“It’s home. It’s country folks. I mean, everyone treats everyone how they want to be treated. Everyone knows everyone mostly, because everyone’s lived here for years and years.” — Buchanan County resident
If you ever spend time in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia, you will find yourself immersed in a beautiful, unique swirl of cultures. Beginning in January 2023, four local environmental and social justice organizations held a series of community listening sessions, one in each coalfield county in Southwest Virginia.These listening sessions — which were branded as the UNITY Sessions and carried out by Appalachian Voices, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Virginia Organizing and The Clinch Coalition — allowed local organizers to go back into the communities that their organizations serve and ensure local issues are being addressed.
Attendees included town officials, local development leaders, other partner organizations and residents who are dedicated to working for their community’s future. Each session began with participants being prompted to think about what they loved most about their community, and in each session, residents spoke about the local culture being their home’s biggest strength.
The types of culture that folks listed off included food, music, art, kinship, a love of nature, solidarity, resiliency: all easily recognizable pieces in the larger mosaic of the coalfield region.
Economic shifts in the coalfields
As local grassroots organizations, our job lies in making sure that those pieces are valued and maintained. With the economy in Southwest Virginia undergoing a major shift to clean energy, the region has the chance to move toward a sustainable future as a leader in clean energy and to build diverse, socially and environmentally just communities.
With such shiny, new opportunities out in front of us, bolstered by immense federal funding, it is necessary to remember the folks who have, so far, been left behind or discounted. New development projects should not only not cause additional harm to their surrounding communities, they should actively incorporate the lives and voices of the residents who will be living with them for years to come.
In 20 years, when we walk through the downtowns of our communities, we want to see a thriving economy that amplifies, rather than erases, Appalachia.
When it comes down to it, local residents have seen economic development and aid groups repeatedly come into their communities, ask folks for thoughts and opinions, and then disappear without taking any action on the information they received. It’s no small thing for folks to take an hour out of their day to come speak with strangers, and there’s an obligation for follow-through after these types of gatherings.It’s also exciting to be able to include community members in the management of their communities and build deeper relationships that contribute to the rich nature of the coalfields. Some of the new campaigns that have emerged for Appalachian Voices from these listening sessions include working in Buchanan County to mitigate flooding impacts, collaborating with the town of Pennington Gap to create climate-resilient green recreational spaces in Lee County, and partnering with Tazewell on a Community Development Block Grant to support the revitalization of the historically industrial North Tazewell area.
Our partner organizations also developed deep community relationships through these sessions.
“One thing these sessions highlighted across the coal counties of Southwest Virginia is a deep, sincere love of place, culture and communities,” said Jess Mullins Fullen, the lead organizer for Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “Folks want to be here, they want to thrive.”
One of the common themes that struck Jess was that in addition to the things we love, we also share an awareness of the same challenges: lack of accessible childcare, lack of affordable housing stock, a need for public transit, as well as a desire to figure out how to bring together all the wonderful groups and resources we currently have who are working overtime to make our home region both supported and supportive.
“It was a powerful reminder of the work that needs to be done and that folks are ready to see it carried out, together,” she said.
Terran Young, the local organizer for Virginia Organizing, is considering building upon a previous campaign to expand emergency cell phone service, based on conversations with flood-impacted Buchanan County residents.
Jay Tyler, representative in UNITY for The Clinch Coalition, stresses the importance of community outreach when it comes to fueling Southwest Virginia’s much needed economic and environmental shift.
“What we are seeing in these communities is a need for support,” Tyler said. “A reassurance that their concerns and voices are heard when it comes to local decisions that can impact the stability of the area. UNITY is that assurance. Listening is the first step. Now, we seek to take action.”
Listening … and learning
The lessons learned from these community events goes deeper than individual projects and campaigns: Responses from the communities are being written into our organizations’ strategic plans to ensure long-term collaboration. In that spirit, active steps like re-evaluating and adapting our media strategy are being taken to help address a lack of positive media coverage on economic and community developments.Even with all of these amazing steps being taken after the UNITY sessions, there are still some significant barriers to public participation that need to be considered. As several community members mentioned, it can be difficult to give up their time and energy to attend a community meeting held by a group of strangers. To that end, it’s vital that grassroots organizations like Appalachian Voices show up consistently and effectively to ensure that folks are comfortable and empowered showing up to sessions like these.
With that in mind, some communities, such as Hurley, will see follow-up sessions that will build upon the new work and relationships.
Additionally, lack of gas money, childcare and time off from work, as well as other economic considerations can prevent interested community members from attending. For that reason, Appalachian Voices is currently applying for a grant to provide participation and childcare stipends for future community events in the hope that we can give back to the folks who are doing so much simply by showing up.
As grassroots organizations, it is our responsibility to make sure that impactful community development projects start with a simple conversation and then grow upwards into a movement.