Photo: Roger May

I trace my roots back quite a ways in Appalachia. The hills and hollows of Georges Fork have been my family’s home going back nine generations (ten for my children). For the longest time I tried to live and raise my kids in the same valley so familiar to us,  adhering to values and culture that made my home such a wonderful place to grow up. But things are not so easy in a mono-economy dominated by extractive industries.

I managed to stay out of the mines for about ten years, struggling from paycheck to paycheck before realizing that coal mining was the most logical choice to support my family. In 2007 I proudly joined the ranks of my forefathers—five generations of coal miners who selflessly risked life, limb, and breath to take care of their families. My first job was as a subcontractor working at mine sites all over West Virginia, Kentucky, and near my home in southwest Virginia before I was hired full time at a non-union mine not far from my home (the majority of union mines had been shut down a decade before). There I cut my teeth on a roof bolter and shuttle car before getting my mine electrical certification and working as a maintenance electrician.

It seemed like little was going to change. We were set to roll with the punches of the industry, paying off debts and putting back money to avoid the pitfalls of layoffs, just as my dad and grandads did. The harder I worked and sacrificed, the more it fed into the sense of pride, heritage, and dignity that sustained our families for years. I made the best of it I could, occasionally trying to get the union to help organize our mine so we had a few more labor rights, but by and large I just kept my head low, doing little to risk the excellent pay and healthcare benefits I’d long desired for my family.

In 2010 everything changed. We lost everything we owned in a fire that consumed my great grandparent’s homeplace. Everything they (and I) had worked for was gone in one night. As I descended down into the mine for my first shift after the fire, something had changed inside me. Every reason I had come to work in the mine, every excuse and justification I made to risk life and limb for a large paycheck no longer made sense. I began to rethink what was most important in life and it wasn’t money. I stopped taking the crap being dished out to me by mine management and backstabbing co-workers and began standing up for myself instead of cowering beneath the threat of losing one of the best paying jobs in the area.  A little over a month later, I finally had it out with one my more contentious (and pretentious) co-workers. When mine management stepped in and didn’t have my back, I decided enough was enough. I took a week off and then quit. From that point on, life became about something more than just earning a wage, it became about doing what was right.

The company, it’s politics, and the way they pitted us against each other to drive production had left its impression on me. Without the union, it seemed as though few options were left to fight the injustices of the coal industry. The only people in the region taking up the cause were the environmentalists who had stepped up to challenge mountain top removal coal mining, a particularly devastating form of surface mining that began in the late 1990s. Some activists were ours (people from central Appalachian region), some came from other areas of the mountains, and some came from way the hell away from the mountains. Through them, I learned a great deal more about the broader injustices of the industry. They helped open my eyes to all that I had ignored about the impacts of the industry, showing me that it wasn’t just labor rights issues, but issues that impacted our health and the future health of our children. The more I learned, the more it became clear that my life had to be spent helping others and fighting against the destructive greed of corporate interests.

We left our valley a year later and moved to Berea, Kentucky, a town with an amazing history. It was a hotbed of progressive thought holding deep ties to social justice activism for minorities and Appalachia. For a year I struggled to rebuild our lives in a new place so far flung from family and what was familiar. As I continued writing about the issues I also began looking to more practical paths for eliminating corporate dominance. I became involved with sustainability initiatives especially those that overlapped with my previous electrical experience (namely renewable energy and energy efficiency). I connected with a variety of amazing people and organizations, some of whom encouraged me to apply to Berea College. In 2012, at the age of 32, I was accepted and began attending as a full time, non-traditional student.

To say it was a transformative time would be an understatement. I learned that my failure as a student in high school was less about my own aptitude  than it was the underfunded, dysfunctional public education system I came from. I realized many more truths about my Appalachian home, and indeed the outside forces that exploited our mountain communities. I also began to realize that some environmental organizations were using our fights for justice to build their own financial base, complete with living wage careers for people not from the area. I saw how coal miners were being looked down upon and pushed away rather than considered potential allies. Even I had fallen pray to these sentiments in my writing. I became sickened by what I realized and began subscribing to a new logic: environmentalists can never win this war alone, it will take everyone in our communities working in unison.

Four years later I graduated Berea College with a B.A. in communication and minors in both Appalachian studies and sustainability and environmental studies. I came away with a broader realization about the jobs vs. environment dichotomy and the powers at play on both sides, each perpetuating their own vicious cycles of destruction.

Over the years my opinions have made many friends and many more enemies it seems. I have been attacked by people on all sides for my unpopular opinions regarding coal and about the privilege and elitism I’ve witnessed within so called “grassroots” organizations. Today I still do what I can, looking to address communication issues between organizations and local communities through Breaking Clean. Every now and then I contribute to this blog, still hoping to contextualize Appalachian issues, but mostly just ranting about the levels of BS I witness. Occasionally my exploits lead to opportunities in freelance writing and media with a few lecturing opportunities, but mostly I just continue struggling to find a path for doing this work in ways that will support my family. Right now, what path  has led me to the pursuit of graduate studies that began in sociology but has returned to my original discipline in communication.  Who knows what the future will bring.

In Hope,
Nick Mullins