Last night, after three long days of learning and work with Larry Gibson, Coal River Mountain Watch, Climate Ground Zero and the Beckley Exhibition Mine, the 7th & 8th graders of the Manhattan Country School sat in a circle on the floor of the Ponderosa Lodge in Lookout, West Virginia and shared their reflections on our trip. We wanted to share their thoughts...
It’s exciting how huge of a transition we made this year, from knowing nothing about mountaintop removal mining in the fall to really getting it now. The trip to West Virginia was very real. It was powerful and moving to see and meet the people we’ve been learning about and it was fun to get to spend so much time with each other as 7th & 8th graders. No matter how in depth they get, school discussions maintain distance from what we’re learning about. We met so many people on our trip who are doing what they believe in and everyone had their own story to tell and reasons for getting involved. They changed our perspectives on Appalachia. We feel the impact and power.
We liked meeting people who are really different from the people we meet in New York City and learning about a different reality in another part of the country. “I liked getting to eat all of the wild plants I’d never seen before.” “I was amazed by how much they rely on each other.” We were also impressed by how everyone treated us like family and allowed us into their lives without thinking twice about it; we were on a first name basis with people like Judy Bonds, who we first “met” watching the movie Coal Country. We appreciated making personal connections. In addition to working with activists, we got to hangout with and get to know activists like Andrew. It was fun meeting all the people with long beards, and the fact that activists had a sense of humor.
We learned about the importance of place and community in the Coal River Valley, and started to understand why people don’t just move. We were impressed by the sacrifices Lorelei makes because she loves her community so much, and the fact that she is working so hard to protect her family’s future. Larry Gibson’s talking hit really deep. Representing himself, not an organization, made him particularly credible. We were amazed by his connection to the mountains, that he turned down the coal company’s money in favor of protecting his family’s land, and that he shared his family’s grave site with us – it was so personal. “Hearing Larry talk about dedication to what you care about will change the way that I think from now on.”
The trip reminded us that it’s really important to be mindful about how we view people from other places. It’s kind of ironic that it turns out that southerners have heard just as many stereotypes about northerners as northerners have about southerners. We met a lot of really smart people in Appalachia; they might not all have lots of degrees, but they have a lot of education from life. Everyone we met was really nice, too, even the man who stopped us on the mine road. One student said, “I realized that labels like hillbilly and treehugger can be offensive.” It was also interesting talking to James and Mary and learning about the black community in West Virginia. That dialog really added to the depth of our experience.
It was shocking to stand on the edge of the mine site and see the mountain missing and the coal trucks rumbling below; to drive through towns like Whitesville and see all of the boarded up buildings and empty streets, and the friends of coal signs and confederate flags in gas stations and on trucks. It was scary to be stopped by the coal company when we made the wrong turn, but also a big relief when it turned out ok.
In a media training, Dea, Jordan and Ches told us: “Use your feet not your lens.” It’s important to use all you can to help the people you are reporting on. They’re letting you into their lives – it’s personal. We realized that we all have different definitions of activism at different moments and that there is no need to be scared of asking someone for an interview.
The trip made us appreciate all that we have and take for granted, like abundant clean water, rapid access to health care, easy access to abundant and diverse food, and a lot of opportunity. We realized that a lot of the things that we think are normal actually aren’t so normal. “It changed my perspective on my daily life and makes me feel very appreciative.”
It was inspiring to realize our collective power, through our teach-in, and the fact that we were able to inspire and recharge the activists we worked with. This felt like really substantial activism, like we were on the front lines. We’re looking forward to taking stories back to NYC.
We will post more pictures and projects soon.
Thank you to the following people and organizations for making our trip such a success:
Andrew Munn, Larry & Carol Gibson, Judy Bonds, Vernon, Adam Hall, Junior Walk, CRMW volunteers, Dea Goblirsch, Lorelei Scarbro, Bo Webb, Ed Wiley, Ivan, James and Mary, Julie and Delbert Gunnoe, Arthur, Laura, Jordan, Ches, and Ken, Jorene, & Liam Toney at the Ponderosa Lodge.
Our chaperones: Glen, Doris, Cynthia, Wendy, Jermaine, Tom, Carol, Vivi, Naomi, Rachel, and Flannery.And for their help in preparing us for our trip: Wayne Fawbush, Chauncy Lennon, the Beehive Collective, Danny Chiotos, the Student Environmental Action Coalition, Stephanie Tyree, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Pam Curry, Economic Option, JOBS Project, the Sierra Club, the National Resource Defense Council and the Manhattan Country School Community.