Looking at activism in West Virginia, past and present

DOUGLAS IMBROGNO | Gazette-Mail
Jim Lewis (right) and Paul Sheridan discuss the activism that has filled their lives as part of an ongoing seminar capturing stories and histories for the West Virginia Activist Archive.

Activists tend to be active in everything but actively recording a story of the change their work leaves behind.

Enter the West Virginia Activist Archive.

“There are a lot of tremendous social change agents in West Virginia that have been doing great work for a long time, and their stories don't tend to get captured. We wanted to catch those stories.” said Michael Tierney, himself an activist for nearly 40 years with the regional nonprofit group Step By Step and many other efforts.

Along with Luke Eric Lassiter, Tierney is co-teaching the graduate seminar “West Virginia Activists: Stories of Social Change,” through the Marshall University Graduate Humanities Program at Marshall's Graduate College/South Charleston Campus.

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As part of the seminar, Tierney and Lassiter, director of the Graduate Humanities Program and a professor of humanities and anthropology, have pulled together a series of panels open to the public (see below). The panels are intended to paint a portrait of some of the people, old and young, at the forefront of social justice, environmental activism, community empowerment, women's rights and other frontline causes across West Virginia.

They hope the panels will not only create a cross-generational dialogue about West Virginia activism, but inspire others to put their own shoulders to the wheel.

“If you really want a sense of joy in your life, hang out with people who are trying to make a difference. Hanging out in a social movement is much more exciting than a lot of the alternatives,” Tierney said.

For Lassiter, activism is where those who may feel frustrated by or “shut out” of the political process can feel they're making an actual difference in their communities.

“I'm an anthropologist, and you see that everywhere — people want to make change in their lives if they're given the opportunity.

“People invest in their communities because they see the return immediately,” Lassiter said. “The point of this is people telling stories of success — and failures — as well. One of my interests in this is 'What keeps people motivated?' What seems to be the answer again and again is that people see actual change. It may be small and localized. But I would say that's just as important as any other kind of change.”

Students taking the class will produce oral histories of some of the panelists, craft posters and gather artifacts for public displays that recall movements, campaigns and issues to which the panelists have devoted their energies and often their lives.

Tierney and Lassiter have cast their net wide for the panels while cautioning that they are “the tip of the iceberg” and the featured activists are certainly not the sole representatives of that panel's theme.

The panels began last Wednesday with “Peace Movement/Multi-Issue Activism,” featuring the Rev. Jim Lewis and Paul Sheridan. Lewis, an Episcopal minister, has for decades been at the forefront of civil rights, LGBT rights and labor and peace movements, while Sheridan has long been an advocate for human and civil rights in the state.

A March 16 panel features Christine Weiss Daugherty, who has kind of come “full circle in her life,” Tierney said. “She came to West Virginia with her late husband, and they founded Great Oak Farm. She was a potter and then got involved with women and economic development. She founded Women and Employment, became an international specialist and across the country, working with the MS Foundation, working with Third World small loan kinds of things.

“Now, she's back in West Virginia and has returned to her pottery roots, but is still kind of a real sage that a bunch of us go to talk with about different things.”

On the younger end of things, Tierney said, “we've got a batch of people coming in talking about children and family advocacy, including Stephen Smith, who's the executive director of the Healthy Kids and Family Coalition. But also a young woman named Takeiya Smith, who is one of the student leaders at West Virginia State University and is looking at issues like the discrepancies and arrest records of African-American juveniles. At the same time, she's working with students to create a safe place for LGBT students on campus.”

Featuring older activists with younger ones speaks to Tierney's against-the-grain, upbeat assessment on the possibility for change in West Virginia. All those articles on the Mountain State's “brain drain” and the ongoing rightward tilt of politics in the state house shouldn't divert attention from the fact that change is afoot across the state.

Tierney joked that he initially wanted to call the West Virginia Activist Archives “the Old Fart Activist Club, which is people who have been doing it a long time.”

But in the last couple of years of putting on such panels with Lassiter, “the dialogue has been really rich when we invited some 20-somethings and 30-somethings,” he said.

“It's very rich to watch the conversations back and forth between people who have been doing it for 30 or 40 years and people who are striking out on that path. I'd say the other piece is — this is just the most exciting time in West Virginia.”

People who say otherwise “are not hanging out with the right people,” said Tierney. “The people who are actually in elective office I don't think is a terribly thrilling group of people. I think political campaigns are as tired and cynical as any other country. So, the hope has not spread to the actual partisan electoral process, for the most part.”

But for hope and encouragement you have only to look to such grass-roots efforts as Our Children, Our Future, which is a statewide campaign and the range of people involved, he said.

“We've got 18-year-olds that were volunteering as high school activists that are running for public office right now. If you look at a lot of the creative regional organizations, like the West Virginia Community Development Hub, Healthy Kids and Healthy Families, it's a nice mix. There are people who have more than a little bit of gray like some of us. But you go to a meeting and the 20-somethings and 30-somethings are incredibly dynamic.”

Tierney, who first came to West Virginia as a 20-year-old volunteer after the big April 1977 Flood and was in Williamson, said he has seen “a lot of movements and a lot of eras. And I have never seen a more exciting climate for people working for social change than what we have in the state right now.

“So, it may not be what gets covered in the papers and it is certainly not what is yet showing at the ballot. But people are working tirelessly. They are working very, very hard to envision a great future for West Virginia and do not seem discouraged by what is a pretty depressing legislative process.

“Much of the change they're building is people making changes in each other's lives regardless of who is in political office. But I can't help but think that's a real training ground that 10 years from now we might have a much more exciting process at that level, too,” said Tierney.

And here's a sentiment you likely have not heard recently.

“This has become an exciting place for people to come and to work on social change and for people to return,” he said. “It's not automatically assumed when you get done with college that you better go someplace else to find interesting, passionate work.

“I think West Virginia is both drawing its children home and it's also drawing people from across the country. The beginning of that was environmental activism. But the children and family advocacy movement, local foods, people getting excited about alternative community economic development ... It's just a real, real rich terrain right now.”

Listen to a podcast of the full conversation on West Virginia activism with Tierney and Lassiter at westvirginiaville.com

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All the panels will be held at the Marshall University Graduate College/South Charleston Campus, 100 Angus E Peyton Dr., in South Charleston, in the main Graduate College building room 137, except for the April 8 event which will be held in room 319. More about the project and the graduate seminar can be found at www.marshall.edu/graduatehumanities.

Wednesday

TOPIC: “Children and Family Advocacy.”

PANELISTS: Stephen Smith, W.Va. Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, Our Children, Our Future; Takeiya Smith, student chapter leader, Our Children Our Future; Kristen O'Sullivan Harrison, child welfare and youth leadership advocate; Diane Hughes, Upper Kanawha Valley Starting Points, Parents as Teachers.

Feb. 17

TOPIC: “The West Virginia Water Crisis/Environmental Activism.”

PANELISTS: Angie Rosser, West Virginia Rivers Coalition; Robin Wilson, West Virginia Citizens Action Group.

March 9

TOPIC: “Faith Based Activism.”

PANELISTS: Rabbi Victor Urecki, B'nai Jacob Synagogue; Ibtesam Barazi, Islamic Association of West Virginia; Rev. Jeff Allen, director, West Virginia Council of Churches

March 16

TOPIC: “Women and Community Development.”

PANELIST: Christine Weiss Daugherty, International and U.S. rural development and women in development.

March 30

TOPIC: “Cultural Preservation.”

PANELISTS: Bob Maslowski Council For West Virginia Archaeology; Carter Taylor Seaton, author, sculptor, former craft co-op director and arts advocate; Michael Tierney, West Virginia Activist Archive, Step by Step, Mosaic/South Boston Foxfire project.

April 6

TOPIC: “West Virginia Chose Me.” Transplanted Activists including some of the original VISTAs.

PANELISTS: Colleen Anderson, writer and graphic designer (VISTA 1970-71); Ric MacDowell, Lincoln County youth advocate (VISTA 1968-69); Rachel Dash, Faculty/Therapist WVU Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry

April 8

NOTE: daytime panel from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

TOPIC: “Civil Rights and Racial Justice.”

PANELISTS: Rev Matthew Watts, Grace United Church; West Virginia student activists.

April 20

TOPIC: “Labor and Economic Development.”

PANELISTS: John David, founder, Southern Appalachian Labor School; Brandon Dennison, Coalfield Development Corporation.

April 29

A 7 p.m. opening in the library of an exhibit on West Virginia Activist Traditions, featuring an exhibit of posters produced on West Virginia activists and artifacts capturing their work.

For more information, call 304-414-4452 or 304-746-1923.

Contact Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-3017 or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.

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