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2014 Bucknell Intern Advances Environmental Justice

Elaine Lac from Bucknell University worked as an organizer and advocate for Kentuckians for the Common Wealth, an organization devoted to advance environmental justice for vulnerable but activist citizens.


Bucknell intern Elaine Lac assists in registering voters on July 4, 2014.

The rickety bus ambles along the streets of Atlanta, Georgia where the forty Kentuckians eagerly await a chance to escape from cramped upholstered seats after a rocky five hour journey. We are heading to the Environmental Protection Agency’s hearing for its proposed Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. Most of the bus riders know each other and are talking about the testimonies they’ll give at the hearing. One family has two children who are twelve and nine. They have offered these types of testimonies all summer throughout America. When we finally arrive at the hearing, I am awestruck at the passion of the testimonies and the finesse of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) members’ deliveries. They are poignant and yet informative of Kentucky’s need for better environmental regulations to protect its natural resources and a movement towards a just economic transition away from a coal based economy. Inspiring is the only way to describe it, and they dominated the room despite the public officials and company representatives who disavowed carbon regulations. It showed me the power of regular citizens and grassroots organizing. KFTC helped foster the voice of the Kentucky people.

Most of the people on the bus are from KFTC and, if they aren’t, they are from Kentucky. KFTC provides these necessary opportunities for education, community organization, and a new status quo of true democracy. The true strength of KFTC is through its members and they prove this power of their message in their conviction at the hearing. However, the work of KFTC is more than just environmentally focused. The issues KFTC tackles are concerns of its members. Because its members have many concerns; KFTC takes stances on economic, political, civil, environmental and many other issues. Much like ripples in a pond, KFTC actively works on focused projects and initiatives in many different areas. With my Shepherd Internship, I focused on organizing a renewable energy tour in Eastern Kentucky throughout the summer.

When I started my weeks at KFTC, no day was like the other. On many days I arranged meetings with different people throughout Kentucky to discuss the renewable energy tour. I spoke to people who had experience and advice about organizing these tours. Engineers pointed me towards potential projects and homes where solar panels or efficiency retrofits had been installed. The tour is meant to show the potential that renewable energy has even in Eastern Kentucky where there are high levels of unemployment, high obesity rates, and high levels of poverty. Sustainable and renewable energy could provide the transition towards a just economy away from the mono-economy that Kentucky depended on before.

While my main job was organizing a tour, I had opportunities to participate in a variety of experiences. Among these were attending public hearings, transcribing community forum hearings, participating in workshops, and assisting at fundraisers. Organizing the renewable energy tour required interviewing people, organizing my notes, and following up on leads for the tour. It provided a wealth of exposure to Kentucky’s economic and political climate and how KFTC navigates these systems. Kentucky’s history of coal mining started in the early 1800’s. Because of coal’s industrial growth, little was invested in alternative industries that could have been sustainable. For a time, coal provided Kentucky with sustained jobs and income; however, in the 2000’s coal began to run out. Kentucky was left with scarred landscape from mountaintop removal, polluted waterways from coal refuse, and people dependent on coal.

Coal created a cycle that had people relying on coal, being hurt by coal, but without any options but to return to it. The resources that Kentucky once had are now polluted and unusable. Mountains have been cut straight across thus disrupting ecosystems, headwaters, and creating opportunities for mudslides and floods. Only three percent of the state’s waterways support aquatic life. People in Kentucky won’t touch the rivers and streams running in their backyards because they know they are toxic. Any wealth that could have come from the water of Kentucky is otiose until the water can be purified. The impoverished residents are most afflicted by the direct health and safety dangers such as higher mortality rates from lung, heart, and kidney disease. However, many people, especially those currently employed by coal companies, depend on coal. Those currently employed by coal include those in political office. Kentucky is a bipartisan state; politicians, on both the left and right always fight for fewer mining regulations, carbon reductions, and cleaner factories. Exen so, these same politicians say off-the-record that they believe in transitioning away from coal towards a sustainable economy.

This sustainable economy would be one based on renewable energies such as solar energy and geothermal energy. Kentucky produces more solar energy than Germany. Germany is one of the leaders of renewable energy and it’s projects have created hundreds of thousands of jobs. This same job creation could happen in Kentucky. The coal miners without jobs could be hired to maintain and monitor these renewable systems. This change should inject money and energy into Kentucky’s economy so people could open up small businesses for more jobs. While KFTC admittedly doesn’t include this specific issue about creating jobs for unskilled coal minors, renewable energy jobs could provide those jobs.

One of my favorite meetings occurred in West Liberty. The amazing story of West Liberty is about a small Eastern Kentucky town that was trudging along and looking for a way to revive itself. In March 2012, an EF3 tornado with 150 mph winds decimated the town. The people had to make a decision: rebuild or abandon the town. West Liberty decided to do more than just rebuild. The people decided to revive West Liberty as an economically sustainable town. The Clinton Global Initiative of America took notice of this project and chose to promote it for more public exposure and funding. The West Liberty Project exemplifies for other towns facing similar circumstances, that an economically viable and sustainable community is possible. After meeting with the leaders from this Project, the renewable energy tour evolved from a tour into an educational event.

KFTC produces results through multiple similar projects. It fosters leaders within its member base. The staff of KFTC facilitates the resources, education, and networking required to enable members to empower themselves for change. This ripples-in-a-pond approach generates leadership development. While, the focus of KFTC sounds thin in that it leaves “heavy lifting” to members, it gets results. KFTC has many passionate members leading the charge on their projects. The members change and produce the change they want to see. That is why KFTC is so effective. It is true grassroots organizing and it avoids the bureaucracy seen in larger organizations. The staff know each other and the members know the staff. It is a family having fun while creating change. This close-knitted community fosters a low staff turnaround and high member sign-ups. However, KFTC is still relatively small: about 8,000 members. Compared to the Sierra Club, KFTC is tiny. It is difficult to say whether this same close dynamic between the staff of about 40 and its 8,000 members can be maintained as KFTC grows.

KFTC facilitates so that members of the Kentucky community can create change where they believe it is needed most. KFTC’s democratic structure also creates member leadership by having a member-elected steering committee. Kentucky is a beautiful state with natural bounty and many resources; however, it is entangled by the influence of coal. Coal affects politics, jobs, and public health. Although many people would rather not have coal, there are so few jobs that coal often seems to remain the only option. Because the influence of coal is so pervasive, KFTC takes a systemic stance towards change and a transition. The transition isn’t a war against coal. It’s about what is next. What comes after all of the coal is gone? It isn’t a Band-Aide organization. It addresses the heart of the problem. My internship offered me a small glimpse of all the work that KFTC does. However, I saw how an excellent non-profit operates successfully in the midst of larger economic, cultural, social, and political systems entrenched in fossil fuels. This glimpse provided me with hope that regular citizens can make a change with the right organization.


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