Randy Yohe Published

Rural Appalachia Community Coalition Building Creates Positive Change

A row of white houses with black trim.
A row of restored coal company houses un Cass, WV.
Brianna Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A book from an academic researcher covering rural Appalachia shows how marginalized rural communities can create change by forming grassroots coalitions.

In her soon to be published book, “Hauled Away, How Rural Appalachians Leverage Place in the Face of Extraction,” WVU assistant professor of English Erin Brock Carlson balances the history of extractive industries like coal with combating a rural town’s cultural, economic and intellectual extraction.  

“The mission of all of this is really that rural communities, especially in Appalachia, are painted in very one dimensional, oftentimes stereotypical life,” Carlson said. “I’m really committed to honoring the expertise of people that live in rural places, because they oftentimes aren’t viewed as experts of their own experience. This project is all about casting those people as experts in demonstrating that rural communities are capable of solving their own problems.” 

In her book, Carlson showcases hometown problem solvers. For example, in a former coal hub, organizers involved the cash poor and houseless in economic development. In a town that suspected a local arms manufacturer had polluted its air and water, an environmental activist engaged residents of a Black neighborhood close to the manufacturing facility, as well as elderly white residents who valued the manufacturer’s importance to the local economy.

And in a rural area with little access to broadband, an organizer tried to build an internet network owned by the community, with support from youth.

“The project really shows how going into a space thinking you have one project and really listening to community members to see what are the most pressing needs, and then adapting based on that, is a way to sort of address these other issues, but in a way that meets community needs directly,” she said.

Carlson said successful coalitions must bring those most marginalized, the poor, elderly, young, disabled, people of color, migrant workers and more into the public conversation.     

“They are the ones that are most directly impacted or most deeply impacted by these problems,” she said. “When they’re not represented, their needs aren’t heard.”

Carlson said the expertise community members possess is often overlooked in favor of technical insights from lawyers or engineers.   

The “Hauled Away” manuscript is expected to be completed in 2025.