Finding Purpose in the Situation at Hand: Memoirs from the Coalfields of Appalachia

Authors: Eric Mathis | Green For All Fellow Green For All Fellow Eric Mathis In a timely fashion and almost falling in line with my day to day run ins with various purposeful situations of synchronicity, West Virginia University released a reprinting of what I believe to be a telling story of one man's experience with the abject barriers to absolving poverty in the coalfields of Central Appalachia. To make the case for purposeful intervention even more potent, this chronicle was written in the very county where The JOBS Project is attempting to develop our own approach to economic development, that is, Mingo County – "The Heart of the Billion Dollar Coalfield." Much like my own tendency to explain reality within a framework of purposeful happenings, I also have to consider the role that material reality may have played in the reprinting Huey Perry's classic, They'll Cut Off Your Project: A Mingo County Chronicle. Jeff Biggers, my personal friend, critic and conveyor of the material conditions mentioned above, sent me an email almost a year ago stating that "it was my lucky day…" and was interested in highlighting our project in the forward of Perry's classic. Jeff went on to unpack his reasons: he felt that we were "introducing new concepts of empowerment outside the traditional socio-economic structures." So of course I agreed and with subtle critiques of the contemporary anti-MTR movement interlaced within my string of responses I finally wrote:
Huey's classic exemplifies the conditions which we have come to know as entrenched interests and from his story we are lead to believe, much like John Gaventa's conclusions in "Power and Powerlessness," that genuinely combating poverty in Appalachia is tedious and perhaps even impossible. In the case of what we are trying to accomplish with the JOBS Project, we have to account for several factors which typically do not fall under the traditional approaches to organizing or community empowerment. In this model, power is not a continuum but a dynamic work of art where expression of meaning is based on the way we interpret the piece in question. In Mingo County, and elsewhere in the coalfields of Central Appalachia, this piece in question is simply economics and the dynamic forces which sustain these elusive systems which structure our day to day lives. Our approach is an economic one which calls into question the basic assumptions of the system as a whole by interlocking employees and community stake holders creative capacity with those of the local elite thus interlocking the very survival of the modern day coal town, with the interests of the people.
So today in Mingo County the synchronicity continues to unfold: where almost 50 years ago Perry found himself "smack dab in the middle of… the War on Poverty," I too find myself at ground zero of an Environmentalist War on Coal and the people who are dependent upon this industry for their livelihoods. But perhaps this time we can learn from Perry's victories by placing importance upon the very thing that, from my perspective, most environmentalists seemed to have forgotten – the people – by discounting the importance that coal plays in their economy and perhaps more importantly in the creation of their identity. To quote Perry when he was prompted by Mingo's Economic Opportunity Commission board to explain the organization's purpose, a purpose which rings true today:
They are organized for the purpose of identifying community problems and then seeking a solution. We are obligated to provide assistance to the groups in solving their problems.
I could not agree more!
Eric Mathis
ERIC MATHIS - Williamson, WV A Green For All Fellow, Eric is a committed entrepreneur who has dedicated the past 10 years of his life to new market-based approaches to sustainable development. Throughout the various projects that he has participated in and/or spearheaded, he has remained true to his commitment of promoting diversity.

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