Organizing for Community Power & Environmental Justice

Health Fairs sponsored by the Student Health Coalition opened doors to remote communities in Appalachia and the rural South with a well-deserved reputation for being suspicious of outsiders. Through that opening came not only medical students, nursing students, and physicians offering free physical examinations to anyone who wanted one, but also organizers, lawyers, and researchers who remained in place long after a traveling Health Fair left town. These “community workers” offered something different. Their job was empowerment. They were there to cultivate indigenous leadership and to lay the foundation for grassroots organizations that could take matters into their own hands – rural people working together to improve conditions in their own communities.

Community workers from the SHC concentrated initially on supporting the formation of local health councils and the development of locally controlled primary care clinics. But their focus soon expanded to encompass other problems afflicting the places to which they had been assigned, including inequitable taxation of lands rich in minerals and timber, unregulated strip mining, and the corporate pollution of wells and streams.

The summer organizing of the Coalition’s community workers had success in sparking grassroots activism around these issues, but a more permanent, year-round effort was needed if the councils, clinics, and campaigns they had helped to seed were to be sustained. Two organizations emerged that built on the work of SHC, while enhancing and extending it: Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM), formed in 1972, and the East Tennessee Resource Corporation (ETRC), formed in 1974.

There was a common thread running through all of these efforts, a set of perspectives and principles that guided the activities of those who came to SHC – and, later, to SOCM and ETRC as well – to pursue the calling of empowerment:

  • The impoverishment of Appalachia and other communities in the rural South is not a result of a “culture of poverty,” but a consequence the region’s systematic exploitation by predatory corporations and its historic neglect by political elites.

 

  • Conditions can be improved in impoverished communities by a bottom-up approach to building collective power and creating community-based organizations that challenge the economic and political status quo.

 

  • Consumers of health care and other social services should have a voice in planning and guiding the delivery of those services.

 

  • The leadership of organizations and campaigns launched to improve conditions in impoverished communities should come from the people who live there. Outsiders can seed community action. Outsiders can bring professional and financial resources to bear in support of community action. They cannot lead it.

Related Stories:

A sampling of vignettes that illustrate activities and aspirations of the SHC in striving to organize rural communities for self-determination and environmental justice. For all oral and written narratives related to this theme, click here. For a complete catalogue of clips across all three themes, visit “Stories”.

Charles “Boomer” Winfrey’s origins with SOCM

Boomer discusses his introduction to Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) in 1972. Inspired by his geological studies and depth of conviction about unregulated strip mining’s adverse effects on both the environment and community health, Boomer has been an active participant… Continued

Key issues tackled by ETRC

John Williams and Neil McBride share a list of the East Tennessee Research Corporation’s range of legal issues addressed between 1974 and 1977, including but not limited to: coal industry regulation, industrial development, environmental litigation, barriers to independently-run rural health… Continued

Randall and Meryl Rice on the miseducation about Medicaid expansion

Randall and Meryl Rice discuss misconceptions about and resulting aversions to Medicaid expansion, as well as the repercussions of refusing to adopt it—namely, rural hospital closures. Recorded on June 2, 2018.   Full footage of their discussion about rural healthcare. Continued

Art Van Zee on community hosts Howard and Elsie Elliot

Art Van Zee reminisces Howard and Elsie Elliot, a local couple with whom many Student Health Coalition (SHC) participants were welcomed to stay. He highlights their hospitality as a hallmark of the Coalition’s community-centered approach to effective organizing. Continued

Hearts of Gold

Brought to us by Margaret Ecker and others involved in its 2013 production, this special collection of insights from several Student Health Coalition (SHC) figureheads in the 1970s features Bill Dow, Bill Corr, Carolyn Burr, Dal Macon, and Marie Cirillo–among… Continued
Diane Lauver's Legacy Plant

Resilient Reba: A bittersweet story from Diane Lauver

During a health fair in the 70s, I stayed with a couple in Elgin, Tenn.: Reba and Bud Smithers. Another health fair worker, Angela, stayed with me at their home. A few experiences with this couple left me with strong… Continued

Perry Steele on the summer of 1972

[Story contributed by Perry Steele, 15 May 2017]  I was finishing my sophomore year at Vanderbilt. Nixon hadn’t drafted me. For some reason Professor Scott suggested I could be a community organizer. Having no other plans for the summer, I… Continued

Reflections on the level of care at SHC health fairs

Tom John and Rick Davidson retrospectively comment on the level and quality of care provided at the Student Health Coalition summer health fairs, and how theses experiences shaped their own understanding of and perspective on healthcare.   Full footage of… Continued

Related People:

Profiles of several individuals, among many, whose work with the Student Health Coalition was centered on community empowerment and environmental justice. A listing of all SHC profiles can be found under “People”.

Ann Baile Hamric

Ann participated in the Coalition in 1970, the first summer that the Coalition conducted multiple health fairs in middle and eastern Tennessee.  She had just graduated from Vanderbilt School of Nursing. Ann was instrumental in the establishment of structured followup… Continued

Betty Anderson

Betty Anderson was born in Scott County, Tenn. on March 26, 1936. In the 1970s, she became involved with Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM), a social justice organization that addressed strip-mining and other community issues in Tennessee and Kentucky. She… Continued

Bill Corr

Contributed by Bill Corr, September 2015 I am forever indebted to the Vanderbilt Student Health Coalition because my involvement put me on a career path that has enriched my life and given me the opportunity to serve our nation’s health… Continued
Bill Dow in Smithville ,Tenn., 1970

Bill Dow

Bill Dow co-founded the Student Health Coalition while in medical school at Vanderbilt University, in 1969. His larger-than-life role in the SHC origin story and beyond warrants special telling, which we attempt in the essay that follows. Contributed by Margaret… Continued

Byrd Duncan

Contributed by John E. Davis When the newly recruited medical workers and community workers of the Student Health Coalition gathered in Nashville in June 1970, beginning a week of orientation for the SHC’s second summer in Appalachia, they were introduced… Continued

Cathy Barrow Heck and Jeff Heck

Contributed by Cathy Barrow Heck I was absolutely sold on the Appalachian Student Health Coalition upon seeing the video as a nursing student in the fall of 1973. The idea of a team of students working in partnership with rural… Continued

Charles “Boomer” Winfrey

After studying geology at the University of Tennessee and working as a geologist for one year, Boomer took a job as a community organizer with Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM). As he later described his role: “They needed somebody with… Continued

Charles Schiff

While an engineering student at Vanderbilt University, Charles spent the summers of 1970 and 1971 with the Student Health Coalition. He was 18 years old when he joined the SHC, one of the Coalition’s youngest members. He served as a… Continued

Related Outcomes:

A selection of initiatives, organizations, and developments that grew from seeds planted or causes championed by the SHC. A complete catalogue of materials related to various outcomes of the SHC experience can be found under “Legacy”.