I popped over to Ken Ward’s blog Coal Tattoo and noticed he hadn’t written anything in almost a year and a half. I know the feeling. My last post broke a nearly one-year dry spell, and even then, I hadn’t posted more than maybe five times in a few years. While I can’t speak for Ken, my lack of writing stems from multiple issues: burn-out, hopelessness fueled by realism, and time dedicated to other pursuits amid one existential crisis after another.
The truth is, I’m tired of writing about the same things over and over again. I often start posts only to realize that I am repeating myself, or that it’s been written about multiple times by multiple people. Case in point, toward the end of September I read about a mine fatality in West Virginia and became enraged as I normally do, especially with the statements made by political officials. Senator Joe Manchin and Governor Jim Justice (or their staffers) followed the guidelines given to them by coal industry public relations and provided the press with heartfelt statements lifting coal miners to the same patriotic hero status as military personnel killed in action. Nothing was mentioned about enhancing mine safety. I wrote several paragraphs and left it alone, planning to go back and revise it before posting it. As I scrolled through Ken’s blog the other day, I found he’d written something similar over a year ago: “What politicians could say when coal miners die” It was along the same lines as what I had written.
This brings me to an issue I often grapple with. There is no shortage of people who are acutely aware of the injustices found in Appalachia, and indeed, our nation. Some of us write about it, some just talk about it (“back porch activists as Terry Steel once pointed out), and others act on it. Yet, as many people know about, write about, talk about, and act on issues of injustice, nothing changes.
There are many people, mostly from outside the region, whose blind optimism fuels countless efforts to fight the “good fight.” They perform academic research, create non-profit organizations, obtain grant funding and other resources, and attempt various forms of organizing and activism to solve our problems. But for those like myself who actually came from the region and have faced the struggles, we carry with us a much different perspective. We have faced a much different reality than say, generational college graduates from more affluent areas of the nation. Our reality, believe it or not, gives a sound basis for our sense of pessimism toward the situation in Appalachia than say, academic researchers and non-profit organizations writing grant proposals for their projects.
The reality is, Appalachia has never seen justice and probably never will. The hegemonic forces that maintain the central Appalachian status quo are too powerful to overturn. They work effectively to keep people poor, desperate, minimally educated, and ultimately divided. Appalachia was turned into, and remains, a resource colony for the industrialization of the nation. Of Appalachia’s land and resources, we own a minute portion. It would take revolutionary forces to decolonize the region, forces that have tried and failed more than once.
To wrap up her 1995 documentary Justice in the Coalfields, Anne Lewis went back to southwest Virginia a few years after the 1989 Pittston strike to check in on some of those who were most involved. She asked them their thoughts on justice in the coalfields. When Bradley McKenzie was asked, “So where does it end?” he stated it as plainly as I ever heard it, “When all the coal’s left here. They won’t worry about us anymore… That’s when it’s over—when every lump of coal is gone.”
I grew up during that strike. I saw the aftermath. I saw my father go from working at a union mine to crawling around in dog holes and the toll it took on his mind and body. He once told me that he spoke with Marty Hudson, the strike organizer in 1989. He told dad, “The companies are thinking and planning 20 years ahead when we can’t afford to plan six months ahead.” He knew even then that all was lost. Which brings me to author Chris Hedges’ words in the closing of Mari-Lynn Evan’s Blood on the Mountain (2016):
“The most difficult existential question that we face is accepting this reality and this trajectory and yet finding the strength to rebel and resist. Those who carry out effective resistance in times of distress, they understand all of the forces are right against them, they understand how powerful those forces are, they understand how small they are, and yet they resist anyway. Resistance becomes about something other than winning, it becomes about affirming who we are as human beings, understanding that if justice perishes human life on Earth has lost its meaning. It is a perpetual, never-ending struggle and we’re called to that struggle, and we are called to have faith that that struggle is worth it, even if every indicator around us seems to say that it’s futile.”
Hedges put it perfectly, yet what happens when there is nothing left to fight for—literally? Difficult existential question indeed, and certainly one to struggle with while trying to support a family. Being exploited as a justice advocate doesn’t help.
Two years ago, I was asked by Gwynn Guilford of Quartz to help her with an article she was writing on Appalachia. I spent a total of four hours Skyping and talking on the phone with her, laying out the history of Appalachian exploitation, our present-day problems, and the many sources thereof. As with many journalists I’ve helped, I was appreciative that the issues were getting some press and could possibly contextualize Appalachian issues in ways that Hillbilly Elegy failed to. At the same time, with having put so much effort into helping her, I asked if I could co-write the article. She reported back that her editor refused my request.
Six or so months after our first contact, the article was published. Guildford followed all the leads I had given her and she framed it around my story and a couple of others. The gesture was nice but I nevertheless came away feeling exploited, even dejected, knowing that while I have long struggled to write and do justice work while supporting my family, the system favors people like Guilford. Am I jealous? I wish I had time to be. I have a family to take care of.
A year and a half later, after trying to piecemeal an income together lecturing at a variety of colleges and universities (thanks to some help from a few friends), my path ultimately led to graduate studies at Virginia Tech under a teaching assistantship. I was recruited by the new graduate coordinator who also happened to be a friend I’d co-presented with at a Dimensions of Political Ecology Conference. At first, I was elated, hoping that if I climbed further on the academic ladder, I could gain more credibility in the academic world and find a means of doing justice work while supporting my family. But the experience at a much larger, much more privileged institution, did not bode well for my ethical senses, never mind my realistic pragmatism.
As we delved into sociological research methods, I became increasingly aware of the privilege found among many researchers. This, of course, lent itself to a new perspective on the extractive nature of research within under-served communities. In other words, I realized how many of the academics who research under-served communities, including my own, come from backgrounds of privilege and build their academic careers on this research. Not only have coal, natural gas, and timber been extracted from Appalachia to benefit people outside of the region, so has knowledge.
Being a non-traditional working-class/academic hybrid, I couldn’t stomach the thought of perpetuating the same system.1 It was also frustrating to see how having a life of privilege, especially one that opens the door to becoming a full-time academic researcher, impacted the catalytic validity of the research being produced.2
It finally began making sense to me. Many of the researchers who are a driving force in the world of environmental and social justice activism have never had to walk a mile in working people’s shoes. They’ve studied our shoes, studied our origins and destinations, the speed of our walk, the gate of our walk, the surfaces we walked on, the climate we walked in, the distinctions between the way each gender walks that may entail hegemonic masculinity, and probably the friction coefficients of our shoes relating to upward mobility, but very very few have actually walked in our shoes.3 A researcher who is a second or third generation scholar has lived in a socially constructed reality that is much different than that of the working classes and/or under-served communities. To them, the university and university town is home while our communities—our lives—are “the field.”
Some researchers get close, but never quite close enough to make it meaningful for the people who must continue living in “the field.” They often miss information that appears trivial from an academic sense but is easily recognized as a gaping hole in their logic by the common layperson. You can imagine then how supremely frustrating it is to witness people making good careers for themselves using other people’s suffering while conjuring up “expertise” on how to solve issues from afar from academic points of view, all while lacking the commonsense perspectives that come from lived experiences in those communities. And academics are aware of it. So what do they do? They research the ethical issues of information extraction and exploitation and the issues inherent in the socioeconomic divide between researchers and the researched, then write up journal articles about their newfound awareness, coining terms like reflexivity and catalytic validity.
I admit that collaborative research could remedy some of the issues, but such boldly qualitative research places non-degree holders on equal footing as academic researchers which would destabilize the institutional ivory tower built upon a foundation of self-derived legitimacy and classism. Thus, the majority of research is done from on high with articles that end up in peer-reviewed journals which are often physically, financially, and intellectually inaccessible to the communities from which the information is extracted. If the research is used, it’s most likely by other academic researchers perpetuating their middle and upper-middle-class lives, or corporate PR firms seeking to do a little cost/benefit analysis on operations that would further risk the public health of the communities in question.4 This being said, at the end of the day the majority of research ends up being exploitative and therefore unethical while leaving communities in the same shape—or worse.
The more I thought about it all, the more I struggled with what I had learned, and the more I realized sociology just wasn’t for me. If it hadn’t been for a couple of professors who understood what I was going through (having gone through it or are going through it themselves) I would have had a nervous breakdown. I eventually had to take a leave of absence from Virginia Tech to maintain my sanity. I finished my first year in the sociology program in good standing and shifted to pursuing a master’s in strategic communication, still as a graduate teaching assistant, but at least with the opportunity to be an instructor of record next year. For the moment, I’m learning how corporations use sociological research to reduce reputational risks and mitigate activism through public relations…just like I tried to warn my previous sociological colleagues about.
Even though I am much more satisfied in my new program from a pragmatic point of view, I still find myself in the aforementioned existential crisis that hasn’t ceased gnawing at me since midway through my undergraduate studies. Even now I sit here, typing away, trying to figure out how on Earth to alleviate suffering and bring justice to a world in so much pain, all while trying to survive within it culturally, emotionally, and thanks to capitalism, financially for my family’s sake. What hope I occasionally feel is overcome by a sense of abject realism.
I have to admit, that more than once I’ve contemplated giving up, throwing my hands in the air and running screaming toward the tranquility of an off-grid cabin somewhere far, far away, or maybe trying to get established in a community as close to the romanticized version of the old Appalachia I still hold in my heart. Other times I gain the desire to start writing a book or find the funds for a documentary project that will likely have as much impact as any of the others on my bookshelf. For the time being, I suppose I’ll finish out my master’s I suppose, but I’m open to any suggestions, and funding of course. Nevertheless, I still have no idea where to go from here.
1At Berea College, my alma mater, the majority of students were first-generation as were many of the professors. Virginia Tech was my first experience at a university where both the majority of the student body, and the faculty were far from the first generation and came from backgrounds of privilege.
2It also began making perfect sense as to why so many of the activists and larger environmental organizations I encountered in Appalachia were woefully ignorant about local culture. Most of them came from backgrounds of privilege and were recruited from, you guessed it, universities.
3 Sadly, there are some people from under-served communities who make their way into academic institutions only to become indoctrinated into academia either intentionally (code-switching to distance themselves from their previous culture and achieve “success”) or unintentionally though having to play by academia’s rules. This relates to the adage of people “getting above their raising” or “getting too big for their britches.” Either way, it is a sign that they lose respect and credibility among their own communities. They have had the “common sense educated out of them.” At first I used to reject this idea, but I have actually witnessed it myself.
4Any military strategist knows it’s best to know your enemy. Thus, if anyone believes that corporate PR firms who see activists and labor unions as “threats” to “organizational interests” haven’t done their due diligence and read literature countering their motives (Marx and Engels included) then they are sadly mistaken. It’s their job to stay 10 steps ahead of the game when they get paid millions to do it.