Building a Bigger Choir

I remember, ten years ago, when Appalachian Voices founder Harvard Ayers first came to me with the concept of Appalachian Voices. He and a group of volunteers wanted to give the people of Appalachia a voice in the biggest environmental decisions facing the region. Their vision was to get information to all of us who live in the mountains and provide us with the tools to act on that information.

Ten years later, Appalachian Voices is using the same basic principles that I used for twenty years as an advocate for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. That journey starts with an epiphany, no matter what you are working to protect, whether it is wilderness in Alaska or a family cemetery in Appalachia, whether it is the ancient culture of the Gwich’in or our mountain culture here in Appalachia.

Everyone who is concerned about the environment has had an epiphany, the beginning of the journey, a moment where it all came together.

My epiphany occurred in Arctic Village, a Gwich’in community on the Alaskan border with Canada. I’d been on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for three weeks, and it was beautiful. I had never been in a place that wild before. The day we were leaving, we stopped in a Gwich’in village to refuel our bush plane. And it happened that there was a US Congressional delegation about to hold a hearing. Representatives from 17 Gwich’in villages in both Alaska and Canada had made arduous journeys, traveling from all across the region to attend the hearing and offer their testimony.

The big moment came when everyone was in the town hall, and the first speaker, an elder from the village of Old Crow in the Yukon, Alfred Charley, gave a 12-minute speech in his own language. Another tribal representative, Stanley Njootli, was about halfway through translating the speech when the chairman of the US Congressional delegation got up and said, well, thanks, we have to be in another village in two hours. And they left.

Of course we were just stunned. Here was a 30,000 year-old culture, and they had just been given18 minutes to defend themselves. It was an unbelievable injustice, and that was my epiphany, the beginning of my journey.

Many people who are working to protect the Appalachian Mountains have had such an epiphany. Each of us can think of that moment – that moment when our lives changed, that moment of epiphany. Think of it just now, and think of the power that moment gives us individually, and then think of that power in the collective. Each of us can think of just our friends and family, and then take it one step further, and imagine, just imagine if we could give that power to everyone we know, and they in turn could give that power to everyone they know, and so on.

When asked how he accomplished his goal of organizing the entire country around the table grape boycott, Caesar Chavez said that he talked with one person, then another person, then another person, and so on.

Here is another way to look at it – imagine if on September 1 you put 1 penny in the bank, and then on September 2 put 2 cents in the bank, then on September 3 put in 4 cents, and on September 5 put in 8 cents, and so on throughout September. On October 1st you would have well over 21 million dollars in the bank
Now imagine what would happen if we used that it approach in our activism.

When I first started doing this work I wanted to save the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in one day, but I quickly discovered, much to my surprise, that it just wasn’t possible.

Now my goal is to get one person to do one thing, one time. That’s it. That is what it is all about – one person talking to one person. If we have approached that one person with kindness, sensitivity, and humility, who knows, maybe they will also talk to one person, and then that person will talk to another person, and so on.
To put it simply, our collective message, the message we all carry in our heart of hearts, a message of hope and inclusiveness, needs to be delivered to every nook and cranny of society.

Having spent my entire career talking with people, I’ve found that almost everyone cares about the environment, about the health of their kids, about the future of their world. So we have to start by listening to regular folks – our neighbors, friends, fellow church-goers, school teachers, business associates, and the list goes on.
It’s OK to preach to the choir, the committed environmentalists, because the choir has a lot of expertise, and the choir knows what to do. But we need to do much more than that.

Some people have used the phrase going “beyond the choir” to describe reaching out to people who are not dedicated environmentalists. To me, that term infers that there is still a separation. Going beyond the choir is not what we need to do.

Instead, we need to build a bigger choir. The environmental movement isn’t about lifestyle. It’s not whether we eat tofu or not, or whether we are Republicans or Democrats or not. It’s whether or not people care about things like the health of their children, the quality of the water they drink, the quality of the air they breathe. That’s what is going to appeal to most people – the things that directly affect their lives.

We went to Georgia recently, trying to spread the word about the North Carolina clean smokestacks bill, and the activists there said we could never sell that to the people of southern Georgia. They told us that clean air costs too much, and all the people in south Georgia care about is the flag. You couldn’t possibly get them to spend an extra dollar on cleaning up air pollution. Later that month I was in south Georgia, I asked a young mother what she really cared about. She answered “The health of my children.” Then I asked her if she would be willing to spend a dollar or two a month to lessen the chances of childhood asthma in her community.
“Of course,” she said. “I’d spend a hundred or two.” All I had to do was ask. It was that simple.

Peoples’ concerns have value, whether we agree with them or not. Take the current controversy over wind power. There are people who object to having a windmill in their viewshed. I think we make a fundamental mistake when we dismiss their concern as coming from a bunch of people who just care about the view from their picture window, when there are people in the coalfields whose lives are on the line daily because of mountaintop removal coal mining.

To say they have no right to their concern, that their view isn’t valid, doesn’t get us very far. We have to ask them what they care about. And then listen. If we start with the things we have in common, rather than the things that appear to separate us, we can work through it and begin to come up with a common solution. If you ask about other peoples’ feelings and priorities, without making a value judgment, if you just listen, if you start the dialogue that way, amazing things can happen.
My hero, the late Senator Paul Wellstone once said; “Revolutions are not sustained by growing bigger, but by growing deeper.”

Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give. Remember what brought you to this work – service.”

If we are to succeed in protecting the mountains of Appalachia, it will require the best in every one of us. It will require that we talk to our neighbors, listen to one another, work together, grow deeper, and always remember that service is our highest calling.

Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

Begin it now.


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