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”.

Overcoming adversity from Morgan County

Kate and J.W. Bradley discuss the Morgan County Health Council, from its formation around the same time as the Coalition’s health fair in Petros, Tenn. to the challenges Morgan County officials created for the clinic. These hurdles were in no… Continued

On the investigation of East Tennessee Development Districts

John Kennedy describes Bill Dow’s motivation to coordinate an investigative review of potential corruption in East Tennessee economic development districts, explaining that said corruption could reinforce power systems–namely, the allocation of state and federal funding to health and other community… Continued

Lobbying for the Rural Health Clinic Act

Kate Bradley recalls lobbying for Medicare’s funding of Nurse Practitioners (NPs), a motion that later became known as the Rural Health Clinic Act. Others involved in the effort included Irwin Venick, Wanda Lang, Bill Corr, and Byrd Duncan. Follow this… Continued

On core tenets of sustainability and the role of business planning in community organizing

Nancy Raybin delves into the core tenets of sustainability (such as governance, self-preservation, and long-term impact metrics) to further stress the value of bringing business planning to community organizing. Follow this link for access to the full-length interview. Recorded October… Continued

Preservation and access of community legacies

Margaret Ecker describes a “fringe benefit” of the archive project as it pertains to the collective memory restoration of community stories, such as those belonging to Howard and Fay Elliot of St. Charles, Va., J.W. and Kate Bradley, Maureen O’Connell,… Continued

J.W. Bradley lobbying for strip mining legislation

John Williams recalls J.W. Bradley’s tenacity while lobbying Congress in support of strip mining regulation, which in 1976, was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.   Full footage of the 2017 ETRC panel featuring John Williams, John McArthur, Lark… Continued

Stephanie Park on doctor-patient relationships

Stephanie Park, a community scholar with the Center for Health Services (CHS), shares how her firsthand experience in community healthcare bolstered her education in the field and furthered her understanding of holistic community development—particularly with regard to doctor-patient relationships.  … Continued

Sharon Roberson’s early involvement with the Center for Health Services

Sharon Roberson tells of her first getting involved with the Center for Health Services, a Vanderbilt-sponsored affiliate program of the Student Health Coalition. She worked in West Tennessee (primarily Haywood County) and explains that unique to this region, in comparison… 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”.