Grassroots organizing in Appalachia

Interview with Elizabeth Catte

Elizabeth Catte is a public historian, writer, co-chair of the rural outreach committee, and a steering committee member for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is the author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia and co-editor of the forthcoming 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike from Belt Publishing. She spoke with ISR editorial board member Eric Kerl on April 5, the eighteenth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, during the forty-first annual conference of the Appalachia Studies Association in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The starting point for any conversation about Appalachia today is the recent wildcat strike by education workers in West Virginia . How did this struggle develop and what were some of its dynamics?

The strike was about low pay for teachers, massive issues with the public benefits system, and the devaluing of credentials for teachers. There were 700 unfilled

teacher vacancies in the state of West Virginia. These are the issues that made teachers want to say, “Enough is enough.”

Broadly, what we see in West Virginia cuts through party lines. Struggles of teachers show how our common good has shrunk over the last fifteen years or so. You can trace this back to [former West Virginia Democratic Governor] Joe Manchin for many of the problems that are in place now.

In West Virginia, there is this struggle happening over who gets credit for keeping the state alive. Is it industry and corporations; is it coal and energy? Or is it people who stay in the state, regardless of the economic fortunes and the boom-bust economy that happens in places like West Virginia? Is it corporations or is it people?

Teachers are the distilled embodiment of that kind of common good. And they had a chance to come together and make a point about that at a time, obviously, when it’s connected to the fact that an election is coming up.

People wanted to connect it to a narrative about a “blue wave” coming to red states. That’s not something I see a lot of potential for looking only at the strike. It is an exciting form of populism that I’m very happy to see spread.

As the strike wave has spread from West Virginia to other states such as Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona, many activists are asking about the on-the-ground organizing that made West Virginia so successful . What kind of networks did you see develop, and how were they important?

From my understanding, a lot of this organizing took place online, through Facebook, through Twitter. There’s a lot of tension between the union structures in West Virginia and the people on the ground who were organizing because a lot of organization needed to take place—in terms of physically transporting people to the capitol to protest, and feeding students when students weren’t able to get their meals at school. Online was the best way to get some of the organizing underway.

The West Virginia strike eventually turned into a wildcat strike without the blessing of the two unions there. That was really interesting and is something that I’m really curious to see how it plays out in other states.

West Virginia got its right-to-work laws just two years ago. But, effectively, those policies have been in place for a little while, so it will be interesting to see how these struggles play out in states with strong right-to-work laws, where unions are more voluntary associations rather than actual unions. This is something that we’ll be watching out for.

I’m currently editing a volume of responses to the teachers’ strikes from West Virginia teachers. We’ve explicitly asked them to talk about how they organized and to talk about the mechanics of their strikes. Hopefully, there

will be good stuff we’re collecting that will help teachers in other states.

Obviously, people are doing stuff in Oklahoma and Kentucky right now—there are rumblings in Nashville—any place where education has been under attack. I think the book will have useful information for people looking to wage a similar fight.

The most recent media articles about Appalachia have been centered on J . D . Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, “Trump Country,” and the question of the white working class . But, there was an uptick in interest about Appalachia that predated Vance’s book and the election of Donald Trump . The conservative National Review, for instance, ran an article titled “The White Ghetto” in early 2014 . How do you explain this recent “rediscovery” of Appalachia?

The first person I saw explicitly write about the “discovery of Appalachia” was Don West. His essay was called “Romantic Appalachia: Poverty Pays if You Ain’t Poor.”

He was making the point that when there’s a population that seems to be in need of salvation, a lot of different kinds of people show up, from missionaries and politicians to gawkers. And so, West lays out these early discovery writings very clearly. He recalls that when he was young, it was missionaries, but it was also coal companies and “local color” writers.

I’ve talked a lot about this with people in the region, and about our living memories of similar rediscoveries. And we feel that whenever the nation turns its attention to issues of race that is when a big rediscovery of Appalachia happens. Because Appalachia is often thought of as a white space, some use it to argue we’ve been paying attention to the wrong problems, like police violence for example.

Appalachia gets shoved to the forefront and contextualizes what’s going on in a much different way. So you can go back to the War on Poverty and see that some of the same dynamic was taking place. Federal assistance, for instance, had to be sold as something that was going to help white people. Even though African-American families were included in the War on Poverty policy, the phrase that administrators were using was “colored Appalachians.” But for the War on Poverty to be sold, they emphasized that it was going to help white people.

My friends who live in eastern Kentucky say that after Hurricane Katrina, there was a lot of attention to environmental destruction related to the coal industry, obviously at a moment when people were talking about environmental racism for the first time on a national scale. People got very interested in environmental destruction in Appalachia.

That’s the pattern that I see with the “rediscoveries”—the counterpoint that Appalachia serves as a way to make bad things color-blind.

The state of Kentucky is predicted to become the first state in the country where abortions are completely inaccessible . Because of the recent budget fight and teacher strikes there, a ban on abortion after eleven weeks was largely snuck in under the radar . CNN did a piece in December, “Forget Abortion: What Women in Appalachia Really Want .” And Splinter just ran a piece about the politics of childbirth in Appalachia, where women are largely left to their own devices for raising children . What does the struggle for reproductive justice look like in Appalachia?

All Access EKY, which is the reproductive education gap-filler based in eastern Kentucky, does such tremendous work. I don’t think they would have ever framed their work as “forget abortion.” Their approach to reproductive health is very holistic. I think there’s only one abortion-providing clinic left in Kentucky. A lawsuit underway will determine its fate. That was [Kentucky Governor Matt] Bevin’s New Year’s message: “This is the year that we’re going to end abortion.”

People involved with organizations like All Access EKY and other gap-fillers talk a lot about the stigma. They can’t really talk openly about abortion. It’s presented on a national stage that people will support you up to a point, until you mention abortion.

What needs to be brought into that conversation is the way that the opioid crisis is feeding into all levels of public health in Appalachia. It’s not just that Bevin is attacking reproductive rights so aggressively, but also that so many children are now in the foster care system and touched by social services. This is the reality of regions like Appalachia, where there is a tremendous amount of labor and work and responsibility that fall primarily on women.

Seventy-five percent of people in the teaching professions are women. Teachers are being forced to accept the role of social service providers. So increasingly, teachers are also nutritionists and social workers. And sometimes they’re forced to function as law enforcement officials. A lot of it has to do with the problems of addiction in the region.

I’m incredibly worried for the people in eastern Kentucky. I would not be surprised if a very complicated set of legal dealings occurs that severely restricts access.

At the same time there are plans for a new private prison in Letcher County . There has been some discussion of the opioid crisis being handled more humanely than the crack epidemic in the 1980s due to racism . How do you understand the approach of law enforcement and criminalization in places like West Virginia, where the governor has said he wants to bring in the National Guard?

I empathize with people who have looked at the last few years of coverage on the opioid crisis and say, “There’s a difference in the scope and tone of the coverage when a white community is affected compared to an African-American community.” In terms of Appalachia, though, you can’t just go back two or three years. You must go back to 1994 when OxyContin came onto the market. It was a decade before the addiction-suppression reformulation of the drug was compelled by a lawsuit.

There were many years in places like eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia when it was just hell for people who were going to two or three funerals a day. Grassroots organizations were fighting for some kind of legal accounting to happen.

It’s big, and it’s vast. I don’t have a good answer for why it suddenly became part of a big conversation until recently. I think it has to do with middle-class white people becoming addicted.

But in terms of the prisons, there are lots of groups in eastern Kentucky—connected to national groups—that have been opposing the prisons since the early nineties. They do it for several reasons: not only is it a bad tool of economic development, but it also caters to racism.

The Letcher County Governance Project, reflecting some of the ideas in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, argues that prison is part of a system telling white people that the only way they can survive is to inflict harm on people more vulnerable—on people of color. It is a toxic system.

They do a lot of work to mitigate that—hosting a radio show, operating a transport system that brings family members down to the prisons in eastern Kentucky to visit loved ones they haven’t seen for a few years. Most of the prison population comes from the lowland southern part of the state or from the northeast.

There’s no reason to build another prison. It is shocking that this is happening. A lot of people were optimistic that it wouldn’t  happen, since  it wasn’t contained in the first budget. But Congressman [5th District] Hal Rogers worked some magic and has put it back in the budget again.

It seems to me that everything that comes for Appalachia is just that much worse than what came before. Extracting coal from coal mines was shitty. Strip-mining was even shittier, and then mountaintop removal was even worse. And now, we have prisons. And it’s all part of the exploitation of land and of people. And it continues.

Kentucky has a real opportunity to either invest in the RECLAIM Act to help some of these impacted coal-mining regions, or it can build prisons. It’s clear that the politicians are choosing to build prisons.

In North Carolina, Reverend William Barber, who led the Moral Monday movement, brought thousands of people onto the streets . He recently launched a Poor People’s Campaign nationwide with its first two stops in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky . What kind of potential do you see for that kind of movement that tries to unite the issues of racism, labor, and civil rights in Appalachia?

Some people in eastern Kentucky were very excited about the campaign and went to see Reverend Barber speak. There were lots of media blasts around that particular event.

The question is how effectively it can connect with other grassroots organizing already underway in the region, like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, for example. I’m really interested to see how connection takes place.

I think the problem is that, even in places like Appalachia, people don’t want to identify as “poor.” So, that’s one of the obstacles that I find a lot in my organizing, for socialists and general civic engagement. People who are incredibly poor still don’t want to think of themselves as “poor people.”

I really like that this has that old-school vibe and is trying to revive that explicitly. That will be a challenge, I think. There’s a lot of propaganda that keeps people from identifying with one another and from seeing themselves as “lower-class.”

One thing I will say: I really like and respect a lot of grassroots organizations, and I like what DSA is doing. But some organizations are terrible when it comes to religion. I think it is good there is a movement being led by clergy, because it has a lot of potential for our region that can sometimes put off people who might be interested in the left and organizing. And doing work among communities of faith can sometimes make left organizers squeamish.

Helen Lewis’s classic book, Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case, advanced a pointed argument that Appalachia should be understood as an internal colony of American capitalism . More recently, Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow argued that Appalachians, once settlers, were ultimately racialized and dispossessed of the land . Do you think the internal colony model is a useful one? And how do you think it informs Stoll’s work and its reception?

When I referenced that argument in a small section of my book, I was very neutral about the internal colony model. I’m always squeamish when I talk

about the internal colony model, because the population of Appalachia is perceived to be almost entirely white, and it’s not appropriate to talk about white settlers as colonized. So I was very squeamish about putting that out there at all. But people are responding to it. And it cuts across races and ethnicities. I think they’re ready to embrace that model again, which is super interesting to me.

Helen Lewis’s theory came along at a particular moment in time, when the New Left was very much involved in anti-colonial work. So perhaps this is another political moment that lends itself to that as well.

What I like to say, which accommodates my position as a historian, but also as a person with politics, is that Appalachia is a product of colonial logic. It’s not an internal colony because it is not true to say that the things that have happened to Appalachia have been inflicted entirely by people on the outside. We need to have compliant local elites to make this stuff happen, and some of our worst villains are Appalachian. I’m mindful that today is the anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed twenty-nine people, so we definitely have our share of villains.

So many people have learned to think about Appalachia coherently through Helen Lewis’s work. This is about power. We don’t have to keep explaining things like culture; we don’t have to keep debunking stereotypes, because we’re still not in a good place with the literature, in the region where we can talk well about “power.” The important thing to me is how people get rich and making those extrapolations. I think the internal colony model still has some use in that regard. We need much more sophistication to be able to talk accurately and appropriately about a population that was itself originally a settler population.

Steven Stoll’s work takes us a lot further down that road and I really liked it a lot. I gave a talk with him a few weeks ago and he explained it really well. He said something like: White people in Appalachia were treated like foreign policy for the rest of the country. As long as they were there to keep  the indigenous scourge at bay, they were good people. But, as soon as they stopped fulfilling that need, then they became racialized themselves. And so, I’m a tremendous fan of his work.

I think it will be a while before people are able to take in everything that he wrote about in his book. But, I think people are beginning to grapple with some of the ideas.

The recent growth of organizations like DSA and regional socialist groups like the Kentucky Workers League is exciting . How do you approach this political period as a socialist in Appalachia?

When the West Virginia teachers’ strike was going on, I saw a lot of people who were getting red-baited. I’ve never had a problem being a person who does socialist organizing in Appalachia. I haven’t created a vast army of DSA members, and that’s not my objective when I go out and organize in communities. But I put my politics on the table and people respond to me authentically.

It gives me a lot of hope for the future. When I talk about health care or workers’ rights, these are good conversations I can have with people. And people respond strongly to what I’m saying.

I’m a realist when I do political organizing. I want the Democrats to give us better candidates on the left. That is one of my realistic objectives. I talk to people about what they would like to see. There’s so much common ground that we have, overturning right-to-work laws and detaching health care from employment. We want jobs guarantees and universal basic incomes. There’s a tremendous platform of commonality that we have.

The kind of person that I talk to most is often a person who has dropped out of civic engagement—who doesn’t vote. I can get with those people. They’re not required to have perfect politics. It is really shitty right now—but I am tremendously hopeful.

In Johnson City, for example, an hour and half away from Knoxville, there are worker cooperatives forming. People have done creative things to get around right-to-work laws and organize power. There are liberation libraries in little communities of Appalachia. What excites me is a sense that people are starting to realize that they are part of a story that is generational, a story that is about the relationship that people have been allowed to have—about their place in the world—and how others have been able to control their labor. They’re not just seeing things as an individual, but as part of a community. As a historian that is part of my role—to help people understand their place in the world. And that place is powerful. And if that position weren’t powerful, then some people wouldn’t have spent 150 years telling us we are only useful for shoveling coal for the rich.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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