Written by Event Organizer and Charleston, WV Volunteer Leah Smith
The Beehive Design Collective tours around the country educating folks about something many have never heard of before---mountaintop removal. But when the bees came to the Covenant House in Charleston on Sunday, March 27th, they were greeted by fifty local community members, many of whom know mountaintop removal more than anyone would want to.
Some of these community members are coalfield residents who feel the affects of mountaintop removal everyday. Keeper of the Mountains Foundation Speakers Junior Walk, Pamela See and Side Moye started off the event. They powerfully shared their stories of living in the coal fields. Junior Walk grew up drinking poisoned water, and he and his family have worked for the coal industry. Pamela See moved to WV more recently and already is seeing the effects of the poisoned water on her body. Sid Moye has seen mountaintop removal move into his area where he tries to farm.
The members of the Beehive Collective, the Bees, then asked everyone to gather together in the front of the room for an exercise in sharing experiences and ideas about mountaintop removal. They asked various people from the crowd to read statements like, “I could educate someone about MTR,” “I consider myself an activist,” and “I feel connected to coal.” As the statements were spoken, everyone was asked to come close to the center of the group if they strongly agreed, and further out if they didn’t. This physical display opened an engaging discussion of people’s collective experience.
Throughout the afternoon, community members in attendance shared their knowledge of heavy metals in the water, of how orange ooze has come up from their gardens, and how their canning has gone rotten (within a family who has been canning for sixty years). Stories of how individuals can’t get MRIs to check out the amount of lead in their bloodstreams because the magnets may attract the heavy metals to such a degree that it would hurt their bodies. We heard from a school teacher who sees corporate sponsorship of ball fields and recreational activities instead of computer labs or science departments, which would bring our children greater intelligence and ability to move beyond the monoeconomy of the coalfields they grow up in.
The Bees, originally coming out of Northern Maine, are aware of their positions as outsiders. As they spent three years researching, story collecting, and creating “The True Cost of Coal” banner, they listened to what communities told them about the role of outsiders. In an area where most land is owned by absentee landowners (out-of-state companies own more than 3/4 the surface acreage of McDowell County and 2/3 of Logan County), where outsiders are known for broken promises and systematically ignoring responsibility for their actions, the Bees carefully listened to what their role as outsiders should be. We could all see this as they very thoughtfully and intentionally gave their presentation. They gently and creatively told the stories they have heard, giving very inviting space for anyone in the room to add anything they felt was left out or anything that was thought to be said wrong.
The Bees used their poster full of metaphors, plants, insects, and animals to tell the history of the Appalachians -- the indigenous roots, times when agriculture was king, the corporate buying of land through the broad form deed, reign of company towns and gun thugs, all the while giving strong examples of warriors who have been fighting for justice. They closed with a few examples of (the many many) present day warriors and community organizers, a way to spread ideas and action. They encouraged discussion on what everyone in the room is locally involved with and how new folks could plug into current organizing and increase the movement, such as the Sludge Safety Project and The March on Blair Mountain, which will hopefully keep this interest building!
Thanks to all who came out to teach and learn!