A Conversation with Archbishop Marcia Dinkins

A woman in a pink top and pearls smiles past the camera.

Archbishop Marcia Dinkins Dinkins is executive director of Black Women Rising and Ohioans for Sustainable Change. Photo courtesy of Archbishop Marcia Dinkins

By Molly Moore

Archbishop Marcia Dinkins founded the multi-state Black Appalachian Coalition in 2021 to amplify and center the stories and lived experiences of Black Appalachians. BLAC is an initiative of nonprofit organization Black Women Rising. Dinkins is executive director of Black Women Rising and Ohioans for Sustainable Change. In April, she spoke with Molly Moore of Appalachian Voices.

To learn more about BLAC, visit BlackAppalachianCoalition.org

Molly Moore: You founded BLAC, to quote your website, “to ensure accurate and inclusive accounts are being told.” Can you tell me more about why that was needed?

Archbishop Marcia Dinkins: What we know is that the narrative associated with Appalachia, when people first hear about it, the first thing they think about is more White than Black or multicultural. And so the story that’s being told has just consisted of White poverty, White pain, and it’s absent of the voices of others who have made contributions to the region. So that’s why we felt it was necessary, because if you don’t articulate someone, they don’t exist. And that’s one way of rewriting history, by not articulating someone or telling the story accurately.

Moore: Are you seeing more accurate and inclusive stories of the region?

Dinkins: I think what I’m seeing is an interest. I do see where people are now speaking to the fact of the Black voices or the Native, Indigenous voices that are missing. I think we are at a good pivotal start. There’s more work to do. But I do see people coming out and supporting that history, and then I also see people who live in the region writing books, telling their stories and using different components or methods to rewrite this narrative or to help advance the conversation.

Moore: How do you see the Black Appalachian Coalition fitting into the long history of Black people in Appalachia?

Dinkins: Our tagline is, “Our roots run deep.”So I see it as a means to not only preserve culture and heritage but to bring in the different stories that can go down from generation to generation to generation. And I see BLAC really setting the framework for some legacy work that somebody can pick up and hold. So, we can pass this down, because one of the things that we often lose or don’t use often is our redeeming of memories. For us to have to redeem those memories also means we can have a restorative conversation, or we can restore some things that are lost. And that’s how I see BLAC — in redeeming those memories, there’s a redemptive act to that.

And it’s also this way of orating a verbal history because the written history — you know, they can toss those books out, but you can’t toss our stories out. You can’t toss our identities out as easily as you can say, “This book can no longer go on the shelf.” You can’t say BLAC can no longer go on the shelf because we’re not on the shelf — we’re on the pathway.

So I see us being able to expand the dialogue and to bring in diversity, through story, through imagery, poetry, however the imagination can imagine. And keeping this moving because of us creating the space for voices that have often been unheard to be heard.

Moore: Could you tell me about one of those stories and why it is important?

Dinkins: One of the stories that really hit me when we first started BLAC and we started our listening sessions was Akisha Townsend-Evans; she is a lawyer and she does animal protections law. She said, “My grandmother was a midwife. She was a midwife in the Appalachian region. But when I went to go back and to find her, there was nothing there about her.” There was nothing there about the midwives and the journey that they took in helping to bring life into the region. And not being able to pinpoint yourself.

That really stuck with me, and it made me think about how much more is absent from the conversation, and what do we need to do about it?

And the second story, it really became the launchpad for deeper work, was our story around Clairton, Pennsylvania, and hearing about all of the environmental harms and degradation that they are suffering from. But also knowing that part of this suffering is connected to industrial therapy, which is really connected to another form of slavery, which is also connected to the liberating of slaves. And so, JP Morgan Chase, they helped to fund the steel mills or US Steel.

In Baltimore, Maryland, they had a hospital called Crownsville Hospital and it was supposed to be a mental health hospital. And what they did was use the patients who were suffering from mental illness or had disabilities and things of that nature, they use them to build all these properties. They use them to build it and they call it industrial therapy.

And so when US Steel was launched in some of these areas, it was also launched through industrial therapy, which connected to environmental racism, which is why we really got engaged with Clairton. Because that steel plant has been there for a massive amount of years, and people are suffering from seizures and asthma and cancer, but we only make it case studies. And so I got tired of people being case studies and wanted to tell the stories as well.

Black Appalachian Coalition Logo

Black Appalachian Coalition focuses on Black people and uplifting the stories of Black people in Appalachia. Image courtesy of Black Appalachian Coalition

So those were some of the things I think hit me hardest, because we never see ourselves, as Black people, we really never see ourselves in the [environmental justice] space because it doesn’t speak to us, it just speaks about us in a way that doesn’t help us all the time. I won’t say, that some of the time. I won’t say all the time. I’ll be fair.

Moore: Can you share more about what is happening in Clairton, Pennsylvania and how that’s affecting local residents?

Dinkins: So Clairton is still suffering from legacy pollution, poor air quality, food insecurity, economic decimation, poor health indicators, increases in maternal mortality, as well as infant mortality. People are still saying, how do we improve our air quality here? What are some of the ways that we can reduce pollution?

We’ve launched the Freedom to Breathe campaign looking at health as a human right. And when we look at health as a human right, I’m not just talking about being able to go to the hospital. I’m talking about social health, economic health, health to where you can be able to put food on your table, environmental health, human decency and all of those things, because we tend to just relegate health down to one thing
and tell that story in that way. As a colleague of mine used to say, we’re not in 50 different fights, we’re in one fight with 50 different rounds.

So in Clairton we’re not just in that fight about, how do we get to breathe clean air? How do we get to ensure that people don’t have to drive two hours to go to the grocery store to get food? How are we ensuring that US Steel is either shut down or they’re cleaning up their act? How do we push EPA to put regulations on benzene, which is a cancer-causing chemical? And so those are the things that we’re looking at.

In addition, we are doing a study on Clairton. The study is around health, economics and air, but also looking at, if the plant wasn’t there, what would be the health of the community? Would it reduce the collective trauma that they’re experiencing? And in the alternative, if they don’t want it there, what would it look like to switch over to green steel? Would that also improve the economy and the human currency as well as the social currency and economic currency?

Moore: The Black Appalachian Coalition has held annual policy summits the past few years. What policy priorities have emerged?

Dinkins: Currently, number one, creating our own health as a human right, and that involves going up to the Clean Air Act that has not been looked at in years and addressed in years. So that is our North Star. I know that there is some action around it a little bit. But our goal is to say we need to utilize this Clean Air Act and put in, “health is a human right.” If we don’t have good healthy communities, we don’t have healthy people. That’s what we are driving towards. We’re driving towards reducing fossil fuels, preventing more fossil fuel sites from being erected. And so looking at those policies as well.

Another piece of legislation is the Farm Bill. And so why is that important to BLAC? A lot of other people look into the other aspects of it around housing, maybe jobs and farming, but they forget the most important thing, which is SNAP, which was once called Food Stamps. And so what people don’t realize is the Farm Bill, which is part of the social safety net, has helped to lift people out of poverty. And they’ve been trying to cut the social safety net for a very long time. People don’t realize that it also puts funds back into the community when they are using their SNAP benefits. And so, that is one thing that we’re also looking into, because we understand that there are going to be some cuts to that. And people don’t understand that it’s not just people who don’t work that are not able to put food on the table. The sad part of it is that people do work, and they still can’t put food on the table. People do work and they’re having to make choices.

So those are two of the things that we’re looking at. For the Farm Bill, we’re going to start kind of ramping up now because they are trying to do some cuts, as you can see. And then using our Health As A Human Right lunch and learns, educating people on the harms of petrochemicals, to really move us into the place of civic engagement as well as the Clean Air Act on the federal level.

Moore: On a recent episode of your podcast, you talked about a BLAC Wave. Can you tell me more about that?

Dinkins: So the BLAC Wave is really this conversation around forgetting why we vote. We see the attacks and the assaults on Black voters, and we also know that a lot of times they’re low propensity voters. But we’ve lost the element over the years and the desire to really want to go out and vote. People say, “My voice doesn’t matter. My vote doesn’t matter.”

And so, it’s really about, how are we telling the story around civic engagement? What is the true story inside of democracy, and how should we be driving that story? Not just utilizing the presidential election as like, “oh, this is our destination.” No, it’s like we have to continue to go on. We have to continue to tell the story. We have to continue to understand that in order for us and other races of people to be able to be in the flow of things and in the thick of things we have to continue to talk about us, we have to continue to talk about the importance of why we vote.

So the BLAC Wave is a storytelling, narrative campaign that’s going to speak to why it’s so important for the Black voice or the Black vote to be out there, while also bringing in other voices and narrating the historical impact or context behind it. We don’t register people to vote. But the BLAC Wave is like, how can we create this tension in the conversation? And how do we help release the tension so that we do really understand that our voice and our vote does matter? And if we give up now, we’ve really given up on a lot of the fights that people have had before us.

Moore: What else should people know about the Black Appalachian Coalition?

Dinkins: Although we focus on Black people and uplifting the stories of Black people, we invite others in. Because what we want people to know is that in order for us to get to the places that we need, the solutions that we desire, that is going to entail all of us. And so BLAC is about bringing those stories together. We want people to come on in, bring your story, share your story.

We also want people to understand that in history, the way that politicians or the electeds have gotten away from things is because they have rewritten history. And we want people to understand that BLAC is like, nope, we want to be that history book. We want to do cultural and heritage preservation. We want to bring in these diverse elements of how we come and struggle together. So we need a politic of engagement and a politic of solidarity that will help us to rise to the occasion.

I often say my desire for BLAC is to create this universal hum. And that means that we all have the same sound, and we’re all walking to the same drum beat. Even though we’re different, there’s an element to show that we are in sync one with another and we have syncopated our steps and synchronized our sound, and our sound is really that call to action.

We just got approved for a radio station. It’s new in the making, but we will be doing that and we’re expanding some things around our storytelling. We’re also looking to do some participatory grantmaking. A lot of times we talk about these [Inflation Reduction Act] dollars, but a lot of the communities won’t get them. And so how do we ensure that people in the community, number one, have ownership and, number two, are getting the dollars? So participatory grantmaking means that we bring the community and they make the decisions about where the money goes. And then they are granting it out and it’s giving ownership.

And lastly, our Policy Summit is coming up again, July 19 through the 21st. Our topic this year is Black resurgence, and our tagline is “Healing, Justice, Convergence and Resurgence.” What that’s really speaking to is the fact that we have to have healing-centered movements. We have to have healing-centered organizing, and we’re seeing healing as a form of justice.

And when we think about the converging, we’re thinking about how we all have our lane, but how we get more powerful is when we begin to converge in and go into that greater tributary, and then that resurgence is like this rebirth. We call it the Black rebirth or the Appalachian rebirth because what’s happening is you’re really giving birth. You’re birthing knowledge and wisdom, and that’s speaking to the joy, the Black joy, the the joy of what people see in their own culture, in the context of their culture, and how this joy can spill over. And the joy was not just rooted in Blackness but Indigenous culture and how so many came together, and looking at and just reminding people that we’ve had some powerful things happen in the region. If we can really continue to focus on the “us,” and then move to the story of “now,” I believe BLAC will be able to create a national conversation and movement that can do anything. If we can heal the hearts and the land, I think we’ve done a lot. It’s the journey has just shifted the narrative and had people really saying yes — shifting the narrative to where it’s a both/and rather than an either/or.

Learn more about the Black Appalachian Coalition.

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