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.
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.”)
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.”)
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.”)