Community Center Seeks to Re-Knit Divided Community

Last Updated: September 29, 2010

This article appeared in the September 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

The Coal River Valley community in southern West Virginia celebrated the opening of a new community center this month. The center, located in Whitesville (near the Boone-Raleigh County line), has a greenhouse, community gardens, a canning kitchen, arts and crafts center, and business incubator. And, it has already begun hosting a variety of community activities like movie nights, workshops where residents share skills, and social events like dances and music shows.

“We are celebrating our community coming together to make the place where we stand on the earth a better place for us all,” says Lorelei Scarron, a local resident who helped the center off the ground. She is also the Raleigh County Fellow with Challenge West Virginia.

Hard Times, Deep Divides

“Coming together” is a key goal for the center in what has been a deeply divided rural community, one troubled by hard times — for a long time.

Coal River Valley lies in the heart of West Virginia’s coalfields. As underground mining slowly gives way to surface mining, there’s been increasing division about environmental effects on the land and water and on the community and its residents.

Some of those divisions got played out in a controversy over Marsh Fork Elementary, the community’s only school. The school sits within 300 feet of a large coal processing facility and just below a multi-billion gallon toxic coal waste sludge pond, which is itself just below a mountaintop removal surface mine. Some residents feel these coal operations threaten the safety and health of the school’s students and have fought for a new school building somewhere else in the community. Other people, including some who have supported a new school, deny the threats. Just this year, plans have been announced to build a new school in another location in the community.

The Coal River Valley is also the site of Massey Energy Corporation’s Upper Big Branch mine, where an explosion in April of this year killed 29 miners. The losses were devastating, and tensions ran high as residents, company officials, and investigators often disagreed over what happened and why and what should be done about it.

In communities where poverty rates are high, jobs are few, and residents feel that expressing their point of view might put themselves or people they care about at risk of some kind of backlash, relations are often strained. Those strains can be especially painful in rural communities where people are deeply interconnected and where many residents feel strongly attached to the place, the land, and the local culture.

And in places like Raleigh County, where the apparatus and pressures of multi-national economic forces come bearing down on small communities, demanding that local residents make choices most people never have to think about, things can get very personal and very difficult.

“We live in a mono-economy,” says Scarbro. “There are no choices. You either work in the coal industry, or you pretty much don’t work. Because we have no choices, we’re at the disposal of big coal.”

Scarbro grew up in the coalfields. Her father and husband were miners and several close relatives work in the industry today. She’s careful not to attack people for their industry associations, but she also speaks out about the environmental impacts of certain kinds of coal mining, especially the practice of mountaintop removal, which explodes the tops of mountains into nearby valleys and streams so that seams of coal can be scraped off. For a number of years she worked as an organizer with the environmental group Coal River Mountain Watch.

Drawing on Rural Roots

“I felt a desperate need to be creative,” says Scarbro, “ and to help people around me do that again, too. There’s so much talent in our community, but most of us were not using our talents or being creative because the community is oppressed and permanently impoverished. I really wanted to go back into the community and get people together.”

While tensions in the Coal River Valley community are deep, there is also a recognition that the community needs to rebuild itself.

The invitation to the grand opening of the community center says: “We believe we must heal this very divided community and to heal we must find common ground. To find common ground we must have neutral territory, a ‘Third Place’ where we can come together and work together.”

Much of that common ground is rooted in the common rural culture that local residents share. “We believe if we can grow, harvest, process and market [produce and crafts] locally we will all be healthier and wealthier,” writes Scarbro.

She continues, “We can share our skills and learn from others. We want to pass down those time-honored traditions such as canning, quilting, music and many more to the next generations. We are bridging the gap with the knowledge experience and wisdom that comes with age and the education, dedication and ideas that come with youth.”

Already the center is renting space to crafters (who are invited to donate 10% of their profits to the Center), the greenhouses are operational with a local resident who staffs them, the center is working with the USDA to become certified for food processing and distribution, and a board of directors if in place and working.

“We’re trying to do this in a way that doesn’t take sides,” says Scarbro. “We’ve committed to park our differences at the door and create opportunities to make life better for everybody.”

That commitment to healing and to the community itself is one that many people can recognize and appreciate.

“As a community organizer,” reflects Scarbro, “I learned that what the people of the Coal River Valley needed the most was hope, and I think it starts here.”

Read more from the September 2010 Rural Policy Matters.