Research from Erin Brock Carlson, an assistant professor at WVU, shows how even the most marginalized communities in Appalachia can assert power and create change when they form coalitions. Carlson received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to help complete her book on the topic. (WVU Photo)

WVU expert on rural Appalachia champions coalition building and local knowledge

Research from a West Virginia University scholar of rural Appalachia shows how even the most marginalized communities can assert power and create change when they come together to form coalitions.

A National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend will support Erin Brock Carlson, assistant professor of English in the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, in completing her book “Hauled Away: How Rural Appalachians Leverage Place in the Face of Extraction,” which draws on community-based research projects conducted by Carlson in Appalachia since 2018.

The core of her book is tied to one project that documented the work of organizers in three communities in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. One of those communities was affected by coal mine closures, another by manufacturing pollution and the third by limited internet access.

“For decades, Appalachians have grappled with stereotypes — that everyone in the region is a one-dimensional caricature,” Carlson said. “The fact is that while extractive industries have hauled away the region’s natural resources, leaving its people with limited economic opportunities, Appalachians have nevertheless found ways to transform their surroundings, especially in times of crisis.”

In each community Carlson studied, she discovered everyday people upending simplistic narratives about Appalachia while actively bringing more voices into public decision-making.

In a former coal hub, organizers tried to ensure workers who were cash-poor or houseless had a role in economic development efforts.

In a town that suspected a local arms manufacturer had polluted its air and water, an environmental activist engaged residents of a Black neighborhood close to the manufacturing facility, as well as elderly white residents who valued the manufacturer’s importance to the local economy.

And in a rural area with little access to broadband, an organizer tried to build an internet network owned by the community, with support from youth.

“People of color, young people, migrant workers, people who are houseless, those in addiction or recovery — groups like these are often pushed to the margins when it comes to solving problems in rural communities,” Carlson said.

“But those people are often most affected by a community’s problems, so their perspectives are integral to meeting real community needs. The organizers in my book are engaging stakeholders who have been historically excluded from discussions and now resist participation or even sometimes distrust a public process.”

Carlson’s research relied on “photovoice,” a method originating from public health, in which participants take photographs to document their lived experiences, then reflect on those photographs.

Over the course of a year, the organizers photographed their daily lives, wrote reflective narratives, participated in focus groups, and took part in “walk-along interviews” and mapping activities to identify places of strength and weakness. They provided Carlson with hundreds of photos and hours of discussion about the problems facing rural Appalachian communities.

“I hope readers will find that the organizers’ on-the-ground experiences illuminate the work of building coalitions in rural areas and validate the expertise that community members possess but that is often overlooked in favor of technical insights from experts like engineers, lawyers or economic developers,” she said.

“‘Hauled Away’ is about the power of seeking out and amplifying the knowledge of residents across identity groups, disrupting stereotypes around who lives in a particular type of community, and providing a more nuanced representation of a place and all its people.”

The manuscript will be completed in 2025 and is under contract with Utah State University Press.

News Feed

Subscribe to remove popups, or just enjoy this free story and support our local businesses!