Eighty-one year-old Brooklyn, N.Y. native, Marie Cirillo has spent the last forty-two years of her life as a community organizer in Appalachia. There she has worked closely with natives to the area to create independently run nonprofits, land trusts, women’s organizations, and living/learning centers. She spends this interview discussing how her background led her to community organizing and the successes and struggles she has encountered during her many years of work. Cirillo describes her childhood love of rural America cultivated by summers spent in her grandparents’ small Kentucky town and by others’ nurturing of her creative talents. As an adult, Cirillo joined an order of nuns, the Glenmary Home Mission Sisters, in Owensboro, Ky. She was part of a group of 14 former nuns who quit the convent in order to work in direct service to the people of the region, founding the Federation of Communities in Service (FOCIS) in 1967. For her work with FOCIS, Cirillo moved to Clairfield, Tenn. to work against what she saw as a tragic exodus of the population from the small town. Part environmental activist, part anthropologist, Cirillo fashioned herself as a community developer and strived to empower the community members to “rebuild their community according to their priorities.” She helped set up a series of rural medical clinics with the help of Linda Mashburn and later helped lead the community members to start their own nonprofits, which Cirillo saw as the best way to show the people of Appalachia the importance of their surroundings. In 1977, feeling that the Appalachian people were at the mercy of the large companies that owned most of the area’s land, Cirillo worked to create a 450-acre community land trust with the help of the Model Valley Development Corporation. Later, after realizing the impact of outside help from church youth and college students, she saw the need for a conceptual “living/learning center” to educate the volunteer population. Cirillo has also worked with dozens of other organizations, mostly Catholic and women’s groups. In the late 1970s her focus shifted to a growing women’s movement in Appalachia. She helped to unite several women’s nonprofits together to form the Rural American Women, which would later become the educational group The Mountain Women’s Exchange. Cirillo joined fellow organizer Jane Threet on the board of the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, an urban version of the Rural American Women that created living/learning centers in three different American communities. Her paid work would end with the Catholic Charities organization, a partnership that began well but quickly soured once Cirillo was told to change her work methods. Cirillo’s most recent work with the organization, In Praise of Mountain Women, reminds her that “this incredible disconnect between rural and urban is absolutely disastrous if we keep on going in that direction” and that a new, younger generation must continue the Appalachian people’s fight.
Interview with Marie Cirillo by David Cline, May 26 2010 U-0468, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.