I Let Go Of Being A Righteous Outside Organizer

I want to share a story. And I should warn you: it’s full of hubris.

I moved to West Virginia in December of 2012, thinking I could lead a blitz campaign to end the reign of mountaintop removal in the state. I spent a few months volunteering for local groups, like Coal River Mountain Watch, RAMPS, and so on, listening and learning, and trying to be of service — while looking for openings and seeing the need for an audacious all-out effort that would finally safeguard these mountains and her people. By the Summer of 2013, I thought I was ready to make my move.

I wrote up a 7-page manifesto, which I have yet to share publicly, and mailed it (yes, snail-mailed it) to what I saw as some of the best organizers in the state (though not all). The manifesto was coupled with an invitation to join together for a visionary summit at the Southern Appalachian Labor School on August 17th 2013 — to brainstorm and possibly even launch a new campaign.

Some couldn’t make it (a direct action was about to pop in Charleston)—though about nine of us could, and we spent the summer afternoon talking about burn-out, the need for a multi-issue movement, wondering how we could serve our neighbors in the here and now, as well as discussed the dearth of grassroots organizing (at the time). It was a challenging meet-up, which turned into more of a deep dive conversation than anything else.

In the end, all that came out of that meeting, and the manifesto, was a deep conversation. But I learned A LOT from my friends: especially around the need for building a whole movement in West Virginia: one that addressed her needs all together, and that didn’t get caught up in the often alienating and politically charged nature of singling out anti-mtr as the end-all-be-all effort. And I learned that some collective issue-weaving efforts were already underway, like the WVHealthyKids campaign.

But the biggest thing I learned—was that I wasn’t meant to convene this meeting. That was not my role here.

An outsider such as myself, full of hubris or otherwise—doesn’t carry the moral authority, or the long term commitment that comes from actually being from the land — to go about writing manifestos or calling for visionary summits in West Virginia. Indeed: it is righteous outsider voices who have tried to dictate the future of West Virginia, instead of listening and lifting her own voices, that have gotten WV into a lot of our current pickles.

I was both embarrassed by myself and frustrated — what could I do to really help? I could keep making memes and things dance on social media: but that work can only amplify other work, and it’s that “other work” that needed work. I just wasn’t sure what that “other work” was.

I took this frustration to the second “Extreme Energy Summit” held in South Haven, Minnesota, in September 2013. I was feeling lost, and abrasive, and ‘checked out’. I interrupted breakfast one morning of the summit and called on people to think bigger, in a yelling passive-aggressive kind of way. And that was when I had a chance to have a real conversation with Elandria Williams of the Highlander Center. Elandria took me outside on the deck of the retreat center and was just really real — and with warmth and firmness explained why my manifesto didn’t work. Elandria helped me see for the first time that an outsider isn’t an ideal role for calling for radical change: that if you really wanted to bring about deep systemic changes to West Virginia, you’d need to nurture and grow a new generation of leaders — leaders from here, fluent in her hollers as well as her complexities, and in love with her people and their chances at a better future. Leaders who could be spokespeople, yes, but who could also point, organize, and discover and lift up even more leaders. Leaders who weren’t just out there on their own: but were supported and sustained as well.

And that’s when I knew that I really wanted to do something to help grow & spotlight this generation, to nurture young leaders. Not sure how, I went back to making memes for this and that, and kept my ear to the grindstone for something I felt like I could lean into.

And earlier this year—in 2014—I heard that the Highlander Center had put out the word for an “Appalachian Transition Fellowship Program”, a one year program designed to support 15 young and emerging Appalachian leaders to work on transition projects across the region. A number of my friends applied, and some were accepted—including my partner Catherine Moore, and my buddies Tom Torres, and Tyler Cannon.

Then I heard that the Highlander Center was going to kick off the fellowship with a 9 day bus trip through Appalachia in early June — visiting a diverse array of transition hotspots — and spending time with the projects and people that that are burning bright with the hopes of a new economy.

I knew I had to get on that bus.

I knew—I felt something inside me that said: this is a big part of the future, of getting toward what’s next. I didn’t want to teach these folks on the bus anything, or tell them what to do or anything — I just wanted to help tell their story.

And I so called and wrote Elandria and made my plea: let me on the bus, and I’ll make a million memes.

Thankfully Elandria and her Highlander colleague Joe Tolbert said yes, and my supervisor Whit Jones at Energy Action Coalition gave me the go-ahead to get on the bus too. I’m lucky to have a job that lets me make such pitches.

The bus left tonight from the Highlander Center (which is nestled in eastern Tennessee), full up with fellows, and is arriving in Charleston, WV, in the heavy rain, right now, for the first stop.

I live here in Charleston and I’ll catch up with folks first thing in the morning.

I’m not sure how this trip is going to go or how it’s going to shake. But I do know there’s a journey ahead, and there are wonderful people who I believe in who are going along on this journey together — most of whom, I haven’t met yet.

I believe in this project. I believe the world should know that there is a revitalized effort to invest in the young and emerging leaders in Appalachia. And I believe the world should meet these young leaders—and start paying attention to them. And I believe these leaders should know how much they are needed, and feel our support.

I plan to keep my word about those memes — prepare for a cascade of them that showcase the real-deal stories about where these fellows are coming from and what they hope to accomplish through the one-year fellowship. And get ready to glimpse the changing landscape of Appalachia.

Many of our mountains are shorn, but you can’t mountaintop removal hope —and there are many new seeds of possibility that are about to be planted throughout the land. Get ready.