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.”)

Stories: Perry Steele on Summer 1972

Posted 2 years ago

[Contributed by Perry Steele, 15 May 2017]  I was finishing my sophomore year at Vanderbilt. Nixon hadn’t drafted me. For some reason Professor Scott suggested I could be a community organizer. Having no other plans for the summer, I was … 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.”)

  • 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.

  • Byrd Duncan

    Profile: Contributed by: ___ 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 to … Continued

  • John E. Davis

    [Contributed by John E. Davis, August 2015. Burlington, Vermont] I am the eldest son of a Southern couple who moved north for employment after World War II.  Every June, my parents would “go home,” loading their three boys into a station wagon … Continued

  • Marie Cirillo

    [Contributed by John Emmeus Davis, 2015] Marie Cirillo was born in Brooklyn in 1929.  Her father had emigrated from rural Italy.  Her mother had grown up in a small Catholic community in central Kentucky.  Every summer, her mother returned to … 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)

Posted 8 months ago

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)

Posted 8 months ago

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

Posted 3 years ago

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