By Paige Coomer
Ms. Commer attends Indiana University Maurer School of Law, where she serves on the executive board for the Public Interest Law Foundation. She works at Indiana Legal Services, Inc. and as a research assistant studying the beneficial impacts contract law could have on South Pacific communities that are negotiating deep sea mining licenses. She graduated from Centre College in May of 2014 with a degree in English.
My poverty and homelessness class sits silent in thought after listening to Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.” We’re at Centre College, and the song’s images of welfare and unemployment lines are in stark contrast to our pristine, orderly campus. What does it mean for a revolution to sound like a whisper? Maybe, my class thinks, it means that a change is happening all around us, but we can’t see it. Or, maybe we’re just not looking.
Paige interned in 2013 for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. She worked with citizens and tested water for coal pollutants in Harlan County.
When I visited the coal town of Harlan, Kentucky, as part of my Shepherd Internship with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, I looked. I looked at the gentle, sloping mountains, glowing deep green after a summer rain. And I looked into the eyes of a woman who told me to go away, that the town didn’t need my help, and that the best thing anyone around there could do was leave Harlan for good. When I looked at her, I saw the lack of security that Harlan residents face: soaring unemployment rates, thirty-one percent of residents living below the poverty line, and dominating coal companies characterize the region. I looked, and I tested water for coal pollutants. I saw the pro-coal and anti-coal town divisions. I comforted a crying man.
When you hear those whispers once you never forget them. In law school, I still haven’t forgotten. This summer, I took all that I learned from my Shepherd experience in Kentucky and transported it to Washington D.C., where I promoted worker justice with the United Mine Workers of America. With the UMWA, I was able to serve the citizens of mining communities by promoting workplace safety and advocating for workers’ rights. I even had the opportunity to write a position statement to the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of a miner who was discriminated against for his union activity. And all summer, infused in my work were the lessons I learned from my Shepherd Internship and my poverty and homelessness class: the value of empathy, of patience, of taking the time to listen to the words people say.
But these lessons don’t only impact my legal career—they follow me throughout life. Now, I stop and listen. I look straight in the faces of the men and women on the street, and I talk—even if that means I stammer and have to admit that I don’t have any cash. My conversations with low-income clients at my new direct legal services job now have some backbone to them. And while sometimes I feel so disingenuous—who am I, of all people, to tell you that everything will be okay? To stay calm? To not worry about it?—at least I’m noticing. If anything, the Shepherd Internship Program and Centre taught me that noticing is the first step to change.
When you listen to Tracy Chapman’s words, it makes you reflect on what you’ve seen and heard. And when you start reflecting, you find that the nature of whispers is that they happen all around you, but you don’t hear them unless you’re listening. Really listening.
Pagie previously wrote an essay about her 2013 SHECP internship, https://www.shepherdconsortium.org/centre-intern-explores-energy-issues/