Posts Tagged ‘Activism’

Remembering an Environmental Warrior

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by interns

Lenny Kohm was an activist who inspired countless people from the Arctic to Appalachia to stand up and exercise their right to protect the land and communities they love. Below are just a fraction of the tributes already made to this hero known by many as “The Chief.” As renowned writer Terry Tempest Williams so eloquently stated:
“He was singular in his wit and wisdom for the wild. Passionate, smart, and humble, he touched all of us … His legacy is love.”


Lenny Kohm devoted nearly 30 years of his life to helping people find and use their voice for change. Talking to an attendee at a citizen lobby training in Washington, D.C.

Book of Lenny

By Matt Wasson, program director, Appalachian Voices

“When you work for justice,” Lenny would say, “you have a kind of magic. Your job is to go out and give that magic away. You can’t try to hoard it or it disappears, but if you keep giving it away you never run out…” [Read More]

My favorite thing about Lenny was that he wasn’t just about the land, he was equally about the people. When asked what he did for a living, he would always respond, “I’m in the people empowerment business.”

~ Brian O’Donnell, executive director, Conservation Lands Foundation

An Advocate for the Wild Places

By Brooks Yeager, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Development at U.S. Department of State

Most of all, he loved the way ordinary Americans respond when they see clearly what is at stake in a conservation struggle. He believed in the American people, in their judgment, in their fairness, and in their love for their land…” [Read More]

I am immensely grateful to have known and learned from this giant spirit of a human being and activist, and will always remember his mantra:
“We have to win, it’s not an option.”

~ Anna Jane Joyner, Here Now campaign consultant, Purpose


Lenny Kohm on a river in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, Yukon Territory.

Chief Lives On

By Tom Cormons, executive director, Appalachian Voices

Armed with his belief in the power of ordinary people to change the world, Lenny inspired thousands across the country to take time in their lives as mothers, fathers, doctors, electricians, or teachers to stand up for our common natural heritage, from the Arctic to Appalachia. He was — and is — a legend among activists…” [Read More]

Lenny was an activist, a teacher, a philosopher, a warrior, a mentor, a friend. He changed the way I thought about activism and offered me guidance when I needed it over the years. He was always generous with his trustworthy wisdom, but perhaps the most enlightening thing Lenny ever said to me was during an interview we did with him back in 2008:
“If everyone woke up and said, ‘You’ll have to go through me, too’ then we’ve already won.”

I will miss you, Lenny. Thank you for helping me recognize and embrace my own personal power, for reminding me that it’s ok to laugh even when the battle is raging around us, and for inviting me to sit at the “grown-ups table” of environmental activism.
They will have to go through me, too.

~ Parson Brown, co-founder and director of Topless America

Lenny Kohm’s Memorial Celebration


Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign (bottom) and Luci Beach (above), representative of the Gwich’in Nation, were among the speakers at the October memorial celebration, while friends in Negril, Jamaica, made buttons for the beach-side ceremony (top left).


On a perfect, sunny Appalachian October day, friends and family gathered at the base of Grandfather Mountain, N.C., to honor and celebrate the life and legacy of “The Chief.” We came from all across the country — folks California and the Yukon came the furthest, while others traveled from West Virginia, Florida, Tennessee and just around the corner from his home in Todd. We spent the afternoon listening to loving tributes filled with lots of laughter (and not a few tears). The Jewish Kaddish was read, and a Luci Beach from the Gwich’in Nation played a quitter’s requiem. And after a good old-fashioned potluck, we sat around a bonfire deep into the crisp autumn night, sharing stories and raising a toast (or three) to The Chief we all loved and admired.

And on another lovely, sunny day in early December, a group of friends traveled to Negril, Jamaica, — a place that Lenny dearly loved and that had become his second home — to scatter his ashes into the clear, blue waters of the Caribbean sea and celebrate his life with his Jamaican friends. Affectionately known as Lennystock, the trip had originally been planned as a celebration for Lenny’s 75th birthday.

As the Chief would say, if you’re going to do something, “Do it in a good way.”

[ Stories, pictures and video from the Memorial Celebration ]


Mountain Justice Summer – 10 Years Strong!

Thursday, June 26th, 2014 - posted by Appalachian Voices
Dedicated advocates against mountaintop removal mining gathered in the shadow of the devastated remains of Black Mountain. Photo courtesy Mountain Justice

Dedicated advocates against mountaintop removal mining gathered in the shadow of the devastated remains of Black Mountain. Photo courtesy Mountain Justice

By Chloe Crabtree
Grassroots Organizing Assistant — Summer 2014

This summer marks the 10th anniversary of Mountain Justice Summer Camp, an event that brings together those fueled by the mutual desire to see an end to mountaintop removal coal mining and all of the environmental and social injustices embedded in its practice. The annual summer camp, this year held at Wiley’s Last Resort on Pine Mountain, is a week-long event dedicated to mountaintop removal education, workshops and trainings. The intention is to organize and act, strengthening solidarity amongst the Appalachian community and to helping to put an end to coal companies’ exploitation and influence.  

I am fortunate enough to intern with Appalachian Voices this summer and fall and attending camp has really afforded me the perspective and skills necessary for our work to protect Appalachia. Camp was located on part of the beautiful forested summit of Pine Mountain in Kentucky. The mountain was a constant reminder of the importance and purpose of Mountain Justice. Black Mountain was across the valley from us, defaced, barren, and exposed after years of being stripped for coal — the community below still feels the effects of its destruction.  

Appalachian Voices staff and interns working on biking trails near Norton, Va., with Shayne Fields.

Appalachian Voices staff and interns working on biking trails near Norton, VA with Shayne Fields.

In between the delicious meals prepared by the kitchen crew, the days at camp feature workshops, trainings, and panel discussions that illustrate the Appalachian Mountains’ history and culture, and threats posed by the coal industry.

The mountain mornings started by bringing the entire camp together to go over group norms, volunteer sign-ups, updates from the medic team, kitchen crew, and security, and a quick overview of the day’s schedule. It’s difficult to decide which workshops and trainings to attend between Appalachian culture and history, community organizing, building alternative economies, peacekeeping & de-escalation, 20 hour street medic training, climbing training, water testing, leadership development and team building, plus many more. Workshops and trainings are led by knowledgeable, experienced, and enthusiastic people and the participants seem to always leave with the excitement of having cultivated or enriched their abilities. It’s common to see faces elated in this newfound perspective or enraged at the injustices discussed.

In the afternoon there is free time to decompress, go swimming or paddling in the pond, visit a nearby waterfall, hike, throw a Frisbee, climb a tree, check out some good books and pamphlets, or talk with new friends. There were also volunteer opportunities to help local residents with projects – some of us got to help Shayne Fields who has been working on a network of mountain biking trails in Flag Rock State Recreational Area for the past few years to help attract tourism and improve the local economy.

After dinner every evening panel discussions were led by impacted citizens, experts, and enthusiasts to address topics such as Appalachian Women, Impacted Citizens, Youth in Appalachia, Disaster Relief, and Mountain Justice History. It is particularly moving to hear of fears, threats, and triumphs from those who have experienced the trials and tribulations brought about by the coal industry that has tried to silence them and their families for generations. The Mullins family, which is traveling this summer on the Breaking Clean Tour, were part of the Impacted Citizens panel and spoke passionately about their family’s experiences as former coal miners, affected locals, and as parents of the next generation.

While spending five amazing days surrounded by passionate people and beautiful mountains, I reflected on what it means to act. Most of us have the privilege to act; we have the agency to choose how to make a difference and the means and resources to do so. We forget that we have power and that we can use our agency to organize and act. Some must act because it is a battle forced upon their lives and there is no other option, some act out of empathy, sympathy ethics or morals, and some act because they can, because they have the privilege to while others do not.

Whether you join a picket line, write a representative, volunteer or plant a tree, we have the power to create change. All we need is to believe we can do so.

Adam Hall: A Defender of West Virginia

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Kimber Ray

Adam Hall speaks to a group of environmental advocates about the diverse ecology at risk of destruction from mountaintop removal. Photo courtesy of Adam Hall

Adam Hall speaks to a group of environmental advocates about the diverse ecology at risk of destruction from mountaintop removal. Photo courtesy of Adam Hall

Depressed towns and waters laced with toxic chemicals have been handed down to West Virginia in the wake of mountaintop removal coal mining, yet many in the community leave these grievances unspoken. Adam Hall, the son of a strip miner in Glen Daniel, W.Va., was once among those who were voiceless on the subject: his father described his work as a paycheck and a roof, avoiding all other details.

But no roof could muffle the deadly reverberations of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in 2010, an explosion that left 29 miners dead. The event spurred Hall to break his silence and support efforts to restore communities damaged by coal.

Hall began volunteering with local nonprofit Coal River Mountain Watch. A dedicated member since, he contributes to several ongoing initiatives. One project involves cultivating a community garden to show how local farming can offer a viable economic alternative to mining. He also works on the Tadpole Project, promoting water quality through stream and roadside cleanups. By contributing directly to the community, he hopes residents will see that environmental advocates are not trying to take away jobs; they’re trying to create new ones.

Over time, Hall decided that his work with CRMW still “wasn’t enough,” and so, he says, “I took up direct action as a means of raising local awareness.”

An opportunity to expand his involvement arrived this past October when Hall was attending the Mountain Justice Fall Summit, a gathering where participants cultivate skills and strategies to resist mountaintop removal coal mining. He was leading a workshop on economic justice when members of Hands Off Appalachia — a campaign to end financial investment in companies supporting mountaintop removal — approached him to pitch an idea.

The goal was to hold a peaceful protest at the Stamford, Conn., headquarters of the largest funder of mountaintop removal: the Union Bank of Switzerland. Hall was not initially sure if he would take part in the protest, but after joining HOA members for an unproductive meeting with the UBS head of environmental risk management, he sensed that “they didn’t even care people were dying” and “their policies were just a shield to escape liability.”

On Nov. 25, nearly 30 people gathered at the UBS headquarters. Hall stood blocking the entrance to UBS while inside, other activists chained themselves to the stairs and hung a large banner: UBS Stop Funding Mountaintop Removal. Several others had climbed a nearby crane at dawn to unfurl another banner with the same message. Although Hall was not among the 14 protesters arrested, he has been encouraging others to donate to their legal defense fund.

He knows the fight is far from over, but the only thing he’s tired of is the injustice in his community. Given the entrenched clout of the coal industry, he says that “no change will come in a short amount of time.” Until then, he’s ready to “dig in deep and stay for the long haul.”

Teacher, Wife, Activist, Mother:

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 - posted by Kimber

Wilma Lee Steele Turns Focus to Healing

By Molly Moore

Wilma Steele and her husband Terry at a Mountain Justice activist gathering. Photo by Andrea Steele Mounts

Wilma Steele and her husband Terry at a Mountain Justice activist gathering. Photo by Andrea Steele Mounts

For Wilma Lee Steele, the devastation wrought by mountaintop removal coal mining can’t be measured solely by polluted streams or transformed ridgelines. For someone as spiritually connected to the mountains of her West Virginia home as Steele is, blasting away mountaintops for the sake of coal is deeply offensive, and she has actively opposed the practice for decades.

Still, she doesn’t see the people behind the coal companies or state environmental agency as enemies, despite their offenses. “I believe in treating people like people and listening to what they have to say,” Steele says. She declares that the path to mending divided communities — and to healing the land and water itself — is based in right treatment of one another.

Steele has had a lot of practice putting these principles into action. When she taught kindergarten through 12th grade, with a focus on special needs students and art education, she tried to steer clear of coal subjects. But when students prompted her she always responded respectfully and truthfully.

That habit of speaking the truth is one of the best qualities of days gone by, Steele says. As a young woman, she was close with the older generations — together, they cut out quilt squares, picked cherries and baked pies. Though many of these bygone friends were coal miners, Steele is confident they would have opposed mountaintop removal. When youthful environmentalists began arriving in Mingo County in the ‘90s, Steele saw similarities between them and the older folks, and felt a kinship that extended beyond a mutual care for the Earth.

“They saw something that needed to change and they were willing to work to bring that change,” Steele says. “I never considered myself an activist, yet I realize now I always was, before the environmental movement,” she adds, “because no matter what age I was I would speak up for what was right or true.”

Through the years, Steele and her husband Terry have hosted more than 400 visitors at their home, showing them the contrast of destruction and beauty in the region and entertaining long conversations by the firepit. She feels that her greatest strength lies in connecting visitors to the place and people she loves. In addition, she joins a host of organizations in efforts such as attending permit hearings and documenting the abuses of coal companies and government agencies.

27 Visionaries


27 Visionaries

In Steele’s mind, companies bent on extracting West Virginia’s natural wealth have controlled the state’s narrative for too long. The key to the future, she says, is for residents to “quit letting someone else define us” and to listen to one another.

“You don’t have to call anyone a liar,” she says. “The only thing you have to do is speak the truth with love and understanding.”

Anna Behnke: A Seventh Grade Activist

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 - posted by Kimber

By Sarah Kellogg

Photo courtesy of NBC

Photo courtesy of NBC

Seventh grader Anna Behnke loves to swim in Mountain Island Lake, but two years ago, she learned about the water pollution caused by Duke Energy’s Riverbend coal-fired power plant and began to worry about the impact the pollution could have on children’s health. So, for a sixth grade science project, Behnke tested the arsenic levels at Mountain Island Lake and found levels 20 times higher than Environmental Protection Agency standards.

“I wanted to show the people in my grade and school how the plant impacts the water,” says Behnke. “Not a lot of people think about it even though we pass the power plant on the way to school. They don’t realize that it can hurt our health.”

Although Duke is demolishing the Riverbend plant in 2014, Behnke worries about how the company will clean up the unlined coal ash ponds which store over 3 million gallons of toxic coal ash and discharge directly into Mountain Island Lake, the drinking water source for most of Mecklenburg and Gaston counties. “I want to write a letter to President Obama about this, just to inform him of everything that’s been happening where I live,” she says. Behnke also plans to teach her science class about mountaintop removal coal mining and the pollution caused by burning coal.

27 Visionaries


27 Visionaries

Behnke has heard Duke project that in 20 years, only 3 percent of North Carolina’s energy will be produced by renewables. “I want to fix that,” says Behnke. “Riverbend was the first plant to shut down in North Carolina and I’m really happy about that. I hope that other activists will start to realize that if we did it, then they can too.”

Diane Pitcock Connects Landowners to Fracking Researchers

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 - posted by Kimber

By Molly Moore

When Diane Pitcock and her family retired to rural Doddridge County, W.Va., in 2005, she planned on canning garden vegetables, watching the stars and listening to the owls. Today, however, four Marcellus Shale gas rigs surround her land, and the ridge behind her home hosts an access road instead of a forest. On nights when the noise from a nearby rig keeps her awake, the light from the well pad is bright enough that she can step onto her bedroom porch and read a book.

John and Diane Pitcock (back right) and their youngest son Josh (back left) visit with participants in a Mountain Justice Spring Break activist program. Photo courtesy of Diane Pitcock

John and Diane Pitcock (back right) and their youngest son Josh (back left) visit with participants in a Mountain Justice Spring Break activist program. Photo courtesy of Diane Pitcock

Before settling in Doddridge County, the Pitcocks researched conventional gas drilling and decided they were comfortable with the practice — their new land came with a standard vertical gas well. Yet, after they moved, information began surfacing about the new hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling methods used to unlock natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, and the Pitcocks grew concerned.

When they learned that their immediate neighbor had leased much of his land for horizontal gas drilling, Diane Pitcock responded by forming West Virginia Host Farms, a grassroots network of concerned landowners who provide journalists and scientists with access to their land in order to further research and media coverage of Marcellus Shale fracking.

“[We] invite researchers, journalists, environmental groups, students, anybody interested in the impacts of shale gas drilling on the environment, and on the health and safety of people, and land rights issues,” she says.

Pitcock hopes their efforts will provide decision-makers and the public with information about Marcellus Shale drilling that will lead to stronger regulations and better oversight of an industry that she says is out of control. “It’s in my opinion too destructive, too unknown, and I am seeing it firsthand because I’m at ground zero.”

27 Visionaries


27 Visionaries

A self-described pro-business conservative, Pitcock believes environmental protection should not be a political issue. “You can be pro-hunting or anti, or pro- or anti-gun, but you’ve still got to drink water and you still need clean water and clean air to breathe,” she says.

To learn more, visit

Higher Ground: Staging Solutions in Harlan County

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 - posted by Rachel

By Rachel Ellen Simon

The old adage holds that it takes a village to raise a child. But in Harlan County, Ky., the community has come together to raise more than that, including: theater sets, awareness and, ultimately, spirits.

A series of participatory community theater projects, “Higher Ground” involves upwards of 100 Harlan County locals as actors and musicians, working in conjunction with national theater artists. The original performances confront difficult issues facing coalfield citizens today, as well as celebrate the strengths of the region and its people.

Justin Taylor performs an original composition in Foglights, a community theater production in eastern Kentucky. Photo by Ben Rorick for the "After Coal" documentary project

Justin Taylor performs an original composition in Foglights, a community theater production in eastern Kentucky. Photo by Ben Rorick for the “After Coal” documentary project

Produced by Robert Gipe, director of The Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College, and a coalition of scholar-artists, “Higher Ground” launched in 2005. The first show was a collaborative effort between the late Appalachian author and playwright Jo Carson, director Gerard Stopnicky and Harlan County community members. The drama focused on widespread prescription drug abuse in the Appalachian coalfields, drawing its script directly from interviews with area residents.

27 Visionaries


27 Visionaries

This first production was such a success that Gipe and his team received funding to stage two more dramas, in 2009 and 2011. In 2013, grant money from ArtsPlace America supported the fourth production, “Foglights,” so named to describe the area’s metaphorically foggy future given the ongoing decline of the area’s once-dominant coal market. The cast for each show has ranged from young children and their parents to college professors and retired coal miners.

Living in a region beset with years of socio-economic woes, Harlan County residents are using theater to discuss present concerns and envision a brighter future: one in which the community can move beyond the issues that are holding it down, onto solid, higher ground.

Virginia Tech Student Works to Keep Campus Green

Monday, December 9th, 2013 - posted by Kimber

By Nolen Nychay

Photo courtesy of Nneka Sobers

Photo courtesy of Nneka Sobers

For Virginia Tech student Nneka Sobers, environmental activism is more than an interest — it is a passion that empowers her to promote positive change wherever she goes. Sobers became involved with her university’s Student Environmental Coalition early in her college career, eventually becoming a liaison for the student body’s environmental interests when she joined the Student Government Association her sophomore year.

Sobers contributed to a successful campaign to save more than 11 acres of old-growth forest on Virginia Tech property from clearcutting, and co-authored a campus bill requiring all future construction projects to include a budget for new trees. She also organizes awareness events about pollution concerns from the campus coal plant as a part of an ongoing petition for Virginia Tech to divest its holdings in the fossil fuel industry.

27 Visionaries


27 Visionaries

When Sobers took an internship with VT Alternative Transportation, she used the opportunity to apply for a sustainable development grant that would fund bicycle “Fix-it Stations” around campus, giving students free access to basic bike-maintenance tools — three stations were constructed this year. She is currently working on a proposal for a university bike-sharing program, as well as a new policy that would refurbish and donate abandoned bicycles to the local YMCA.

Embodying the Virginia Tech motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Sober says, “If there’s a problem, I will try to fix it. Environmentalism is a holistic approach to creating a better tomorrow, and the best I can do is to lead by example.”

The Changemakers

Monday, December 9th, 2013 - posted by molly

Creating a Better Appalachia

By Molly Moore

Photo of Lenny Kohm by Jamie Goodman

Photo of Lenny Kohm by Jamie Goodman

In this issue, we celebrate some of the engaged citizens, motivated visionaries and creative collaborations that enact the famous adage, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, to “be the change you want to see in the world.”

The profiles in the following pages honor a sample of the hundreds of Appalachians who are doing their part to make our communities stronger, our mountains greener and our future brighter.

At Appalachian Voices, the nonprofit organization that publishes The Appalachian Voice, it’s impossible to think of regional visionaries and leaders without considering one of our own — Senior Campaign Advisor Lenny Kohm.

His journey into environmental work began on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and Canada in 1987. Kohm had arrived as a photographer, but developed a deep connection with the native Gwich’in people, which spurred his transition from journalist to activist. For thirteen years, Kohm helped organize a successful campaign to protect the area, traveling the country with representatives of the tribe and speaking to audiences of all stripes about the Alaskan land and people threatened with oil development.

“Some would see a separation between the social justice issue and the ecological issue, and that, I think, is a fallacy,” Kohm says. “There is no separation. They are one and the same. The people are part of the system.”

27 Visionaries


27 Visionaries

At Appalachian Voices, Kohm incorporates that philosophy into building public awareness of mountaintop removal coal mining. He first witnessed the practice in 1998, when he came to the region at the behest of Appalachian Voices founder Harvard Ayers. Kohm spearheaded the Appalachian Treasures Tour, which connected residents impacted by large-scale surface mining to communities around the country. He believes the surest way to end the practice is to outlaw it, and maintains that constituent outrage and pressure is a critical component of any winning campaign.

Now, at age 74, Kohm is embarking on a new project called Boots on the Ground, an initiative to help communities become better at grassroots organizing. Everyone is passionate about something, Kohm says; the role of professional organizers is to provide people who are fervent about social justice or environmental issues with “the tools they need to nurture that passion.”

Kohm sees the current fights for environmental and social justice as episodes in a perpetual vigil. “We’ll never achieve perfection, but we can get a lot closer than we are now,” he says.

Years ago when working in Alaska, Kohm joined on a traditional caribou hunt that included a father and his young son Lance. On a recent trip to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the effort to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he watched as Lance returned from a similar hunt with his young son. To Kohm, that moment describes his motivation and his hopes for the future.

“Maybe the work I did moved the needle just a tiny little amount that helped provide the continuation of that tradition,” he says.

Ken Hechler: An Epoch of Activism

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013 - posted by Rachel

By Rachel Ellen Simon

Ken Hechler, left, stands with late activist Larry Gibson. Photo by Rana Xavier,

Ken Hechler, left, stands with late activist Larry Gibson. Photo by Rana Xavier,

For the vast majority of his nearly 100 years, Ken Hechler has been one of the mountains’ strongest advocates. A Democrat from West Virginia, Ken Hechler served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 18 straight years, beginning in 1958. During this time, Hechler championed the abolition of strip mining and fought for more stringent safety laws in coal mines, leading to the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. Hechler also served as West Virginia Secretary of State from 1985-2001.

27 Visionaries


27 Visionaries

Hechler’s commitment to environmental justice has never wavered. In 2009, at 94 years old, Hechler was arrested at a mountaintop removal coal mining protest, and in 2010, he ran for Congress solely to raise awareness of the practice. Throughout his years of public service, Hechler has remained a man of abiding principles, though according to him his tactics have changed. In a 2009 commentary in the Charleston Gazette, Hechler described his journey succinctly: “I used to be an agitator, then an activist. Now I am a hellraiser.”

Appalachia’s oldest activist turned 99 in September. Happy birthday, Ken — keep on raisin’ hell.