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Rallying for Appalachia

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By Laura Hagan

The end of the school year marks the beginning of what may launch a lifetime of activism for students in Angela Hicks’ fifth-grade class at Crestwood Elementary. Her class is joining the fight against mountain-top removal coal mining in eastern Kentucky.It all started in the fall, when Hicks played a folk song called “Me and the Redbird River” by Carla Gover, about Appalachian culture. After she played it, she gave the students the lyrics and asked them to brainstorm questions. They had 150 questions.Students made snow cream, learned recipes from Appalachia and even contacted people who sold moonshine in that area. Hicks said the goal was to get rid of the stereotype of the people of eastern Kentucky. The students also began to learn about mountain-top removal, which became the basis of the entire school year.Mountain-top removal is when the top of the mountain is blown off to get to the coal, rather than digging into it. Hicks said in the last 20 years, 400 mountains have been lost to mountain-top removal in eastern Kentucky.The students began contacting famous Kentuckians who are activists against mountain-top removal, and also contacted the president of the Kentucky Coal Association, Bill Caylor. When they first contacted him, Hicks said he gave them a different view of mountain-top removal, saying that flat land is better and that the company was doing a service for the people of Appalachia.“He has really challenged them,” Hicks said.The class has continued to correspond with Caylor with letters and e-mails.“Fifth-graders have this man writing five-page e-mails,” Hicks said.Caylor even visited the school to speak to the students.Keegan Curry is a student in Hicks’ class. He said they used Google to research how long it takes to form an inch of topsoil on a reclaimed coal mining surface mining site. The first response said 100 years. Curry said students sent information to Caylor, and he told them it wasn’t a reliable source. They contacted an educational director from the University of Kentucky, and a director in the Department of Topsoil, who said it takes hundreds of thousands of years.Curry said Caylor continued to question the reliability of the sources.In their letter back to Caylor, Curry said the class wrote, “If the Appalachians wanted flat land, they would move to Kansas.”In addition to mountains, students say mountain-top removal harms streams.Curry explained that when coal is cleaned with certain chemicals, it mixes to create a black “sludgy” substance, creating sludge ponds. When a mountain top is blown off, he said, it blocks streams, and rain washes the chemicals into the sludge ponds.The class traveled to Frankfort Feb. 14 to take part in “I Love Mountains Day,” a rally in favor of the “Stream Saver Bill” – also known as House Bill 164. They wore shirts that said “Save Our Streams” and lobbied state representatives.Mary Love is the organizer of the Louisville chapter of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth – described on their Web site as a “statewide citizens’ organization working for a new balance of power and a just society.” She went with the class to Frankfort and said it was great to see them excited about the cause.“People kept telling them, ‘You are our future,’” she said.Love said she thinks if mountain-top removal is eliminated, it will be due to the efforts of young people.“The young people are more committed,” she said. “It’s easier for kids to catch the fire of environmental justice. Kids look at it the way that it can be and ought to be. Older people look at it as the way it’s going to be.”Love said she’s enjoyed working with the students, and said they are learning to be professional researchers.“They’re learning science, history, culture, how to write, how to speak,” she said. “Their whole year has been focused around this.”The students say they have enjoyed the project. Justin Kennady said instead of teachers assigning a writing topic, the students choose what they write, and get the reward of a response.“It’s the coolest part of school so far,” Kennady said.Sydney Jones said this has been the “best elementary school year” of her life.Curry said this year writing has a point.“Instead of just writing pieces to change our grade, we’re changing the world and becoming activists,” he said.Curry said the students looked at both sides of the story before they made their opinion on the subject. He said the class doesn’t think coal mining is bad, but the way the companies are mining it is.In one of Caylor’s e-mails he questioned why people in Oldham County cared what was going on in eastern Kentucky. The students had several responses.“The land doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the land,” Curry said.“God didn’t build bulldozers to destroy what he created,” Kennady said.“We all live downstream,” Jones said.“We are all Kentuckians,” said Katie Ulrich, another student in Hicks’ class.On May 23, Kentucky author and activist against mountain-top removal, Silas House, visited the class. Students asked questions about his fight against mountain-top removal and questions pertaining to his books and articles.One student asked how music and writing play a part in his activism.“When you’re witnessing something like (mountain-top removal), you have to have a way to get it out of your system,” he said. “You have to find a positive way to express yourself. The only way I’ve ever been able to do that is through words and music.”He said mountain-top removal is a hard thing to write about, it is more visual.House said he grew up with coal miners and across from a strip mine. He said when mountain-top removal became more dominant, he knew he had to get active.House said it is different than other types of strip mining.When he became an activist against mountain-top removal, he talked to people affected by it. He recalled stories of pollution, where fish rose to the surface of a creek after chemicals from mountain-top removal contaminated the water. He told stories of home foundations damaged from it.“When you see someone in power going too far, you have to speak up and stand up for what you believe in,” he told the class. “(There was a) certain point where I felt like I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t speak up.”He said he was lucky to be in a position where people would listen to him if he spoke up against mountain-top removal. He said once he started speaking against it, he felt like he had to keep doing it, and said he got more and more attached to the issue.“I’ve seen how a bunch of people committed to the same thing make a difference,” he said.As for HB 164, which the students rallied for in Frankfort, House said he was “ecstatic” to hear the bill was being voted on.“Even though it was lost, I was happy it got heard,” House said.He said it gives him hope that next year it will go one step further.Hicks said this project just took off from the beginning of the year. She said she thinks it has been a great year for the students, even though it may have been harder work.“This year has changed the way I will teach from now on,” she said.She said the class has “powerful people running scared, and powerful people coming to affirm them.”Of the speakers the class has welcomed this year, Hicks said most charge for appearances. For this class, she said, they’ve just “dropped by.”She said the students are learning literacy is power.“If you can read and write, you can change the world,” she said. “This year has been life-changing for me, in every area. This is why I teach.”

E-mail us about this story at: lhagan@oldhamera.com.