Thursday, April 02, 2009

co-opting opposition through leadership

My students in Appalachian Studies are currently reading a collection of essays on grassroots political and economic organization in Appalachia entitled Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change, edited by Stephen L. Fisher. This is not a new book; published in 1993 it has been a standard for Appalachian studies, social movements and political science courses for more than a decade.

Although I had read most of the essays when the book was published, I had not picked it up in the intervening 15 years. So re-reading the articles with my students has been a little like seeing them for the first time. However, I am seeing them with new eyes, with 15 years more experience of participation in grassroots organizations, and suddenly I'm not sure I like what I see.

Three grassroots organizations highlighted in part I of the book are Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) of Tennessee, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), and the Community Farm Alliance (CFA)of Kentucky. SOCM was started in 1972 to deal with coal mining, especially strip-mining, issues in five Tennessee counties. KFTC began in 1981 as a response to unfair tax exemptions for large mineral owners in eastern Kentucky, and the abuses of the broad form deed by strip-mining. The CFA emerged in 1985 during a period of crisis in American agriculture to address the regionally specific agricultural problems of small farmers in Kentucky.

Reading this articles back to back in a short period of time, I was struck by the similar pattern that all three followed. Each of these grassroots organizations appeared as the result of intense concerns over clearly defined issues. Early members were strongly motivated by issues, and active in pursuing specific changes in laws and economic practices within their region.

Each of these organizations had at least one significant win early in their existence. Save Our Cumberland Mountains in its first decade successfully stopped one of the largest strip-mines every proposed (20,000 acres) by AMAX, Inc., which, had it gone forward would have dramatically increased the power of coal companies to circumvent water quality laws and destroyed water supplies for many in the area. SOCM may not have been successful at its overarching goal of ending strip-mining altogether, but the organization had a number of significant victories.

In its first decade, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth was successful in seeing an amendment to the Kentucky Constitution stopping the use by strip miners of broad form deeds to rob landowners of surface rights, pushed through legislation to give local control over decisions on hazardous waste incinerators, and stopped the exemption of wealthy mineral owners from property taxation.

The Community Farm Alliance was highly successful in getting issues specific to Kentucky farmers passed through Congress even though other farming issues did not fare as well in the 1986 farm policy legislation. Moreover, by 1990, the CFA was able to win a legislative victory in Kentucky for a new state lending program that would solve many of Kentucky farmers credit issues.

Despite substantial issue centered successes by all three organizations, each organization after its first decade shifted away from issue orientation to focus on community organizing and leadership training and education. Each of these three organizations, in order to continue to exist as organization turned their focus to recruitment, to building a funding base (from donations and grants), and to "empowerment" of their local constituencies.

The writers of the articles in Fighting Back all highlight this shift to community organizing and leadership development as a positive step in the evolution of more permanent grassroots organizations. Hal Hamilton and Ellen Ryan write (about the Community Farm Alliance) that:
"Community organizing is sometimes criticized as parochial because issue objectives are often achievable without fundamentally changing power relations. This criticism rings true if our view of social change is revolutionary or apocalyptic. Lasting change in power relations, however can occur incrementally. Probably the most important contribution of organizations like CFA is the nurturing of new leaders with experience, vision and important group of people emerge from these campaigns with a vision of democracy that extends from local communities to the world economy."
But as I read these essays, and I reflect on the record of these organizations (through their websites and my own participation in KFTC), I find myself questioning the evaluation of the writers. I can see ways that conditions in the mountains have improved (e.g., levels of poverty in Appalachia are substantially lower today than they were 40 years ago which has far more to do with national economic change than grassroots organizing), but I can also see even more ways in which conditions targeted by some of these groups are many times worse than they were forty years ago. Strip-mining is an excellent example, although laws regarding reclamation are far stricter than they were, the sheer volume and destructiveness of strip-mining (via mountain top removal) are far greater, and federal and state controls over water quality impacts of strip-mining have gotten loser rather than tighter.

It does not appear to me that the last two decades of "leadership" training has had any real impact on the leadership in Appalachia. The experiences often do enhance the feelings of self-worth and confidence of the individuals involved, but those individuals have not, in any numbers moved into community, state or regional leadership positions. The political establishments in eastern Kentucky, Southwest Virginia, and Northeast Tennessee seem to be little effected by the efforts of these grassroots organizations.

As I re-examine the history of these organizations, I can see that by shifting their focus to community organizing and leadership development they have been able to attract funding from large foundations; donations that in all likelihood would be less likely to flow to more militant issue oriented organizations. These three organizations have been successful in surviving where many others have disappeared, and have had some small input into the decision-making processes in their state and local governments. But have they exchanged genuine power for the semblance of leadership?

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