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.
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”.
John Kennedy describes the evolution of his career and transition to Washington in 1974. Upon suggestion from Eula Hall, Director of the Mud Creek Clinic, and with an official offer from Tom Ludwig, the union rep responsible for occupational health… Continued
Dal Macon shares his first impressions of Bill Dow and what attracted him to the Student Health Coalition’s (SHC’s) unique approach to community organizing. He frames the SHC and its work of rural healthcare delivery as a mission of listeners… Continued
[Story contributed by Jack Beckford, with assistance from Sara Platt Williams] During the Fall of 1970, the SHC was contacted by the Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Organization (EKWRO), centered in Floyd Co, Ky. EKWRO was already doing organizing among low-income… Continued
Richard Davidson M.D., M.P.H., talks about how music allowed him to connect with members of the communities he served as the first physician for Mountain People’s Health Councils (MPHC), a consortium of health clinics originally formed by the communities of… Continued
Dick Burr and John Davis discuss the characteristic anger of the first generation of community organizers with the Student Health Coalition. They conclude that, albeit a driving force, this was sometimes counter-productive to the SHC mission. Full footage of… Continued
Charles Scott, professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and early supporter of the Student Health Coalition (SHC), frames the development of coeducation and feminist-driven policy reform under Chancellor Alexander Heard and the Dean of Women, Margaret Cunningham–ongoing at the time… Continued
John Gaventa clarifies the interplay between surface land ownership and the exploitative acquisition of below-ground mineral rights by large coal companies in Appalachia. He cites The American Association, a British company that at one time owned 80,000 acres across Clairborne,… Continued
Becca Ingle, R.N., F.N.P. shares about her experience with the Student Health Coalition (SHC) in the summer of 1974 and discusses its profound influence on later becoming a nurse practitioner. She also explains how the organization facilitated a shift in… Continued
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 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 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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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”.