The CARES Act is not Cutting It: Eastern Kentuckians Need More Federal Aid

By Larah Helayne and Ricki Draper.                                                           

First published in the Mountain Citizen, Martin County June 10, 2020

This is just one of over one hundred stories that have been shared by East Kentuckians requesting direct financial relief due to loss of income in the face of the COVID-19 Crisis. This financial relief didn’t come from provisions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the federal legislation passed in March to support families in economic crises. It came from the East Kentucky (EKY) Mutual Aid Network. Long before the COVID-19 health and economic crisis, many families in Eastern Kentucky have worked hard to make ends meet each month. The CARES Act didn’t provide enough support for many families in Eastern Kentucky, and that’s why we, organizers from the EKY Mutual Aid network, are calling on our representatives to do more for our communities and families by providing emergency relief funding to meet every Kentuckian’s basic needs.

EKY Mutual Aid is a new network, formed and led entirely by volunteers, that has emerged in response to the overwhelming need of East Kentuckians, made only more intense by the gravity of this current epidemic. COVID-19 has forced us all to recognize our own vulnerability and need for community support. Therefore, we adopted a mutual aid model that involves a reciprocal exchange of resources with the premise that the unjust distribution of resources in our society is a political issue. EKY Mutual Aid operates under the belief that when communities come together to support each other, every member of the community is stronger – each person has something to offer as well as something they need. The success of EKY Mutual Aid is completely due to an outpouring of communal support. Thus far, 139 individuals have donated over $11,000 to the group’s GoFundMe, which has allowed over 50 families to receive relief. Hundreds of people have shared the fundraiser on social media, and it has been amplified by other mutual aid groups, and various non-profits throughout the Appalachian region. Beyond providing financial relief, EKY Mutual Aid has started a Facebook group with over 600 members, where people can seek and share resources, such as masks, hand sanitizer, and gardening supplies. Twice a week, the group hosts virtual meetings to discuss fundraiser progress, possible expansions in the type of aid provided, and to highlight the work of other mutual aid organizations. The group is made up of students, parents, non-profit employees, musicians, artists, gig-workers, and community members from Letcher, Pike, Montgomery, Floyd, Knott, Martin, and Elliott counties, all with a common goal: empower our communities to come together and help one another in this trying time, and beyond.

Our experience with Eastern KY Mutual Aid shows the power of solidarity and relying on existing community strengths, but as the crisis continues and the financial futures of more and more individuals remain uncertain, it is hard to keep a fund like this one going. Donations to the GoFundMe are slowing as the crisis continues. The group closed the request form on May 11 to new applicants, and we are currently working hard to fulfill the existing requests on a long waiting list. The need is overwhelming, not just in eastern Kentucky, but across the country. And the fact is, the families hit hardest by this health and economic crisis are those that were already struggling to meet their basic needs.

Eastern Kentuckians are no stranger to challenges and hardship, and we have always taken care of our neighbors in times of need. But we, and families all across the country, urgently need more federal aid to survive this crisis. Federal aid distribution must also take into account populations disproportionately affected by Covid-19, especially Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities. The national protests erupting across the country in response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and countless other unarmed Black people highlight the systemic racism that permeates our society and, though no federal aid package will be able to address the systemic inequities that this pandemic and past weeks have further revealed, congress can start to address these inequities by ensuring that those that need the most support are not left out. The CARES Act, one of the federal government’s initial relief efforts, offered only a fraction of what is needed. Many individuals were left out of the package and it did nothing to help bolster our state budget. Without adequate funding for state services like healthcare and education, those left out of the initial CARES Act, like people already unemployed, caretakers of elderly relatives or children under 17, and low-income earners, will be left to struggle without even the basic services they’ve depended on from our state.

            The next package of legislation must address the failures of the previous relief act. Legislation must prioritize every family’s basic needs: safe and secure housing, access to healthy food and clean and affordable drinking water, and medical care. To meet these needs, EKY Mutual Aid and a host of other community-based organizations believe that the act must include: a flexible emergency assistance fund to be administered by states that can provide assistance to those that don’t qualify for other aid; an increase in SNAP benefits to help pay for the meals of children home from school and allow families to buy more in one trip to the grocery store; housing vouchers for rental assistance, and relief for states. State fiscal relief is critical to ensuring that our recession does not deepen into a depression. The HEROES Act, legislation that passed the House of Representatives earlier this month, provides a SNAP benefits increase, support for states, and some additional rental assistance funds. It is crucial that Senator Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, take action now to move this legislation forward in the senate. There is no time to wait.

We know how to take care of ourselves and each other, but in order to make it through this crisis, we need government officials and all those in political power to take initiative, and do what is necessary to provide East Kentuckians and all Americans with the relief and support they need. Join EKY Mutual Aid in demanding federal legislation that adequately addresses the needs of East Kentuckians, and all those who too often fall through the cracks created by an unjust system. Contact your legislators today. Send a letter to Senator McConell by following this link: We will get through this together; and that means all of us must play our part.

“When I received the $200, it felt like the biggest burden had been lifted from my shoulders. My parents are both high risk to COVID-19, and their extra money had been going toward different cleaning products and supplies… We’re normally proud people and would never ask for help. I put all of that aside and I am so glad I did. I wish everyone knew how much this organization has helped the people who live right here in the mountains. Thank you all again for not making me feel like a charity case.” 

UPDATE: Since this article was published, EKY Mutual Aid has distributed over $15,000 to Eastern Kentuckians affected by Covid-19.

Preventing the Preposterous: Kinder-Morgan Pipeline Unpurposed

By Craig Williams

In February 2015, Kinder- Morgan, Inc., one of the nation’s largest energy infrastructure companies, proposed the re-purposing of 964 miles of their 70+ year old 24 inch pipeline from transporting Natural Gas (NG) to transporting Natural Gas Liquids (NGL). One needn’t be a genius to realize it would take more pressure to move a liquid through the pipeline than to move a gas. But, that was just the beginning of our concerns. 

Upon digging a little deeper, it became apparent that there were many additional risks associated with this proposal, such as leaks, explosions, water and land contamination and the like. The pipeline company also wanted to reverse the flow from South to North using this antiquated line, so fracking materials destined for export could be moved to the Gulf from PA and OH. People began to question the potential risks associated with this proposal.

It didn’t take long for them to recognize this was a plan that prioritized profit over people and to begin organizing against it. Efforts were initiated to bring citizens, organizations, governments, and institutions out in opposition to this plan in an organized fashion. Legal strategies were developed as an additional tool to protect communities along the route. The Kentucky Environmental Foundation (KEF), a project under LiKEN, worked with local, city, and county governments, academic institutions, and economic development organizations to educate, and to urge vocal opposition to the proposal. 

Over the course of the following three and a half years, KEF was able to get more than fifteen of these types of entities to not only vocally come out in their respective communities, but, also, to send letters directly to the Kinder-Morgan President and CEO urging them to cease and desist. All were copied to the appropriate Congressional officials, as well as the federal agencies responsible for issuing permits to begin the project. Two counties went so far as to pass their own ordinances requiring conditional permits be issued by them prior to the project moving forward. (See joint Press Release for a list of entities who made public statements against the pipeline re-purposing). 

Meanwhile, grassroots efforts to educate the general public were vigorously undertaken to provide the underpinning needed to increase the political pressure objectives. In addition, legal actions were taken to challenge the pro-project decrees issued by the federal agencies along the way. These efforts were bolstered by presentations by scientists and documentation of problems associated with similar proposals. This multifaceted approach eventually tipped the scales in favor of communities. On October 2, 2018 Kinder-Morgan filed a request to vacate the certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity previously issued, that would have allowed the project to proceed. KEF and LiKEN are proud of the role they played in achieving this victory on behalf of the public’s health and safety and the protection of our collective environment. 

The Beginning of the End

An effort that began nearly 35 years ago has finally come to fruition as the destruction of the last stockpile of chemical weapons in the United States is set to begin. Craig Williams, Director of Kentucky Environmental Foundation, along with many others, fought to make sure this process was safe for the community around them.  We are proud to see the results of so much hard work.

The Beginning of the End

by Craig Williams

In 1984 the Army announced their plans to incinerate the 500+ tons of chemical warfare agents contained in 101,000 weapons stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, Kentucky. On May 28th, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held to mark the start of operations at the neutralization facility at the Depot to finally begin disposal of these weapons of mass destruction.

In the 35 years it took to get to that point, the citizens in Central Kentucky fought an elongated battle to change the Pentagon’s approach of the open-ended combustion technology to a more contained, manageable, protective  and safer method of destroying these weapons. A true David vs Goliath tale that ended the same way as that story. The communities prevailed – but it was challenging to say the least. The good news is that operations have begun, and within a few years the weapons will be relegated to the history books. This will not only relieve the immediate community to the risks associated with storing these weapons of war, but will also bring the U.S. into compliance with the International Treaty requiring global destruction.

The Kentucky Environmental Foundation (KEF) and the grassroots groups across the country and around the world who formed the Chemical Weapons Working Group under KEF’s banner were relentless in their pursuit of methods that provided maximum protection to the workers, the communities and the environment while pursuing this noble objective. Now, we are at the final stages of our and our Nation’s effort to eliminate these weapons.

“Stories of Place Project: Martin County, Kentucky leads the Way”

By Mary Hufford, Director of Stories of Place

The Stories of Place, Martin County team, photographed during a field trip to Appalshop in Whitesburg.  Photo by Willa Johnson.

Nina McCoy, Ricki Draper, and Mickey McCoy reviewing a map of Martin County that is
used during Stories of Place meetings with students. Map courtesy of Aaron Guest.
Photo by Mary Hufford.

“Working with youth to gather and present the stories of elders, Stories of Place engages multiple generations in the discovery and renewal of places that matter most to Central Appalachian communities”

In August 2018, with the support of a Whiting Fellowship awarded to Karen Rignall (faculty member  with the Community and Leadership Development program of the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment), LiKEN launched its Stories of Place program at Sheldon Clark High School, in Inez, Kentucky. As director of LiKEN’s Stories of Place Program, I have been working with Karen Rignall, project coordinator in Martin County, Ricki Draper, a fellow with the Highlander Institute, and Sheldon Clark faculty members Allison Leip (English) and Christin Roberson (Science). Our community adviser is Nina McCoy, who formerly taught biology at Sheldon Clark High School.  Twenty high school sophomores gather each week for Stories of Place meetings. They are developing the skills needed to conduct documentary interviews with elders in the community. They are also learning GIS mapping skills, and in the spring they will meet with Willa Johnson, of Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute, for training in editing and producing podcasts. 

Stories of Place students locating their homes and special places on a map of Martin
County during the first meeting. Photo by Allison Leip.

Thinking of Stories of Place as applied narrative ecology, we approach “place” as an ecosystem  that depends on the stories we tell for its ongoing renewal. What are the environmental and social conditions that sustain storytelling in our communities? And how does storytelling nurture environment and society together?  Working with youth to gather and present the stories of elders, Stories of Place engages multiple generations in the discovery and renewal of places that matter most to Central Appalachian communities. Our curriculum introduces students to the unique legacies of the mixed mesophytic forests of the region, as they identify and explore landscapes and histories shaped by more than a century of coal and timber extraction.  Through discussions of the work of Appalachian writers and filmmakers, students learn to tell the stories of their communities. On the way they meet with and learn about key figures and institutions in the region’s cultural history, including a field trip to Appalshop in Whitesburg in October, and an upcoming visit from Gurney Norman, who grew up in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky, and who from 2009 – 2010 was Kentucky’s poet laureate.  

Talking with community partners in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia, as well as with members of Indigenous communities in the Western U.S., we hear a persistent refrain: Distracted by technologies of the digital age, we pay less attention to our local surroundings, and to the communications between young people and elders that strengthen communities of land and people. Stories of place uses digital technology to address both rifts, and to engage youth and elders in planning for the future of their communities.  

Poster at the entrance to Sheldon Park High School advertising Stories of Place. Twenty sophomores signed up. Photo by Mary Hufford.

Central Appalachian Folk and Traditional Arts Spring Summit

CAFTA advisors, field team members, and LiKENeers assembled for a
group photo on a windy day, closing out the first of three Summits at Eupepsia
Wellness Center, in Bland VA: from left: Cassie Patterson, Eric Lassiter, Jordan
Lovejoy, Ellesa Clay High, Sophia Enriquez, Crystal Good, Katie Hoffman, Robert
Colby, Christina Benedetti, Nicole Musgrave, Danille Christensen, Jess Porter,
Melissa Biliter, Travis Stimeling, Tammy Clemons, Mary Hufford, Doris Fields, Drew
Carter, Betsy Taylor, and Michael Gallimore.

At the end of April 2019, LiKEN joined the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation (MAAF) in
launching the Central Appalachian Folk and Traditional Arts (CAFTA) survey. Under contract with MAAF, LiKEN is directing a fifteen month survey of 112 Central Appalachian Counties in Virginia, Ohio, and West Virginia. Identifying folk and traditional arts, practitioners, as well as existing forms of support for them within the region, the survey will inform the development of a new multi-state program designed to promote the understanding, recognition, and practice of diverse forms of folk and traditional arts in Central Appalachia, including those of newly arrived and emerging communities as well as those that are well-established. Advisers and fieldworkers convened for two days at the Eupepsia Wellness Center in Bland Virginia for the first of three summits, to share information and ideas for research that is now underway.
For more information on the project, please contact:
Jess Porter, Program Officer, 
Mary Hufford, CAFTA Fieldwork Director, LiKEN,

Project Overview Map created by Melissa Biliter.

CAFTA fieldworkers Nicole Musgrave, Michael Gallimore, and Jordan Lovejoy,
developing work plans for researching their counties.  Photo by Betsy Taylor.

LiKENeers Mary Hufford and Melissa Biliter, leading discussion of methods for
fieldworkers’ preliminary surveys of their counties. Photo by Betsy Taylor.

Energy Transitions & the First West: The Complex Histories of Appalachia’s Emerging Futures.

On May 1, 2019 LiKEN’s Executive Director, Betsy Taylor was invited to speak at the National Academy of Sciences.  The forum was organized by the Academy’s Geographical Sciences Committee, to explore the “Effects of Energy Transition on Opportunities in Rural America”.

In this thirty minute presentation she summarizes some of the legacy impacts of fossil fuel extraction in the region. At the same time, she shares the many assets of Appalachia that have the potential to improve livelihoods and provide new public revenues in a regenerative economy.  While many focus on the problems in Appalachia’s past, Dr. Taylor brings to light the potential in Appalachia’s future.  

Appalachia can provide vital assets to the nation in the 21st century.


  • Water scarcity (drought, contaminants, etc.) 
  • Extreme weather events, flooding
  •  Greenhouse gases accumulated from 2 centuries of carbon energy systems
  • Climate migration (non-human & human)
  • Phasing out of long supply chains
  • Decentralized, distributed energy systems


  • High rainfall region
  • Carbon sink potential
  • Propinquity to major population centers of the east coast
  • Climate refugia
  • Mega-biodiversity, buffering capacity, resilience
  • Moderate capacity for renewable energy A

Welcoming Remarks: 00:23
Julia Haggerty, Montana State University: 10:35
Betsy Taylor, LiKEN: 47:34
Dustin Mulvaney, San Jose State University: 1:31:02
Questions for the Panel: 2:17:23

The Rising Voices Impact

– Vera Petrovic, Lawrence High School, Kansas

It is almost dark. The sky is a dusky blue, and meets the murky waters of Lake Superior at the horizon line. Elongated grey waves approach me, and their foamy resolution echoes sweetly in my ears. The professor guiding my research group bends down to touch the water. He smiles. “You can drink it,” he says. “It’s that pure.”

Rising Voices 6 participants at Lake Superior. Photo courtesy of Sara Herrin.

I visited Duluth, Minnesota in April 2018, my junior year of high school. The waterfront city was hosting the 6th annual Rising Voices: Climate Resilience through Indigenous and Earth Sciences workshop, and I attended as a research assistant for LiKEN, the co-organizer. Both my father and brother had been involved with Rising Voices, but this was the first year I was actively participating in the workshop, compiling information for the public workshop report. My job was to listen and observe. I spent three attentive days with individuals at the forefront of climate advocacy, and a month later, when I sat down to write the report, I had no shortage of material to expound upon.

When I think of Rising Voices, I am reminded immediately of its warmth. People laughing and hugging, enjoying food and company, sharing stories and wisdom. I have little experience with professional workshops, but from what I do know, the atmosphere of Rising Voices is distinctly welcoming. It gathers together activists, scholars, and scientists, and most importantly, enables a discussion where Indigenous voices are heard and heeded. Indigenous knowledge is the pillar of climate knowledge, and it is fittingly the focus of Rising Voices. The conference takes a widespread and publicized issue–the impending threat of climate change–and presents adaptive solutions through a lens of traditional ecological knowledge. It is truly a revolutionary approach, because it combines both Western and Indigenous knowledge in a single exploratory event. 

Rising Voices is an enlightening experience, but its greatest value comes in its wisdom.  I remember Daniel Wildcat, Acting Vice-President for Academics, Haskell Indian Nations University, musing that perhaps “society has developed too much.” To listen to the speakers of Rising Voices is to take a pause from a fast-paced and urban approach to life and science. To listen deeply is to understand that climate resiliency and prosperity comes from honoring the Earth, as indigenous communities have done for centuries. Rising Voices is almost narrative in its nature, because so many of its speakers reflect on their personal connection to the land. Such a personal interest, in turn, prompts strengthened and consistent action. 

Water from Lake Superior, shared during the Opening Ceremony of RV6. Photo courtesy of Craig Elevitch.

I touch a finger to the water, and it is frigid. The professor bends down next to me, and takes a handful in his palm. He raises the seeping water to his mouth and drinks. Behind us, other members of the group marvel at the waves and walk slowly along the black rocks. As I watch them quietly delight in the view of Lake Superior, my stomach swells with gratefulness. I realize how grateful I am to be here, along Lake Superior, with people from the Rising Voices workshop, a gathering that cherishes a personal connection to the natural world and encourages a traditional ecological approach as the first combatant to climate change. 

Banish The Word Struggle, And Celebrate Us!

By Dr. Simona Perry, Director, LiKEN Civic Professionalism Program

“There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift, that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The Elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above the water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a screeching halt. Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.”  (Indigenous teachings from ChoQosh Auh’Ho’Oh’)

These medicine words are attributed to the Iroquois Elder, Uncle John. And in my work and relationship with communities and families on the frontlines of unconventional oil and gas energy developments, Uncle John’s medicine, more than any other teaching I have found, captures the paradoxical feelings of fear, expectation, and at the same time, hope that grips these communities. It is also a teaching for each of us about each of our roles in overcoming prejudice and fear of the unknown, celebrating and cultivating collective action, and fostering resilience and hope in what sometimes feels like a hopeless situation.


From the fractured shale fields of rural Appalachia to my work with the Pipeline Safety Coalition, I have walked along the right-of-ways, driven along the rail-lines and roadways that transport hazardous materials and natural gas across the mountains and farm fields, under the rivers, across the suburbs, and into metropolitan cities and ports. I have followed the lives of local citizens and communities as they experience a variety of painful and sometimes life-changing lessons. Lessons about water and food security and access to appropriate health care. Lessons on right-to-know laws and what it means to expect (and demand) more from your government at the state, local, and national levels. We’ve learned lessons about the power and at the same time the fallibility of Western science and scientific methods. And there have been critical lessons on how our civil and human rights, current well-being, and future prosperity are so intimately linked with ecological processes and environmental protection.


Prayer Rocks overlooking the Susquehanna River. Photograph by Simona Perry.


I have witnessed alongside these communities the disregard for environmental laws on hazardous wastes, the gaps in our country’s drinking water and air regulations, how national security threats and demands for patriotism are used as tools for silencing and criminalizing dissent, the ways that corporate corruption has infected our democratic processes, and the disgraceful lack of moral grounding among politicians and decision-makers. However, what I have also learned is that there is a strength and contagious power to the voices of these courageous citizens and local leaders who have let me into their lives… the mothers, fathers, grandparents, and grandchildren… who have chosen to speak up against corruption and moral and scientific bankruptcy that have allowed for permits to be issued and developments to take place without consideration to the complex and intertwined environmental, health, labor, cultural, and social consequences of oil and gas extraction and transportation and all the related industrial developments. Even farmers who swore up and down to not be environmentalists or activists are now crying out for a new way. As Paul Hawken put it so eloquently, the environmental movement is humanity’s immune response. We are activating healing by speaking out on the part of the earth. Maybe that is what humans being the stewards of all life on earth is really all about.


Spirit Lake. Photograph by Simona Perry.


As an applied environmental scientist and ethnographer, I have conducted research that seeks to understand human-environment relationships, how everyday lived experiences relate to environmental changes, and what this can tell us about social and psychological change as it relates to the places where people live, work, recreate, procreate, grow up, and find solace. In my applied work with frontline communites, this has become a life’s calling. Hand-in-hand with landowners, students, farmers, and some brave local leaders, we have activated grounded knowledge and that wide and deep grassroots network to better inform how we educate and facilitate dialogue around our common struggles regarding local development projects, energy transitions, disaster preparedness, climate change, and long-term planning and public policy, and importantly how we can turn these struggles into strengths.


Remember– banish that word Struggle!

Personally, what drives me beyond the struggle is an intellectual curiosity to understand and document human culture and behavior, and what keeps me driven is the engagement of the emancipatory and empowering potential of simply asking individuals and groups, whom are rarely asked, what is YOUR story? What is important to YOU? What is the glue that holds you personally to your community and place? What does this glue, these connections, say about how the social fabric of your community holds together? And, what does this mean for understanding how this social fabric can become frayed or unravelled? And, here today what does this all mean to US in imagining solidarity across issues, maybe even solidarity beyond issues?


Neponset River Clean up Hyde Park 2013- image from Neponset River Watershed Association. Photograph by Martha McDonough, Neponset River Watershed Association.


Take the case of just one octogenarian farmer and his family from Bradford County, Pennsylvania. When this 80-year old gentleman signed a subsurface and surface lease with a gas company out of Oklahoma for a Marcellus shale gas well and associated infrastructure to be developed on his property he did it for the good of his family, the future of the farm that had been in his family for more than a century, and what he believed to be his own financial best interest. After the gas well was drilled, neighboring families living on the road where the gas well was located found their tap water turning black and producing a smell they said was “hard to describe.” When his adult daughter, who had recently returned from the West Coast to start an organic operation on the farm, found out that there had been problems with the construction of the gas well she wondered, and worried, that the changes in their neighbors’ water could be the result of the drilling of the gas wells on her farm. During an interview she told me, “I mean even neighbors whose wells have been contaminated by our well pad they are so gracious. They don’t even say anything. I would be so angry. I was worried about that. Like I started telling them I am so sorry. They said ‘You didn’t do it. It’s not your fault.’ But, I am so sorry. Our families have generation-after-generation relationships.” These are moments where the struggle is articulated. But they are also the moments when it becomes clear that we are all in this together. That it is about US not ME. And it is about learning from these collective struggles to create a more thriving and resilient collectivity. These very personal and sometimes heart-breaking realizations that what appears to be so good for one person or family can end up being so harmful to other people or an entire neighborhood and place bound together across generations has been a recurring theme throughout my seven years of work on this issue. And, I believe in this work lies one of the other critical teachings from Phillip Deer, an Arapaho Elder, that we all must heed: “The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!”

It is time we let go of the river’s bank, look around and see who is here with us… and I dare you to say, “Celebrate US!”


What Does Appalachia Mean to You?

 By Madeleine Isabella Hall and Savannah Dummer

November 23, 2016

The authors are Appalachian State University students, who are serving as LiKEN Research Assistants in the Fall 2016 term as part of their Anthropology of Environmental Justice class.  In this blog, they describe their experiences as participants in the September 30 meeting of a new working group to study ownership of land, coal, oil, gas, and other minerals in Appalachia.  Co-hosted by LiKEN, this meeting took place in Lexington KY. For more on this new Appalachian Land Study, please go to


“For decades, Appalachians have been told what we want and need. And I am fed up with that.  So we need to hear from you! What do you want to see? What do you want?” – Landra  Lewis


Community members began by introducing themselves by name along with why they loved Appalachia, starting with a letter from the alphabet. Bill Price kicked it off with,  “We all love Appalachia because it’s awesome, with an A, get it?”, expressing, as did many others, how beautiful, picturesque, and inspiring this region the people gathered for the first Appalachia Ownership Land Study meeting on Sept 30 in Lexington KY.


Many participants gave more intimate responses that offered a peek into how Appalachia is more than just an escape from the city or a part of the backwoods stereotype.


“Its shared its secrets with me”, Mary Cerillo.

“It’s just”, Mary Hufford.

“It’s righteous”, Shanna Scott.

“It’s youth”, Ashlee Lane.




Understand, Support, Empower, and Inform

Each and every community member, researcher, activist, grassroots member, and organizer who has a stake in this land study inspired the artwork displayed here. Painted in the center, are the Appalachian mountains with the main components of the new land study written in the peaks to show their importance in the community taking back this region. The hands symbolize the community members, as a whole, with academics (tassel) and the legal system (scales) all working together. Some groups, including labor unions, economic development groups, and the deep-southern states are written along the hands to better represent their involvement. Each member in a community should have an equal part and say in this process.

The tassel wrapped around one of the fingers in a nod to the original Appalachian Land Ownership Study of 1979, because we are building upon it. In between the hands, is a pine tree that symbolizes grassroots organizations that are making a real comeback in this collective collaboration. As Carol Judy puts it, “…this is a time for grassroots academia and grassroots strategists”. Marie Cirillo discussed successful grassroots efforts where land trusts were created in rural towns, and suggested that research into the question of “why can’t community land trusts work?” should materialize. She also added that she felt like “…we don’t have a place in planning anymore”.


An important step in the new land study is to establish agency for every single individual and a platform on which they can act together. The tree also symbolizes growth in the community to work together on issues (each tree branch) that were caused by the coal industry in this region. Such issues include deforestation, poverty, relocation, erosion, pollution, and exploitation of the community. Carol Judy brought up the importance of the temperate rain forest and watersheds and asked, “When does government have responsibility in broader based commons?” Davie Ransdell discussed generational leases where people may be leasing land from coal companies, but do not own the land or the mineral rights. She added that this would make records not easily available, if they even exist. Joe Childers chimed in to describe how permits can even overlap. Davie voiced her concerns over the issue of property being passed down through the generations to multiple heirs, resulting in unclear ownership and decision-making left out of the hands of landowners.


Above the mountains, is a pair of eyes that shed tears not of sadness but of joy. They were inspired by the reaction of a member who attended the first Appalachia Ownership Land Study meeting in Lexington, KY; Deborah Bahr.  Carol Judy turned to her to say, “…realizing the pearls of the moment” as Deborah had tears of relief from the sprouts of communal action unfolding.  This is a sign of healing. This meeting is giving hope for the future and that’s what this painting is all about–healing in Appalachia and in what this beautiful region means to its people. It’s about every single Appalachian dweller taking back their home by being informed, empowered, and supported by one another. These tears are no longer tears of sadness but joy and relief that a very promising new land study is already underway and participants are growing in number. Our vision is to make data and knowledge, in general, more accessible to everyone through digitizing it in a language everyone can understand.


Art is a powerful tool for advocacy and sharing knowledge. It’s also a testament to the fact that there are many routes that can be taken to spread information, to speak to the hearts of every stakeholder. One member voiced that visual and descriptive models for change are needed to accompany quantitative data. Every person has a different set of skills and background that can be valuable and open up the door to more resources that can used for this land study. This is not a process that is reserved for just professionals and academics. All walks of life and all forms of expertise are vital.

Planning and Action: The Appalachian Land Study 2016

 By Madeleine Isabella Hall and Savannah Dummer

November 23, 2016

The authors are Appalachian State University students, who are serving as LiKEN Research Assistants in the Fall 2016 term as part of their Anthropology of Environmental Justice class.  In this blog, they describe their experiences as participants in the September 30 meeting of a new working group to study ownership of land, coal, oil, gas, and other minerals in Appalachia.  Co-hosted by LiKEN, this meeting took place in Lexington KY. For more on this new Appalachian Land Study, please go to


Scoping out the room at the Hunter Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall, every single participant’s expression and tone of conversation rang to their passion to bring environmental justice to their community and to Appalachia. We were overwhelmed by the sense of community in this room.  All sorts of people were attending, including but not limited to, lawyers, herbalists, professors, college students, and anthropologists, all of which comprised a coalition of activists collaborating at the first planning meeting for the new Appalachian Land Ownership study. Over 65 individuals from Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Canada gathered in discussion about a collaborative design process for carrying on the original land study in the midst of new comparative data and knowledge sharing technologies.


In this September 30th meeting, we began the effort to revitalize a monumental grassroots meets scholarship movement. The meeting was on a limited time frame, from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm to be specific. Therefore, around 65 incredibly intelligent, concerned and passionate citizen activists had the task of solidifying these 6 deeply complex questions:

  1. What is the mission?
  2. What the goals/vision of the new land study are?
  3. Why is this land study important?
  4. Who is/should be participating?
  5. How can people get involved?
  6. Immediate next steps?


With this report we highlight the origins of the land study, the present social and political context in the region that could influence the outcome of the project, and most of all, the imperative for transparency between the state, the academy, and the people.


In 1979, the first Appalachia Ownership Land study was a collaboration of activists, scholars, and Appalachians to determine who owns Appalachia. Discourses of activism, community organizing, and academic research ensued with different goals and definitions in regards to land ownership and use in a post-coal transition. With that in mind, in the September 30th meeting, these three dynamics were brought together to discuss the first steps to creating a community-based participatory movement.


The original land study’s findings emphasized taxation, especially of mining corporations owning mineral rights. One issue was that corporations and absentee owners were paying low tax rates for both land and minerals. This reflects the lack of information available to citizens in affected areas. Important information about the land is not publicly accessible, if it even exists at all.


In 2008 Shaunna Scott, one of the attendees at the meeting, published an article in the Journal of Appalachian Studies, “The Appalachian Land Ownership Study Revisited”. Her article brought to light what this meeting finally can accomplish, almost 10 years later.  Scott quotes Charles Winfrey a Highlander staffer,  “We didn’t want another study to get put on a shelf that gets pulled down by some PhD who wants to cite it. We want it to be disseminated to the region to be used as a catalyst to organize and make some changes.”


Top Priorities (as expressed by meeting members):

  • Extraction of knowledge
  • Environmental protection
  • Economic transition/development (What does this imply? Why would this be a controversial subject?)
  • Civil rights (right to land and local resource control)
  • Enabling low income families to own land
  • More transparent land ownership
    • Big Data and creating a database that is accessible to all is important in this process


Why is this new land study important?

In the post-coal realm, updating the Appalachian Ownership Land Study is vital for answering “who owns Appalachia?” in order to regain the land lost economically and environmentally to the coal industry. The coal industry has left a legacy of pollution, health risks, and liabilities. They need to be held accountable so that they are in the public eye for their wrongdoings. Fragmentation of land, absentee landownership, questionable land ownership/boundaries, and unincorporated towns, among many other issues call for the need to collect data on land ownership as well as making that data accessible to all. Participants were asked to share the information they believed needed to be collected and what should be done with that knowledge.

Several subjects that came up involved the difficulties of mapping land ownership due to discrepancies in land surveys, such as the acreage not being measured accurately, and bankrupt land still being owned by the corporation.

The new study is paving the way for restoration and transparency. Dr. William Schumann, a graduate professor in Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, brought up an interesting point.


“Mobilize this to plug into policy discussions. Make it comparable and connect it to other resource extraction issues” says Dr. Schumann, in regards to project design and outreach. This hints that there should a clear stance in the top priorities, like reinserting local voices, but also framing the work in a way that speaks to bureaucrats, and also speaks to the state with human stories.


The last group discussion was about who and what was under-represented at this meeting and in the study. In the spirit of collective activism, and the current social movements taking place, being able to connect the environmental justice fights happening across the nation and the world seemed extremely vital to the legitimacy of this project as well. Karen Rignall, a Cultural Anthropologist and professor at University of Kentucky, explained her work in Morocco regarding land ownership, saying that there are “…commonalities of land struggles all around the world”. This study is not only a fight for Appalachia and the deep South in a post coal transition, but, is in the forefront of a groundbreaking, nationwide, revolution to take back the land.


Overall, from reflecting back on interviews and photos, after this quick but foundational meeting, there seemed to be a fire lit in each and every participant. All members were ready to take back what they learned and ignite a fire in their communities.


After the meeting, a few key categories addressing immediate action and further information on getting involved were identified:

Stakeholders- who was at the meeting and who should participate

  1. Concerned Citizens
    • Any and all community members including but not limited to: artists, farmers, entrepreneurs, landowners, citizens not involved in grassroots groups, communities with land trusts, healers (health impacts/land restoration), peoples of unincorporated localities

  2. Government/Legal/Professionals
    • Including but not limited to: local government officials, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), policy makers, state agencies, tax collectors/assessors, lawyers, and professional organizations

  3. Non-Profit Organizations
    • Including but not limited to: ecotourism organizations, Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN), watershed/groups and organizations, Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY), and KY Student Environmental Coalition (KSEC)

  4. Academics
    • Including but not limited to: local universities represented across the region, researchers (i.e., West Virginia Land Study researchers), community and technical colleges/schools

  5. Donors
    •  Including but not limited to: funders, donor networks, land conservation groups, local media


Examples of Stakeholders Needing More Representation:

  • Labor (unions/workers): UMWA, boiler-workers, AFL-CIO > state level engagement
  • Deep Southern Appalachian states
  • Educators (reformists)
  • Cooperatives (living wage economics)
  • Economic development organizations
  • Indigenous and tribal groups/nations
  • Hispanic & Latino/a groups
  • Anti-poverty groups


What are some of the things the community can do?

  1. Organize local planning committees
  2. Attend meetings/focus groups
  3. Media coverage
  4. Use access to help get grants
  5. Mapping
  6. Web development
  7. Research
  8. Training


What is the immediate call to action?

  1. Assembling the data already out there, already accessible in each region.
  2. Analyze that data, cross reference (if possible)
  3. Establish what is missing?
  4. Go find and digitize what is missing.
  5. Digitize it all.


What did the meeting’s participants want the land study to accomplish?

Including but not limited to:

  • Understanding land ownership
  • Supporting land reform
  • Supporting accountability for pollution
  • Empowering communities
  • Informing economic development strategy


If you want to be involved, go to the Land Study website:


Or,  contact your community organizer: