Journey Up Coal River
Photo: Brian Harriman
A SWITZER NETWORK LEADERSHIP STORY

Journey Up Coal River

Posted by Erin Lloyd on Thursday, May 13 2010

Fellows: 

2000 Fellow Jen Osha, Founder and President of Aurora Lights, an NGO based in Morgantown, West Virginia, has announced the production of a CD, called "Still Moving Mountains: The Journey Home"  to raise awareness of mountaintop removal coal mining, as well as a companion website with educational a d outreach tools for activists, concerned citizens, and teachers.

Both the CD and the companion website are part of an outreach project called “Journey Up Coal River,” which situates the impacts of mountaintop removal within the cultural and historical context of the Coal River Valley, West Virginia.  Journey Up Coal River is this year's recipient of the Appalachian Studies Association's e-Appalachia Website of the Year Award. The website offers interactive maps and resources for teachers, community members, activists and area residents concerned about the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining. Jen has worked on some segments of the website with Switzer Fellow Evan Hansen (1996), President of Downstream Strategies, also in Morgantown, West Virginia, through a Switzer Foundation Collaborative Initiatives Seed Grant.

Jen spoke with Switzer Program Officer Erin Lloyd about the release of the CD and the community’s involvement with the website as it rallies against the pending permit for mountaintop removal in Coal River Valley.

EL: TELL US ABOUT YOUR ORGANIZATION, AURORA LIGHTS.

JO: The primary focus of Aurora Lights is to support local, grassroots projects that strengthen the relationships within human communities, and with their natural environment, by promoting environmental and social action. Our hope is that we’ll help to restore a sense of the sacred balance between earth and human communities, and help to promote sustainable and thoughtful land stewardship.

My idea for founding Aurora Lights came when I was living in Ecuador. I was living with a family whose daughter was having a difficult pregnancy and they needed money for medical expenses. The only way to get the money for their daughter to survive was to cut down all the trees on their property. I remember when I was at Yale learning about deforestation in the Amazon, hearing people say, “don’t they care about the trees, why are they destroying this resource?” My experience in Ecuador showed me that it’s not that they don’t care, they actually love these trees, but they have to cut them down to save their daughter. I realized that I would certainly do the same thing. My life in Ecuador changed the way I thought about how we look at the relationship between human communities and the natural environment. That’s when I got my Switzer Fellowship, and that’s when I started Aurora Lights.

EL: AURORA LIGHTS HAS PRODUCED AND RELEASED A SECOND CD TO RAISE AWARENESS OF ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUES RELATED TO MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL COAL MINING IN CENTRAL APPALACHIA. THIS CD, CALLED “STILL MOVING MOUNTAINS: THE JOURNEY HOME” IS A SEQUEL TO A CD PRODUCED IN 2004. TELL US ABOUT THE MAKING OF THE CD, HOW YOU GOT THE ARTISTS INVOLVED, AND WHOM YOU HOPE TO REACH.

JO: As a lifelong musician, I have always believed in the important role of music in social struggles. The first CD, Moving Mountains, started out as an idea to informally produce a couple of songs on my computer to help rally some of the people in the movement to stop mountaintop removal. That idea grew into a professionally produced CD in part by partnering with Jeff Bosley, who’s on the Board of Directors of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. He is also the stage director for West Virginia Public Radio’s Mountain Stage and is the sound director for the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. He volunteered his time as the technical director for the CD and due to his help we were able to produce a professional quality CD. We raised $6,500 in funds to support the movement against mountaintop removal with that first CD! Jeff and I worked together as well on the second CD, Still Moving Mountains: The Journey Home, along with other volunteers and Aurora Lights staff. 

Kathy Mattea was our first big name to get involved in the project. She has slowly and surely become a strong advocate in this movement against mountaintop removal. She donated a song called Blue Diamond Mines, which was written by Jean Ritchie, who gave us gratis use.

After that, Vince Herman (previously from the band Leftover Salmon), who now plays with Great American Taxi, donated a song. So with those two well-known artists on board, we were finally able to reach the other big groups like Del McCoury, Blue Highway, Rising Appalachia. We got some big names while still maintaining the focus on southern West Virginia. We mixed the big names with the local and regional musicians so we could use their music to express their perspective on mountain life, on flooding, on timbering, on mountaintop removal, on community organizing, things like that.

The final thing we did that was unique because it keeps our CD out of mainstream music (which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it) was we included interviews with local residents on the CD itself, within the music. So if you listen to it from beginning to end, there are a few short interviews at the beginning of some of the songs and then longer interviews at the end with Kathy Mattea, with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and with some local residents so that you get the whole story. I was worried that people wouldn’t listen to the interviews if they were all at the end so we put them in the middle.

Who do we want to reach? Everyone. I really believe that this CD is of high enough quality that we can reach out to a national audience that’s concerned about climate change and alternative energy. The movement against mountaintop removal, especially in the last year, has grown exponentially with the civil disobedience and resulting media attention that’s occurring in Coal River Valley. I think the CD can make one more leap outward to the green movement for alternative energy and green jobs. It’s relevant to a national audience, not just a regional audience.

EL: CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHY THE SONGS ON THE CD WERE CHOSEN, AND THE ORDER YOU PUT THEM IN?

JO: We had a couple different audiences that we had to satisfy with this project, which was both fun and difficult. In the music industry, you put your biggest songs at the beginning of a CD. But I never wanted to lose focus on the purpose, which was to highlight what’s going on in southern West Virginia and to include local residents in the music. So what we ended up doing was putting songs in order of a journey, that’s why it’s called ‘The Journey Home’. We go from songs that bring the listener into West Virginia, to love of mountain life, to going home to that family cabin to find your mountain has been clearcut, to the economic and cultural realities we hear about from the interviews with local residents.

These songs and interviews speak to a lot of people right now who are coal miners, or who have families that have been coal miners, like myself (I come from coal miners; I’m the first generation to be raised outside of the coal fields). I’ve talked to some of the local children who go to sleep with their clothes on at night because if the slurry impoundment breaks and they’re flooded, they don’t want to have to run outside in their pajamas. Being a mother, I have no words to say how strongly and powerfully this has affected me. In the song I wrote for the CD called, “Shumate Dam” the chorus goes, “sing for the children in their mountain homes, who hear rain on the roof and go to sleep in their clothes, while their parents watch the water because nobody knows if tonight is the night the slurry dam goes.” The final song on the CD moves towards community action and organizing, and alternatives, like green jobs. We decided to bring people through this journey of the love of mountain life, to the current problems faced by the area that are threats to the mountain communities, and ways we can work together to search for alternatives.

EL: WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TITLE OF THIS CD?

JO: The first CD was called, “Moving Mountains: Voices of Appalachia Rise Up Against Mountaintop Removal” and that was a very in-your-face sort of title. That was fine, but for the second one we had hopes of reaching a larger audience, so we wanted to think about placing mountaintop removal into a larger context. We ended up titling it, “Still Moving Mountains” because
mountaintop removal is still occurring, and we titled it “The Journey Home” specifically to bring people on this journey back to a homeland as part of our country’s history. We still have teachers in southern West Virginia and the Appalachian Mountains that can teach us to be better stewards of the land. Not only are we not listening but we’re actually using so-called cheap electricity as an excuse to blow up mountaintops where these communities live. So ‘The Journey Home’ is really specifically to talk about going back home to West Virginia but also in a larger metaphorical sense about going back to better stewardship of the land.

EL: WHY DID YOU FEEL IT WAS IMPORTANT TO FOCUS ON MORE THAN JUST MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL IN THIS ALBUM?

JO: What I’ve seen in the nine years I’ve worked in this movement is that if you just focus on fighting against something, fighting against mountaintop removal, you can really get into this push and shove battle. Rather than fighting against it, we can work together to build alternatives and healthy livelihoods. I spent a lot of time in the last year in my PhD dissertation doing interviews with surface miners and underground miners. So many times I’ve heard, “well if there were another job opportunity,
another way to feed my family, I’d really rather not be destroying this mountain I grew up on.” So I don’t think just yelling at them and saying “hey, stop what you’re doing” is the way to make change. That’s why I wanted to focus on Coal River Valley as a
geographic area within which people could learn about mountaintop removal within a specific historical and cultural context.

EL: YOU CREATED A COMPANION WEBSITE WITH THIS CD. TELL US ABOUT THE WEBSITE (WWW.JOURNEYUPCOALRIVER.ORG), INCLUDING YOUR WORK WITH SWITZER FELLOW EVAN HANSEN UNDER A SWITZER COLLABORATIVE INITIATIVES SEED GRANT.

JO: We were really grateful to get funding from Switzer to develop the Coal River Wind portion of our website. There are six themes on the website, three of which focus on geographic areas: Land use on Coal River Mountain, Public Health and Coal Slurry in Prenter Hollow, and A Community and Strip Mining, which focuses on Shumate Holler. Shumate is where Marsh Fork Elementary is located, the school that I wrote the Shumate Dam song about. The entire hollow has been buried. So on our website, you can actually see the before and after of the Hollow that’s been completely destroyed. A community that is gone,
forever. The Coal River Mountain section, which my dissertation is focused on, specifically looks at community land use on the mountain and how this open area is still used as the commons for many people, including transportation across the mountain for hunting, for camping trips and history, all kinds of things. This, of course, is the mountain that is being blasted right now and that the Coal River Wind Project is hoping to save by setting up a wind farm.

We also have a theme on the incredible history of the Coal River Valley from the first settlers all the way through the union wars. We have one section on mountaintop removal, and one on the wind farm. Due to the Switzer grant, we got to work with Evan Hansen and his staff at Downstream Strategies to produce this multi-media theme about the current mountaintop removal permits and the alternative of wind power. We based the theme on the economic analysis of mountaintop removal vs. wind power that Downstream Strategies and Evan Hansen wrote. We took the work that Evan and Downstream Strategies already did in terms of the economic analysis and turned it into an educational piece where people could learn more about wind as a practical and economically feasible alternative to mountaintop removal. People can come to our website and learn about the number of jobs that would be created by having wind power versus coal mining, and about the impacts of both on a community level. There’s hard scientific data for skeptics that says wind power works. We were able to write a lesson plan and a community organizing guide and then link it all up in ways that people can get involved and organize in their communities.

EL: CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHY THIS WEBSITE IS SO UNIQUE?

JO: JourneyUpCoalRiver.org is unique for a number of reasons. First of all, I think that the CD/website combination is really innovative. Second, this website was created through a participatory process based on interviews I conducted for my dissertation. Finally, the inclusion of the lesson plans and the activist and educational resources allows teachers and students to bring this information into the classroom. As a teacher, I always look for ways to make learning fun, interactive, and applicable to real life. Well, my hope is that this website and CD together can provide all of those opportunities to motivated teachers and students. The CD helps to raise awareness and direct folks to the website, and I hope that our website serves as a doorway to provide introductory information as well as a vehicle through which people can get directly involved in the movement.

EL: HOW WAS THIS PROJECT A GRASSROOTS EFFORT?

JO: Sometimes my ideas are much bigger than my ability and time to accomplish them. In this case, it worked out well, since the idea was huge and provided a lot of room for many folks to help out and get involved. We started out with four people working on the CD and website.

Ultimately, we had over 20 volunteers and interns, almost all unpaid, who helped out on everything from web design to interview transcriptions to collecting photos. We had support from the West Virginia Humanities Council, and food and lodging from Coal River Mountain Watch. This project became a resource that was helpful to many people in the movement, and it has its own life now. The way that it’s developed has been a truly grassroots approach that was really exciting and inspiring. I believe that we set out with the idea of making the website participatory within the community, and along the way, it became participatory within the movement as well. The amount of energy and personal ownership in the final product makes this website an incredible resource both educationally and as a tool for community organizing.

EL: WHAT DOES THE MONEY RAISED BY THIS CD GO TOWARDS?

JO: The money raised by the CD goes to Aurora Lights for our direct grants, which we give $250 to $500 at a time to a grassroots group within the movement. For example, our first grant was given to the Rock Creek community kitchen to support the kitchen for 10 days providing breakfast, lunch, and dinner to 30-40 volunteers and local activists working together to end mountaintop removal. Our second grant was given to RRENEW, a collective working to promote sustainable livelihoods in Appalachia, Va, to purchase materials to finish their volunteer house. Additionally, proceeds also support local participation and updating of the Journey Up Coal River website as well as food and lodging for full time volunteers.

EL: HOW CAN PEOPLE GET MORE INVOLVED?

JO: Go to www.journeyupcoalriver.org, and there’s a button that says ‘Resources.’ There’s an Educational Resources page, and an Activist Resources page. The Activist Resources page has information about every single group working in Appalachia against mountaintop removal. Aurora Lights is also taking internship applications right now so we will be very excited to have people come and work with us.

EL: WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AND THIS PROJECT?

JO: First I have to finish my dissertation! I am hoping to have it written by June, 2010. In my interviews, I asked everybody 3 questions. The third question was, “what alternatives do you see to mountaintop removal?” I have this wealth of information about local residents’ ideas about alternatives to mountaintop removal and what I’d like to work on would be community resource mapping. Working hopefully with Evan Hansen again, I’d like to continue to move in the direction of practical alternatives and creation of sustainable livelihoods. Aurora Lights received a grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council for Community Participation and Educational Outreach regarding the JourneyUpCoalRiver.org site to help us reach out to more high schools and colleges with this information.

 
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Listen to Jen Osha perform 'Shumate Dam'

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