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August 27, 2009

 

August 27, 2009

Dearest friends,

The dynamite Massey Energy set to blow up a mountain above Pettry Bottom, WV is on hold at the moment while two brave young people tree-sit next to the mine site! My friends Larry and Carol Gibson are bracing themselves for another wave of coal-industry-sponsored violence while planning a gathering at their home on top of Kayford Mountain for Labor Day Weekend. Organizers in Tennessee are actively encouraging the Tenessee Valley Authority to close its coal powered power plants while National Coal looks like it may be going bankrupt. And on and on it goes….

Meanwhile, I am sitting outside my cabin in Hico, listening to a recording of Katya Chorover, a movement folksinger, sing:

“Someday we’ll meet a million miles away,

Someday we’ll meet in a land so rich and green,

Someday we’ll meet in a land of plenty

And we’ll rise up on high with our song.”

Ready? Shall we meet up? There are murmurs of songs from the past raising up from each hollow in the coalfields these days. I haven’t regretted my decision to move out here for even a minute. I am inspired by the strength of my new friends, the pride in the local communities and horrified beyond description with the level of coal industry and state-sponsored environmental degradation. Absorbing the reality of it literally through drinking this toxic water and breathing the air makes me more committed to staying in solidarity with the local people who have lived here for multiple generations.

Since I last wrote I went to Boulder for a work-week and had a marvelous time training the new staff at Snow Lion student housing at Naropa University in Restorative Justice principles and practices and returned to a whirlwind camping tour of southern Appalachia for a long weekend hosted by my new friend Sage (Robert Philips Russo). Sage is a clogger and a fiddle player and yall know I am a lover of Old Time and grew up square and contra-dancing, so the two of us went straight away to the Carter Family Fold in southwest Virginia. Remember Mother Maybelle, Jeanette or A.P. Carter? Every Saturday night since 1974 an Old Time or bluegrass band plays at the Family Fold and anyone can come and dance the night away for $1.50! Sage and I danced so much the older folks took notice and invited us to return any chance we have – an invitation we will certainly take them up on! We went in the old family home and sat in June Carter and Johnny Cash’s rocking chairs and left the place under a huge starry night in love with rural people and the music of the hollows.

We returned in time to participate in a community restorative health training Sage helped organize through his organization “Christians for the Mountains” in Ansted, which focused on the beneficial effects of unpasturized apple-cider vinegar and raw local honey in combating illnesses. I am so impressed with my new Ansted friends! The next day, Sage and I spent a delightful day with Carol and Larry Gibson which resulted in a night out at a steakhouse! There was also kim chee to be processed in bulk and meals to be shared all around. 

Recently, I spent a day going door to door in Nicolas County just north of me to enquire after the health of people living next to old and new mines which are leaching carcinogens and other toxic heavy metals into their wells, springs and creeks. I was with a group of people who are all committed to helping local communities thrive and survive and were asked to come up there by a local man who has been going door to door with filtered water for all of his neighbors, filling up containers he bought himself! The goal is to help the locals lean on the county and state health departments to speed up the process of installing ‘city water’ which would be treated and presumably cleaner. (The photos are of a ‘spring’ in a well covered in oil and sludge and a sink hole right behind one of the houses which is a result of the blasting and mining). This is some of the work I really come alive doing – listening to stories, offering empathy when appropriate and helping individuals and families strategize solutions to the situation. This is the heart of organizing for me – something called “popular education,” coined by Paulo Freire in Brazil and applied throughout this region and the deep south during the right to vote and Civil Rights Movement through the Highlander Folk School.

I moved out here called to work as an eco-chaplain, and I tell you what – my understanding of this work deepens everyday. Trained well in the principles of popular education and restorative principles, I will not presume to have anything to offer but a lot of ideas how to help the people involved in this movement find their own skills to continue their work as strong and whole as possible. The potential for burn-out, overwhelm, apathy, despair, anger, rage and the like to take over individuals, organizations and communities is enormous. There is a war on the land and its people here. The pain is evident, and the spark of life rising through it is solid and beautiful and only as strong as the most broken hearted. Does this make sense?

I am focusing primarily on making lots of room to observe and listen and learn while doors open up to more structured participation. I can always dive in as an organizer or an activist, but am holding back on purpose while I learn the area, make friends and see how I can be of benefit. My ‘work’ is still fairly formless which is a challenge to explain, and yet helps me really settle in to this region without the presumption of knowing what I am doing. I feel strongly called to help initiate community listening circles, to help continually inspire a culture of self-care and group-care, to facilitate dialogue across differences – within organizations, between coal companies and community stakeholders, and always bring in the tools of the trade I learned at both Evergreen and Naropa for healthy communication and community-based transformation at the base. What this will actually look like is anyone’s guess!

Meanwhile, I have to survive economically and my plan for doing so involves a three-pronged strategy involving working odd jobs like substitute teaching and elder care here in Fayette County which will bring in income but not tie me down so much I can not pour my time into this precious work, organizing workshops to help transform environmental grief into strength (the Work that Reconnects) and restorative justice work with organizations and on campuses throughout the region, and raising donations. I would really appreciate any ideas or support about these last two. I am still on the lookout for a nonprofit sponsor, which I will have soon, so any donations will soon be tax deductible.

            I am traveling to Olympia from Sept. 6-10th for my birthday (Sept. 7th!) and will be back in Boulder, CO following it from the 10-17th, for the Frederick P. Lenz conference at Naropa and hopefully to move my earthly possessions. I have two fundraising/outreach events planned and would LOVE it if you could join and spread the word. I have put together a bunch of short video clips and photos from my experiences which I plan to share as well as tell stories. Anyone is welcome. I am aware that times are tight for money and spreading the word is just as precious to me as raising money.

My prayer for each of you is that you may treat yourself the way you want others to be treated, love one another really well, turn off the lights more and watch the stars whenever you can, cultivate a feeling of being home wherever you are, test the health of your water rather than assuming it is clean, and dance to the music that moves you.

 

In love and solidarity,

Sarah Vekasi, M. Div.