Photo by Nick Mullins
I do not subscribe to the labels being thrown out these days. I do not consider myself an environmentalist, a liberal, nor do I consider myself a conservative either. I am an Appalachian family man who cares about his kids more than the coal companies do.
I’m not naive enough to believe that companies who make a profit extracting and selling coal, oil, or natural gas, are telling us the truth. Instead, they stretch the truth beyond its limits to protect their investments and bottom lines. We see it every day, and miner’s face it when they are injured and seek compensation to continue feeding their families.
Being Appalachian, I also know that many politicians and charitable organizations who have come to “help” us over the years have used our poverty and suffering to gain votes and donations. It is a problem that continues to occur, and after nearly a century’s worth of exploitation from outside entities, it is no wonder we have trust issues.
People are just trying to survive day to day, and when you are just trying to survive, it is difficult to see issues as more than black and white. We don’t have time to ask questions and research answers outside of the information we receive from the most influential people in our lives—friends, family, and sadly, employers. Continue reading
March 16, 1965: A college student calls for an ambulance to aid a fellow demonstrator, while an injured girl is carried away in the background. Mounted police broke up a march for voting rights in Montgomery. | (AP Photo/Perry Aycock)
The following is an excerpt from a reflection I wrote December 2015.
It was a warm afternoon when we arrived in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Our Blue Toyota Corolla was overflowing with camping gear, the large Thule setting us apart as travelers, not locals. We’d never been in Mississippi, but as soon as we crossed the border, I felt a sense of uneasiness. Not fear, nor nervousness necessarily, but I was unsettled. The words of Nikki Giovanni’s convocation at Berea College spoke clearly in my mind, “I still fear when my son travels into the south.” I looked back at the kids and knew we were okay. We were white. I felt sick to my stomach.
Our final destination for the day would be the Chewalla Lake campground where we could stay the night for less than $10, a practice we repeated many times to extend our travel budget for the six-week long tour. As had become customary, we needed to make a stop for supplies before setting up camp that night. Without any local grocers open in Holly Springs, Wal-Mart became our supplier.
My son and I made our way into the restroom, and when it came time to wash our hands, Daniel stood beside me at the adjacent sink and asked solemnly, “Dad, why did someone carve that into the wall?” He pointed towards the words, “I HATE ALL N*****S.” I lowered my head and told him, “Because making things equal by law doesn’t mean it changes some people’s hearts.” I looked up at him and his face was grim. Despite our many discussions about racism, it was his first time seeing it and understanding that it was real. Continue reading
How did we get to this point?
After years of hard work, and millions of dollars invested into environmental advocacy campaigns, marches, and protests, something strange happened. The political landscape of the nation shifted once again to support economics over environmental protection. Regulatory agencies meant to protect public health and safety have been overtaken by industry officials yielding dangerous conflicts of interests. Important studies and enforcement initiatives are facing defunding, and even social justice has come under threat. As our country continues to broaden its political divide, many people are left wondering what went wrong?
Appalachia has risen as a microcosm to the nation’s underlying socioeconomic problems, and while there exists a great potential to find truth within the Appalachian experience, there’s a problem. Continued exploitation of Appalachia’s social issues within the national media has left people focusing on the long held stereotypes associated with the region. Without understanding the deeper contexts that shaped Appalachia into what it is today, little hope will be found in better understanding our national divide.
Beginning in October, Nick Mullins, former fifth generation underground coal miner, energy transition advocate, and author of the blog The Thoughtful Coal Miner, will be undertaking a nationwide speaking tour to discuss the economic and political forces that turned one of the nation’s largest labor rights strongholds, into a region of pro-industry attitudes based upon modern conservative values. Through his presentations, Mullins hopes to help audiences understand the issues working-class communities face, while illustrating the need to rethink our communications framework so that we can build stronger relationships both politically and culturally.
Topics will include:
- Corporate Manipulation of Cultural & Political Values
- Environmental/Liberal Backlash in Rural Communities
- The Power of the Jobs vs. Environment Debate
- Audience-Based Communications Strategies
In addition to presentations and lectures, screenings of the documentary film Blood on the Mountain (www.bloodonthemountain.com) will be offered.*
Donations are being accepted to pay travel and living expenses and to allow presentations to be offered to groups and venues at reduced rates, or for free where honorariums cannot be obtained.
For more information, or to schedule a speaking engagement, please use the contact form on the 2017-18 Tour page.
Photo by Nick Mullins
There has been no drought of media attention about coal, coal miners, and Appalachia over the past year. I myself have fielded more than a dozen calls from media outlets wanting to know more about the region, each looking for new angles or “ins” with coal mines and coal miners. Though a few have done a decent job contextualizing Appalachia’s deeper issues, many still manage to skip over some very important details about our situation—and that’s a problem. It’s this lack of depth that allows authors like J.D. Vance, and his book Hillbilly Elegy to reach national best seller status and thereby define our existence among an international audience.
So here is something for everyone to consider—the forces that control Appalachia’s economy also seek to maintain a captive workforce aimed at exploiting miners and their families.
Stone Mountain, Georgia | Photo by Jim Bowen
When I was a teenager, I went to a meeting of the new Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in my home town. I quickly became caught up in the ideals of the SCV and hoped desperately that I could find a Confederate soldier within my lineage so I could join.
I was not racist thanks to a good upbringing, nor were many of the SCV members in my home town. The head of the chapter made it clear to newcomers that racism would not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form. Despite this fact, we were nevertheless engaged in downplaying the atrocity of slavery to reconcile our past and defend our identity as southerners.
In our shallow minded understandings, we believed the war was about classism and freedom from oppression, arguing that the south was fighting over interpretations of the Constitution regarding states’ rights. By being a part of the SCV, I thought I was honoring the tens of thousands of poor southern farmers who fought to defend their families against “northern aggression.” I repeated statements I’d heard about Lincoln’s own racism, along with other facts contrasting the purely social justice narrative we saw as being taught about the war.
Abandoned Company Home – Trammel, Virginia. Photo by Nick Mullins
According to reports from the Energy Information Administration, coal production will be on the rise due to increases in electrical generation from coal fired power plants and coal exports. This means that coal companies, who have come out ahead by shirking their financial responsibilities in bankruptcy court, will be primed to make yet another killing.
For a select group of people living in coal mining regions across the nation, this boom will be a short reprieve from the economic suffering felt during the most recent downturn. But those “lucky” enough to return to the mines will see that the economic desperation created in the last five years has changed the game. Companies will not be begging for workers as they did in the mid-2000s. Miners will be competing with each other to get what jobs do come available, and those who are hired will face the constant threat of losing their job to the next desperate miner waiting in line. Coupled with reduced mine safety regulations, a concession given by state legislators to help the industry “create jobs,” coal mining families will be facing some truly dangerous times.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Daniel Flatley from Bloomberg News. He was working on a story aimed at understanding why coal miners were not retraining into healthcare careers as the healthcare industry grew in Appalachia. I tried my best to answer his questions and give a broader understanding of miner retraining and economic development issues in the region. Unfortunately, the article was published just as I was heading back home to help with a family emergency. I became aware of it just today.
Let me start by saying that I am beyond angry with the title of the article and the image Bloomberg chose. The photo was a quick snapshot, catching two coal workers off guard with the intent of portraying them as senseless animals being enticed with a treat. Is it any wonder that we are upset with urban elitism and the so called “left” media? As I stated in my Yes! Magazine article, stereotyping Appalachians (in this case as being unintelligent) feeds directly into the divisive rhetoric spread by conservative politicians and coal industry associations. It is often so brazen, I honestly wonder if this isn’t the intent.
In terms of my quotes, I did NOT infer that people were actively avoiding retraining or other careers because of gender stereotypes and gender roles within the region. My quote, like the photo, was a snippet of a conversation that lasted 15 minutes. The issue is complex and leaves a great deal of room for speculation.
There is a lot of pride and heritage in coal mining, but very few coal miners would stick with a career in the mines if job alternatives with similar wages and benefits were available in the region.
When it comes to why miners weren’t jumping at job opportunities created by the health care industry, I did state that miners who were already involved in local emergency medical services and rescue squads could easily transition into such work, but there are many miners who would not consider it. This was not to say that they are incapable of the job, or that they have been institutionalized by the coal industry. I tried to explain that it would be a different environment to work in, and many would not pursue it for the same reason a large portion of our population does not pursue jobs in the healthcare industry. It takes a specific type of person to engage in the duties fulfilled by nurses and surgical staff.
I did speculate that many miners were holding out hope for Trump bringing back coal jobs and that many do not participate in retraining because of the lack of jobs available as they exit retraining. I also mentioned that some may fear that companies would not hire them if officials believed they were pursuing career alternatives. The coal industry has a very captive workforce at the moment, and they are seeking only the most dedicated miners to exploit.
This article is just more media misrepresentation of Appalachia not unlike what Ivy Brashear spoke to in her article “Why Media Must Stop Misrepresenting Appalachia.” Speaking of which, stay tuned as I will be addressing Hillbilly Elegy in the near future.