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.

 

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 a complete catalogue of oral and written narratives on the website, go to “Stories.”)

SOCM’s and the SHC’s culture of ‘family fun’

Maureen O’Connell and Charles “Boomer” Winfrey reflect on the value of having fun, highlighting the Student Health Coalition as an especially stimulating group of people to be around. Their commitment to collective recreation ultimately facilitated a stronger sense of togetherness… Continued

Where can the SHC go from here?

Charles “Boomer” Winfrey and Maureen O’Connell ruminate on work left to be done in the eastern Tennessee region of Appalachia. Their focus pertains mostly to the ongoing need for augmented healthcare resources, drug education and reform, and meeting the needs… Continued

Bill Dow as a community organizer in Appalachia

Maureen O’Connell and Charles “Boomer” Winfrey reflect on Bill Dow’s character and personal philosophy about community organizing. They describe him as an other-oriented person driven by creative, actionable service and mutually respectful relationships best illustrated by his perception of and… Continued

Decline of coal camp healthcare and subsequent basis of need for reform

Charles “Boomer” Winfrey and Maureen O’Connell discuss the local healthcare setting upon Save Our Cumberland Mountain’s (SOCM) and the Student Health Coalition’s (SHC) early stages of community organizing in East Tennessee. Maureen details several local factors which established a major… Continued

Reflections on the SHC’s approach to community healthcare

Charles “Boomer” Winfrey and Maureen O’Connell consider what set the Student Health Coalition apart from other community development efforts in the Appalachian region of East Tennessee. Boomer focuses on the Coalition’s and SOCM’s value of community empowerment (by way of… Continued

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

Maureen O’Connell’s introduction to SOCM and the SHC

Maureen traces the development of her involvement with Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) and the Student Health Coalition (SHC), beginning with her 1969 introduction to Marie Cirillo and research presence in Clairfield, Tennessee. Recorded on May 20th, 2013.   Full… Continued

Dal Macon’s community return and ongoing work post-Student Health Coalition

Dal Macon briefly shares about some of his post-Student Health Coalition community projects, including having served on the board of Marie Cirillo’s Community Land Trust and organized outreach efforts through the Center for Health Services at Vanderbilt University. Link to… Continued

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.”)

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, TN: 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

John Kennedy

The summer before his final year at the Vanderbilt Law School and during the summer and fall after his graduation, John Kennedy worked for the Student Health Coalition, 1971 and 1972. He provided assistance to former miners who were seeking… 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

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

J.W. Bradley

Jacob “J.W.” Bradley was born on 29 June 1930 and raised in Petros, Tennessee, a small Appalachian coalfield community in the Cumberland Mountains. J.W. married Emma “Kate” Hobbs in 1951. As an adult, J.W. worked several jobs. At eighteen he… Continued

Maureen O’Connell

Related Places:   Related People:   Related Stories:   Related Resources/Links: Continued

Interviews with ETRC leaders, Nashville, Tenn., June 2018

Interviews with East Tennessee Research Corporation leaders. Recorded in Nashville, Tenn., June 2018. Conducted by Lark Hayes and Irwin Venick. 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

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.”)

East Tennessee Research Corporation (ETRC)

Profile: [Contributed by John Williams and Neil McBride, September 2015.] As the members of the Student Health Coalition and the Vanderbilt Center for Health Services began working with health clinics, SOCM, the Tennessee Black Lung Association and other community-based organizations… Continued

Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM)

Profile: SOCM began in 1971, under the leadership of J.W. Bradley who sought fair taxation of absentee land corporations. They appealed to the Tennessee government, and won their first battle. Bolstered by their success, the organization then hoped to help… Continued

Connecting the dots: from SHC to ACA

In 2013, just as the Affordable Care Act was about to get rolled out, Bill Corr took time out of his busy schedule as Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services to reflect on the resonance between the Coalition work of forty years ago and… Continued