I trace my roots back quite a ways in Appalachia. The hills and hollows of Georges Fork have been my family’s home going back nine generations (ten for my children). For the longest time I tried to live and raise my kids in the same valley so familiar to us, all while abiding by my parent’s wishes to avoid a career in the mines.
I managed it for about ten years, but eventually, the money and lack of other opportunities made coal mining the most logical choice to support my family. I proudly joined the ranks of my forefathers—five generations of coal miners who selflessly risked life, limb, and breath to feed, cloth, and shelter their families. My first job was as a subcontractor working at mine sites all over West Virginia, Kentucky, and near my home in southwest Virginia. I was eventually hired on full time at one of the largest mines in Virginia not far from my home. They started me and other red hats out as equipment operators to fill much-needed positions. I cut my teeth on a roof bolter and shuttle car before I joined the weekend maintenance crew working the hootowl and getting my mine electrical papers a year later.
Sadly, it wasn’t a union mine. By that time, the union was pretty much busted and they weren’t interested in fixing the situation: the companies had won and we were at their beck and call. So was life. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In fact, the harder you worked and sacrificed, the more it fed into that pride, heritage, and dignity which sustained our families for years. You just made the best of it you could, and $72k a year sure made things a lot easier—even if you were often too tired to spend it.
It seemed like little was going to change. We were set to roll with the punches of the industry, paying off debts and putting money back to avoid the pitfalls of layoffs, just as my dad and grandads did. A few years later, our lives would be changed forever.
In 2010 we lost everything we owned in a fire that consumed my great grandparent’s homeplace overnight. As we sifted through the ashes of our lives and everything that led up to that point, something changed inside me. I was no longer afraid. I stopped taking the bullshit being dished out to me by backstabbing co-workers and mine management and I started standing up for myself instead of cowering beneath the threat of losing the best paying job in the area. A little over a month later I had finally had enough and found the courage to quit my job. Life became more about living than earning a wage to the detriment of my family’s health and well being.
The company, it’s politics, and the way they pitted us against each other to drive production had left its impression on me. In the years that would come, I found myself joining the ranks of people already fighting the companies. Without the union, those people tended to be environmentalists. Some were ours; some came from other areas of the mountains; some came from way the hell away from the mountains. Nevertheless, through them, I learned a great deal about the more intricate issues of surface mining. Everything I had ignored, everything I hadn’t thought deeply about, hit me like runaway coal truck.
We left our valley a year later and moved to Berea, Kentucky, a town with a college and an amazing history. It was a hotbed of progressive thought with deep ties to Appalachia and social justice. I hoped perhaps I could find a new life working in energy efficiency or renewables. For a year we struggled, but my involvement with the local church and some of the faculty from the college encouraged me to go back to school at the age of 32.
To say it was a transformative time would be an understatement. I learned that my failure as a student in high school was less about my abilities than it was the school system. I realized many more truths about my Appalachian home, and indeed the outside forces that manipulated and abused us beyond just coal. I also found out first hand how some organizations usurp our fights for justice to build their own financial base, complete with careers for people who were not from the area. I saw quickly how coal miners were being looked down upon and pushed away by the same organizations who were supposedly fighting for their children’s health. Four years later I graduated Berea College with a B.A. in communications and additional focuses in Appalachian studies and sustainability and environmental studies. I came away with a broader realization about the jobs vs. environment dichotomy and the powers at play on both sides, each perpetuating the vicious cycle of self-destruction our mountain communities face.
I started Breaking Clean, a communications outfit to operate as a consultant for progressive organizations that were failing miserably to build movements within local communities. On and off this blog has helped connect me to media outlets where I’ve managed to reach a bigger audience. I also began lecturing on Appalachian issues at colleges and universities, hoping to clear the muddy waters and misconceptions about Appalachian people, especially those left in the wake of books like Hillbilly Elegy and the 2016 Presidential Election.
Though it’s been somewhat successful in getting the word out, it’s never been financially stable—if you could even call it that. It doesn’t help that what I say and do is rather contentious, nor does it help that the media is just as exploitive as everyone else.
Over the years I’ve made many friends and many more enemies it seems. I have been attacked by people on all sides for my unpopular opinions and beliefs, both about the detriment of coal to our communities and about the elitism within so-called “justice” organizations. Some may find it interesting that over the years fewer attacks now come from miners and their families as do many liberals and self-professing Appalachian hipsters. I don’t. I struck a nerve and I’ll be damned if I’m not gonna keep striking it until the point gets through. Which all leads me to my present work.
At the moment, I am pursuing my masters in sociology at Virginia Tech. I’m hoping to further my understanding of the forces that manipulate good-hearted people, to seek new ways of fighting for justice for the working poor in every part of our world, and hopefully to bring my own knowledge to academic circles, some of which have proven to be as much a part of our problems as the industries who continue to rule our lives.
In Passionate Hope,