Editorial: Listening to people from ‘coal country’ our best chance to change minds

Smith College hosted a fascinating speaker earlier this month who addressed a topic that’s been on my mind for several months leading up to the 2018 midterms: communicating and collaborating with people in what’s called “Trump country.”

Without their help, we’re all likely destined for more divisiveness and hate-fueled policy from Washington.

Hailing from Appalachia, Nick Mullins used to work for a coal mining company. Now he gives talks about health and the environmental implications of coal mining as a writer and director of advocacy business Breaking Clean. As he told those at classroom 103 at the McConnell Building at Smith, mining wasn’t his first choice of careers, but he needed to choose a livelihood that provided for his family.

“In the mono economy of coal, it was the best option for a decent wage, health insurance, and retirement,” he said.

Mullins walked students, faculty, and community members through the bad health outcomes for coal miners, the lack of safety standards he experienced, and, with a stunningly good use of visual aids, showed before and after photos of mountaintop removal mining – the first photo lush with trees, the second gray and lifeless.

But the main thing he came to talk about are the cultural obstacles that environmentalists face in West Virginia, Kentucky, Western Pennsylvania, and other parts of Appalachia, which have trended increasingly Republican over the past 20 years.

He showed a pickup truck he snapped a photo of that included bumper stickers like “if you don’t like coal, don’t use electricity,” “shoot a tree hugger,” and “coal keeps the lights on.” In another slide, he showed the electoral trends for the region, going from a mix of blue and red, during the 2000 presidential election, to steadily redder and eventually monochromatic during the 2016 election.

The source of the problem, Mullins explained, lay more than 100 years ago, when land prospectors from outside the region convinced many subsistence farmers in Appalachia to sell their mineral rights. Those prospectors would then turn around and sell those rights to timber and coal companies for several times what they paid for them.

A mistrust for outsiders rightfully grew.

Later, as coal companies exploited workers in the region, who organized and fought back against powerful interests, the national media shone a spotlight on the poverty in the region during the 1940s and ‘50s. Many in Appalachia resented the news reports, which Mullins explained reinforced old stereotypes about backwards ignorant hillbillies, and injured people’s pride.

As environmentalists came to the region in the ensuing decades, most of them were again outsiders, and that rubbed many locals the wrong way.

“People had had enough of outsiders telling them how to live,” Mullins said. “Miners began to fight back and started their own counter protests.”

Coal companies meanwhile, sensing an opportunity, researched the culture of the region, invested in schools (and created their own pro-coal teaching curriculum), and put forward a narrative that they were standing up for miners whose sacrifices were being insulted by outside environmentalists. They claimed that there was a “war on coal.”

“We’ve gone from fighting the coal industry to fighting for them,” Mullins said.

And ironically, by engaging in activism in that region the activists working there had actually worked against their own cause by playing into preexisting negative stereotypes that coal mining companies happily reinforced.

I nodded along during the whole presentation. Everything made sense. I imagined how most New Englanders would react to people outside the area telling us how to live or vote.

But a big question remained: what should environmental activists from places like Massachusetts do to communicate with disaffected coal miners who agree that the mining companies are not on their side without alienating them.

Mullins, who graduated with a degree in communications from Berea College in Kentucky, didn’t have a magic answer.

But he did say it is important to listen.

“By and large, people have fallen away from the Democrats in the past 16 years,” Mullins said. “Democrats have not stood up for workers’ rights and are not listening to the people.”

Workers’ rights, he argued, is what had kept the Democrats strong in Appalachia prior to 2000. Kentucky went for Bill Clinton both in 1992 and 1996, but has not voted Democrat in a presidential election since then.

“People can’t speak about environmental issues at this point in time,” Mullins said. “It is too polarized. The war on coal rhetoric has been extremely effective.”

He added that rather than activists coming into Appalachia, they can work toward change in their own communities.

This is a disappointing answer to me as someone who cares about the environment and also about workers’ rights, an answer that basically says there is little I can do outside my local region. But at the same time, a group of Leverett residents is working to keep the lines of communication open.

The group, Hands Across the Hills, is made up of Leverett residents as well as people from Letcher County, Kentucky. Last fall, the Kentuckian’s came to Leverett to participate in discussions and dialog. This month, the Leverett contingent went down there.

The Advocate published an essay in January about the first half of the experience. I’ll definitely be watching for what happens as the project continues.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@valleyadvocate.com.

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