The political rhetoric around coal in Appalachia left little room for dialogue. More importantly, the sound bites served up on TV news and social media left no room for politicians or local residents to discuss job training, mine reclamation, community funds, or other ideas to support miners and industrial workers who had lost their jobs.
As I toured the Appalachian coalfields in 2012, I sensed that many Appalachians were not ready to talk about life after coal, fearing that this would deepen divisions in their communities. But I was resolved to meet people where they were, not where I wanted them to be.
Many Appalachian coalfield residents blamed the liberal government for shutting down the coal industry. In fact, they viewed the government and all of its programs as the enemy. As a result, they disengaged from the political process.
In Appalachia, the struggle was how to move past the rhetoric of pro-coal versus anti-coal toward a conversation about what is good for the community. Retired miners like Rutland Melton of Harlan County, Kentucky, felt torn by these deep divisions. He supported underground mining, but was staunchly opposed to mountaintop-removal coal mining and resented industry attempts to describe his position as anti-coal.
"I don't have nothing against mining coal because I was in the mines twenty-three years, but I am against that mountaintop removal," he told me. "I look at it this way: God created the mountains to be admired, not to be destroyed. You can't make those mountains look the same as they did after you tore it up."
Lauren Adams, an eighteen-year-old with dyed blue hair, was from a mining family. She was concerned about a future without the industry that had created her hometown of Lynch, Kentucky.
"Around here, coal mining is a big part in a lot of people's lives," she said. "It's extremely important to them because it is their job, that's how they are putting clothes on their kids and stuff. And then anti-coal people will bring up things about the environment and how it might ruin the air and water. I guess I could sympathize with both sides--I don't want to destroy the environment, but I also want to feed my kids."
I sought out the places where these discussions were already happening. My goal was to amplify local discussions in order to increase support for community-led efforts to diversify the Appalachian economy.