Photo: Nick Mullins – Lick Fork, VA

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 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 come from a much different reality than say, generational and/or traditional college graduates from more affluent areas of the nation. Our reality provides a sound basis for our sense of pessimism toward the Appalachian situation. Certainly more so than academic researchers and non-profit organizations writing grant proposals for their research and projects.

Appalachia has never seen justice and probably never will. The hegemonic forces that maintain the status quo are too powerful to overturn. They work effectively to keep people poor, desperate, minimally educated, and ultimately divided. Appalachia was long ago turned into a resource colony for the industrialization of the nation. Seeing as most of the land and mineral rights continue to be controlled by wealthy, powerful, and let’s not forget corrupt, interests, Appalachia will remain a resource colony.

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 the union folks 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. I saw the toll it took on his mind and body. He once told me that he spoke with Marty Hudson, the strike organizer in the 1989 strike. Hudson 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 we’d never gain the upper hand. 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, but 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. How does one rebel and fight injustice while trying to feed their family? This leads me to one of my other problems with being an Appalachian writer and justice advocate.

A little over two years ago, I managed to get an op-ed published in The Washington Post. Immediately afterward, I was hit with a swarm of journalists and other writers looking for insights into more stories. At one point 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 on the phone and Skyping 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 the Appalachian situation in ways Hillbilly Elegy failed to. With having put so much effort into helping her, I asked if I could co-write the article. After all, I have a family to support. 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. She was featured on radio shows and other interviews that I’m sure helped her career (and ability to live in the New York City area). 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 through 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 the University of Kentucky. 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. But the experience at a much larger, much more privileged institution, did not bode well for my ethical senses—never mind my pragmatic senses.

As we delved into sociological research methods, I became increasingly aware of the privilege found among many researchers. This lent itself to a new perspective on the extractive nature of research and journalism 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 as “scholar-activists.” It would seem as though coal, natural gas, and timber are not the only things found to be lucrative in our region. Meanwhile, local activists continue struggling financially to do justice work.

Being a non-traditional, 39-year-old working-class/academic hybrid, it is frustrating to see and understand why so much research misses the mark and how they fall short of generating tangible paths toward justice for the communities they research. I myself couldn’t stomach the thought of perpetuating the same system.

Many of my prior predilections about the ineffectiveness of environmental activism began making even more 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. 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 there work practically meaningful for the people who must continue living in “the field.” They often miss information that appears trivial from an academic sense but i of critical logical importance to the common layperson. You can imagine then, how supremely upsetting it is to witness people making good careers for themselves using other people’s issues of injustice and inequality while conjuring up “expertise” on how to solve issues from academic points of view, all while lacking the commonsense perspectives that come from lived experiences in those communities. Even more infuriating is that some researchers build careers out of researching and writing on the ethical issues of information extraction and exploitation that stem from the socioeconomic divides between researchers and the researched, then write up journal articles about their newfound awareness, coining terms like reflexivity and catalytic validity, all of which furthers their careers in academia.

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 *gasp* 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 worse yet 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. 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.

So what do you do? I honestly don’t know anymore. For the past several years I’ve remained in a state of perpetual frustration. Does writing really do any good? Most days it feels like all I’m doing is giving people with more privilege more ideas to write about and further their own careers, be it journalists or so-called scholarly activists. As time goes on, who knows what direction I’ll be taking. One thing is likely certain. I’m sure I’ll be saying lots to offend folks, challenging them as to whether or not they’re actually being helpful, or just finding ways to have fulfilling careers while everyone else is still suffering like hell.


  1. I think you do have a unique voice amongst those that write about the issues our people face (especially compared to the academics!). Just because you cover the same material, either of others or of your prior writing, doesn’t mean it’s not worth saying. I would love to see you write a book in response to Hillbilly Elegy, as I think you would articulate the social constructs that have lead to the entrenched poverty of our home area better than anyone else I know. The nature of advocacy is a bit repetitive, that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. I hope you keep fighting the good fight!

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  2. I certainly understand your frustration. Academia can be a place that studies things to death and gets nothing done. But from my perspective, its frustrating to talk about strategies that look towards a post-coal future with people in my community who back coal and Trump 2-1. They want what they had in the 50’s and 60’s, when all the mines were running and lots of people worked there. The good coal is gone, what remains is really poor quality, but they’re convinced it was some kind of government plot.

    Once, when supporting the creation of the Cheat Canyon Wildlife Management Area, I spoke with folks on the Economic Development Commission. They were reluctant to see the land “locked up” even though the land is so steep that logging is hard to do profitably. I noted that land neighboring Garrett County, Maryland is twice as valuable as Preston County land despite taxes three times as high. I noted that I saw the reasons behind the difference as 1) strong environmental laws, which protect the value of your property and 2) the presence of public land for recreation. All I got were blank looks.

    People here don’t think tourism and recreation are “real jobs”, not “manly” like logging, mining, and farming I talk to my representatives about the need for environmental protection, road maintenance, and high speed Internet connections. They curt back water quality standards, underfund roads, and give tax breaks to coal companies even though only 1.7% of the West Virginia workforce works in mining! There are a few progressives, but they are up against entrenched power and big money. Progress is slow/

    I work with Friends of the Cheat, which has been cleaning up abandoned mine lands and creating recreational opportunities for 25 years very little support from county government. We’re making headway, but it’s really slow and frustrating. Maybe you should come work with us. We have some openings, and a great executive director in Amanda Pitzer. !

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