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”.

Caryl Carpenter on community leader Odes McKamey

Caryl Carpenter, former administrator of the Mountain People’s Health Councils (MPHC) of East Tennessee, shares a story about community leader Odes McKamey of Stoney Fork, Tenn. MPHC was founded in 1974 as a coalition of three rural health clinics in… Continued

Dick Burr’s admonition to organizers today

In response to a question posed by Gillian McCuistion, one of the Southern Historical Collection’s archival technicians with the Coalition project, Dick Burr delineates how he would encourage students (and others) to organize today. He centers his commentary on lessons… Continued

Dick Burr on Coalition successes and mistakes

Dick Burr reflects on how the SHC succeeded in its approach to community organizing and posits, in retrospect, how the student-led coalition fell short. He focuses primarily on the value of a more intersectional approach to the needs of poor… Continued

On SOCM’s early days and development as a threat to strip mining

John Kennedy elaborates on Heleny Cook’s and Jane Sampson’s role with Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM), their organizing efforts having grown directly out of John Gaventa’s strip mining research and related work about the American Association. For more information on… Continued

More on local opposition to the Petros Clinic

Kate Bradley expands on the issues she explains are often characteristic of small, rural communities and how such things as ignorance and jealousy impeded their efforts to build a community clinic in Petros, Tenn. She describes a few specific examples… Continued

The “Appalachianization” of rural America and around the world

John Gaventa discusses the “Appalachianization” of rural America, a trend of rising inequality, poverty, environmental damage, and deficit of public services across the U.S. No longer the exception, Gaventa emphaszies injustice in the Clearfork Valley as being relevant to the… Continued

Context behind and origin of the 1971 land ownership study

John Gaventa delineates the context and probing question behind his earliest research into land ownership in Appalachia, as proposed in collaboration with Bill Dow: why are some of the wealthiest, natural resource-rich counties in East Tennessee also the poorest (in… Continued
Left to right: Marian Colette, Minnie Bommer, Tilda Kemplen, Linda Stein, Mary Elliott; Barbara Clinton, Project Director and daughter Greta in front

“Freedom from drain” and the Maternal-Infant Health Outreach Worker Project (MIHOW)

Barbara Clinton shares about the program she started as an appendage of the Student Health Coalition (SHC), known as the Maternal-Infant Health Outreach Worker Project (MIHOW). The largest and most renowned of the SHC’s various outgrowths, this program sought to… 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

Black Lung

Upon reaching East Tennessee in 1969-70, SHC community workers immediately encountered Black Lung Disease (Pneumoconiosis). For years, the SHC engaged Black Lung Disease on several levels: medical diagnosis and treatment; representation for federal benefits claims; and organizing for reform of… 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

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”.