Eleanor Goldfield is a remarkable person. She is an artist, writer, poet, composer, performer, podcaster, educator, photographer, organizer, activist, and now a documentarian. She publishes her work at ArtKillingApathy.com. She has had a regular program, “Act Out!” on Free Speech TV for almost five years that is one of their most popular shows. And she does a podcast with political comedian Lee Camp called “Common Censored.” When she is not working on all of that, she can be found teaching self-defense, running an art build or biking around Washington DC to provide mutual aid in her neighborhood.
For years now Eleanor has been participating in climate justice camps and actions providing support to those on the front lines of the climate and environmental crises however it was needed from producing media to locking down. It was through this work that she became aware of the major shift from mountain top removal for coal to fracking for gas, both very exploitative and extractive industries, in West Virginia. As she went there to cover what was happening, it became clear that the story was too big for anything but a documentary.
In “Hard Road of Hope,” Eleanor teaches the untold history of how immigrants were brought to West Virginia to work in the coal mines and how they worked together against dangerous and oppressive working conditions. You will likely be surprised by this history. I was. As West Virginians tell the story of this struggle, Eleanor weaves in the roots of capitalism, colonization and cultural genocide that created and made it possible to maintain such oppression.
The story of what happened in West Virginia and what continues to happen to this day is one that plays out across the United States. If it hasn’t happened yet in your community, it will one day if we stay on the current path. We have much to learn from folks in West Virginia and Hard Road of Hope gives us a valuable peek into their long history of strength and resistance.
Eleanor took some time out of her busy schedule to speak with me about her new documentary:
How did you become involved in climate and environmental justice activism?
Climate justice/environmentalism was really my first entry point into activism. It started when I was about 14 just picking up trash in my neighborhood. From there, the circles just grew larger as I noticed more problems – for instance, that my school didn’t recycle. So, I started a recycling program there and facilitated workshops on how and what to recycle and why. I started an environmental club that brought up issues at assemblies and tabled at events, eventually fundraising to buy a plot of rainforest (back then I thought that would save the day).
Before the second Iraq war in 2003, I shifted to antiwar activism. At the time I didn’t recognize or understand the connections between these two issues. By the time I came back to climate justice work, I was in my mid-20s and understood the capitalist and imperialist link between all the issues I’d covered/organized around. More recently, my more climate-focused work has been around frontline coverage and organizing – be it in Pennsylvania against fracking projects, down in the bayous of Louisiana against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, in West Virginia against Mountain Top Removal or in northern California against logging.
What inspired you to produce this movie?
Myself and two other journalists had planned to go down to West Virginia to cover the power shift between coal and fracking. One of the journalists, Jen Deerinwater (who is also in the film) is Cherokee and was interested in going to see her ancestral lands and report from an indigenous perspective. With my background in environmental reporting, I wanted to bring my camera and questions to a place often perceived as “not worth it.” As someone who grew up in North Carolina hearing about West Virginia like it was just some throwaway hovel filled with hillbillies and coal ash, I wanted to prove myself (and others) wrong. After all, if a place is to be cast aside because it’s been destroyed by industry, and people are to be cast aside because they’re downtrodden and isolated, what part of this country would be left?
Still, I didn’t shift my goal to making a movie until we’d gotten down there and really spent time with folks. I realized that West Virginia wasn’t just about West Virginia – this was a story about this country. And I realized that I had far more than could be shared on a weekly show. I needed to do a deeper dive. So, I decided now would be a good time to become a filmmaker.
How much time did you spend there and how were you received by the folks in West Virginia?
All told a little over two weeks. Folks were incredibly welcoming – eager and proud to share their stories.
Why is the long history of struggle in West Virginia important to understand in light of the bigger picture of current struggles in the United States?
Since the release of the film, I’ve gotten emails from folks in Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and elsewhere basically saying, “this is my story!” West Virginia is a mirror to much of this country: a resource colony from its founding, it exemplifies the power of industry, the destruction and oppression meted out for the sake of corporate profits and the deep propagandization that teaches folks to take pride in that oppression. At the same time, it’s a mirror to our labor rights history – the incredible resilience, resolve and resistance of people on the front lines demanding basic human rights. Therefore, it speaks to the power of teaching this history – of understanding our radical roots so that we may contextualize our present and build a more just and equitable future.
Who do you want to see the movie and what impact do you hope it will have?
Well, just like with my music, I want everyone to experience it! But I’d particularly like folks to see it who don’t think of themselves as radicals – who think of themselves as good Americans, hard workers and frustrated with the status quo but unsure how to address it. So many people I know from back home in North Carolina, for instance, fall into apathy because they feel there is no way to address their frustrations with the system: both parties seem untrustworthy, voting doesn’t seem to change anything and activism at once sounds scary and just for kids. Reconnecting folks with the radical history and the work being done by proud rednecks broadens the scope and understanding of activism – of what it means to dissent and stand up for justice and freedom.
Ultimately, I hope to get it out to a lot of schools – I’m in talks with some folks about that. I’d like for it to reshape the teaching of history from that area, to partner with those organizations and folks in West Virginia doing this work. I hope the film can be used as a tool to showcase not just corporate malfeasance but hope in and for the power of the people.
Watch the trailer below:
Find out how you can watch the full film here.