Post Written by Volunteer Event Planner Lou Martin
Back in November 2011, two other professors and I held a panel discussion at Chatham University about the March on Blair Mountain that had occurred in June and about the problem of mountaintop removal. We felt connected to this issue because we grew up in West Virginia and Kentucky, but some in the audience had a common reaction. They asked, “How do the people from that area feel about this?” “Do you think the miners who need those jobs will ever oppose mountaintop removal?” We tried to explain that the March had been organized by people who live closest to mountaintop removal sites. We tried to explain in words the impact of mountaintop removal on the people, their communities, and the land. We had planned to show videos, but our equipment failed; so too did our words fail to capture the magnitude of this problem.
It is one thing to hear your professor tell you that there is a crisis unfolding just a few hours’ drive away. It is another for two people to speak from the heart about an issue affecting their daily lives and to ask you for help. And that is exactly what Larry and Amber did. They spoke to an environmental class in the morning, a social issues class in the afternoon, had lunch with creative writers, and spoke to a crowd of about 60—a big crowd for a very small school—in the evening.
Larry told me that public speaking is not about facts and figures. While he has the facts and figures available, it is far more important to tell audiences how you feel and to have them recognize you as a fellow human being. We might detail the role of coal in the national and state economy. We might detail how stream buffer zone rules are worded. We might detail the biodiversity of the Appalachian Mountains. We might detail the problems of soil erosion. But those issues seem abstract to people who have never witnessed mountaintop removal, who have never met the coalfield residents who face the destruction of their land.
And Larry was right. Students later told me that what made the experience so powerful was hearing from fellow human beings who are faced with a terrible loss. The rest of the week I had people asking me about details of Larry’s talk. What agency oversees mountaintop removal? Why is this not illegal? Did the coal operators really drop bombs on the miners at Blair Mountain? And a number of students signed up for volunteer work. A stark contrast to the panel discussion I participated in back in November.
There simply is no substitute for hearing about mountaintop removal from coalfield residents who must live with the trucks, the processing plants, the dust, the explosions, the flooding, and the contaminated water. That is why a presentation by a Keeper of the Mountains is one of the most powerful weapons in the fight against mountaintop removal.
Lou Martin, Assistant Professor of History, Chatham University