A publication of Appalachian Voices

A publication of Appalachian Voices

The Peoples’ Protector

Meet Crystal Mello

woman with brown hair in a white sweatshirt stands outdoors

Crystal Mello, community organizer for POWHR, in the shadow of Mountain Valley Pipeline’s work carving a path across Poor Mountain. Photo by Dan Radmacher

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been corrected to indicate that the person who keeps a lock of hair in a safe-deposit box is a friend of Mello’s, not a customer.

By Dan Radmacher

A friend of Crystal Mello’s keeps a safe deposit box at a local bank. In that deposit box is a Mason jar with a lock of hair. The friend, who lives in the blast zone of Mountain Valley Pipeline, keeps it there so, if the worst happens, authorities might be able to identify her body.

“That hits when you hear about that,” Mello says. “A lot of people I love live in the blast zone. I can’t imagine life without them.”

Mello — a community organizer in eastern Montgomery County, Virginia, for the Protect Our Water, Heritage Rights Coalition — first came to activism lifting up the rights of incarcerated people. She first became involved in the fight against the pipeline when opponent Alan Moore took her on a three-hour drive touring different parts of the route. Hearing stories from people dealing with trouble from the pipeline’s construction made her want to get involved.

“MVP’s shitty work made me stay engaged,” Mello says. “The more people you meet, everyone has these stories. It keeps you fired up.”

Protecting people is the common denominator between Mello’s work to reform the criminal justice system and her efforts against the pipeline, according to Russell Chisholm, co-director of POWHR.

“She’s always looking for ways to protect people,” Chisholm says. “There is not a more honest, real, kind spokesperson for this movement because of her relationships with directly impacted people. Crystal doesn’t mince words. She’s very direct and honest about what is happening to people because of this project.”

Mello runs a house-cleaning business and lives in Shawsville, Virginia, in what she says always felt like a “forgotten part of Montgomery County.” The pipeline fight has helped her make more connections in other parts of the county.

“Blacksburg folks have really invested in us,” she says. “They’ve really stuck around and supported us.”

Chisholm respects the working-class perspective Mello brings.

“She’s balancing the life of a working mom with volunteerism and all that,” he says. “She knows there are many people who want to get involved but are struggling to just subsist and live and aren’t able to take on much more. She deeply and personally understands those issues and goes about trying to work from that lived experience.”

One project Mello is working on — bringing a community garden to Shawsville — may not seem related to the pipeline fight, but Chisholm sees the connection.

“She’s watched $8 billion flushed down the drain for a fossil fuel interest that won’t provide any lasting local benefit, while people have to drive 30 minutes to a grocery store,” he says. “Crystal’s heart is in matching the same level and intensity she brought to the pipeline fight into building things the community needs. I admire her so much for not losing sight of that.”

Mello has looked into how other small communities have developed such gardens, and tapped into local contacts and the broader community of organizers she’s become involved with.

“I want the garden to include art and music in some way,” she says. “I hope it can be a healing place.”

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2024 — Spring

2024 — Spring

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