they were betrayed or being used.

So, we are trying to right that ship right now by making a clear, present stance of exactly what we are trying to accomplish and reiterating that it’s not tying into the use of lawyers or any type of litigation. We are trying to stand together as a community to take on this issue to clean up our environment and not have to be told where we have to live.

I spoke at another town meeting near Carmicheals, which is another small town in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and I was actually asked by a reporter after I spoke: “Well why don’t you just move if its that bad?” And I said back to him: “Why should I be told where I need to live?” Everybody should be able to live in a safe and protected environment, and not have to worry about the water we drink or the air that we breath. And that’s what I gave back as my response. They want to try to push everybody away; get the people who can afford to leave, to leave. The ones that can’t leave are low to moderate income, folks who are elderly, who just can’t pick up and leave. They don’t care [about them].

We’re trying to let our community know that we shouldn’t be told where we are allowed live. And we should be entitled to the same type of environment that everybody else is entitled to. Our water should be clean; our air should be clean. And the people who brought the toxic waste in to our area need to be responsible for cleaning it up, and getting it out of there.

Small groups can get a lot accomplished, but I think with us all staying engaged and continuing to network with one another, and helping each other out with the different plights, all the different towns and areas that are affected with these problems, that’s going to give us a lot more leverage, not only to help the HOPE [Helping Organizing to Protect our Environment] for La Belle campaign, but all the different campaigns that we’re facing. And I’m really looking forward to the continued collaboration with all the different groups, so we can stand together in a unified front.

Jacob Hope (Put People First! PA – Pennsylvania)
My name’s Jacob – I’m from Put People First! Pennsylvania. I’ve been here for about a year: I live in Montgomery County, PA, which is right outside of Philly.

We’re a statewide organization, which means that we have to build relationships across different parts of the state, which are actually already connected through all of these different relationships. But a lot of us, being oppressed or being taken advantage of, don’t always see these connections because we’re geographically separated. So if you look at SCI Fayette, which is the state correctional institution in La Belle, about 1/3 of the people incarcerated there are from Philadelphia, all the way on the other side of state.. So this is a small example of the power dynamics that connect us, but that we may not see. So organizing statewide lends us to building power across our geographic differences and to start to understand and show these interconnections to people. To show that with people in Philly and people in La Belle, there’s a lot of differences, but also we aren’t so different, and there’s a lot of things that we have in common.

And I think that the meeting in La Belle was a great example of that. It was the first time that families from Philly met families from the Pittsburgh area, who met residents and families living in the area, who also met people who worked in the facility. The meeting was really powerful and was a great example of not only what Put People First! PA is trying to do, but also what the Poor People’s Campaign should look like.

Put People First! PA, our larger campaign is Health Care is a Human Right, and we think the framework of health justice and human rights is one framework that’s powerful and is able to link multiple struggles together, and then to stay with the connections and intersections between them. Everyone has the right to live in a healthy environment, the right to have healthy clean water, the right to affordable or free health care. All these different things which seem like either an “environmental issue” or a “health care issue,” are all actually interlinked. So, that’s we’re doing in Put People First! PA. And it’s really exciting, and it’s great to hear your voices, its great to hear from everybody again.