Thursday, January 6, 2011

For Judy, who had the courage to "step out."

For Judy, who had the courage to "step out."

by Joyce M. Barry on Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 10:51am
“We’re trying to preserve something, and save this creation…We’re trying to push the state forward, you know, and to stop the destruction and diversify the economy.” Judy Bonds

     On a January evening in 2003 Coal River Mountain Watch Co-Director, Judy “Julia” Bonds was home with her grandson when the telephone rang, and the caller ID revealed the incoming call was from California. Bonds answered, and the man on the other end of the line identified himself as Richard Goldman, phoning to inform her that she was the 2003 North American recipient of the Goldman Environmental prize for her work against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. Bonds, who knew nothing about the Goldman foundation or this prestigious prize that annually gives monetary awards to one environmental justice activist from each continent, casually responded, ‘Oh, okay. Well thanks. I appreciate that.’
During their brief conversation Goldman gave Bonds a web address, and encouraged her to read more about this prize. She explains, “I looked it up on the computer and then I was in total shock…it took my breath away.” Bonds learned that she was one of 7 environmental justice activists in the world that year to win  $125,000 for her work with the Coal River Mountain Watch. She says winning this prize was personally monumental but also significant for her organization and the anti-MTR movement, as “People began to realize who CRMW was. They began to realize what MTR is and it started a snowball effect” with more people becoming educated about MTR and its impact on Appalachian communities, and joining the fight to end it.
     Five years earlier, in 1998, Judy Bonds, entered the CRMW offices seeking help after being forced off her land in Marfork Hollow, near Whitesville, WV by coal operations that rendered the area unfit for habitation. Bonds, whose family has lived in this area for 10 generations, noticed dramatic changes in her environment when Massey coal operations began there in the 1990’s. She witnessed color and consistency changes to the water sources in her backyard, and when her grandson alerted her to fish kills in the water, she knew something was horribly wrong. After this Bonds says, “I started to notice as my neighbors moved out, there was coal trucks running constantly and it just …devalued our property, our quality of life. We were in danger…and it was basically the quality of the air and water that made me find out more about what’s happening in my own holler, and the coal industry.” Feeling under siege from MTR blasting, the persistent presence of coal trucks, the inability to drink water in her home, or visit the family cemetery, she moved 9 miles away to Rock Creek, West Virginia. She was the last resident to leave the community of Marfork.
Prior to joining the CRMW, Bonds had no experience in grassroots activist politics, but from an early age, she developed a deep sensitivity to economic and social injustice. All the men in her family, including her father, grandfather, ex-husband, cousins and others worked in nearby coal mines. She spent her childhood in Birch Creek, the upper reaches of Marfork hollow, where her family grew large gardens, foraged for edible plants in the surrounding mountains, kept livestock, and hunted animals for their subsistence. Bonds lived in Birch hollow until she was 7, when a coal company forced her family off their land. They settled nearby in Marfork hollow, and her father worked for Bethlehem Coal Company.
     She recalls seeing one of her father’s paychecks, and the anger she felt upon learning his weekly compensation was a meager $15. She said “fifteen dollars for a man risking his life and his health. $15 dollars is what he gets for that?” Even though Bonds had no political activist experience before joining the CRMW, she credits her mother with imparting a strong sense of justice in her: “she was a very strong willed, opinionated woman. I remember listening to my mother rant and rave about Buffalo Creek …And I remember hearing my mother talk a little bit about Mother Jones, and John L. Lewis and about Matewan…so, a little bit of that outrage against injustices was instilled in me at an early age.” In the anti-MTR movement, Bonds has a reputation for speaking bluntly, motivated by an angry passion that is unpalatable to some people, particularly coal industry supporters. However, she is unapologetic saying, ‘that’s who I am. I can’t apologize for that. I lost my diplomacy a long time ago.’ She, like other grassroots activists in the movement, has been the victim of threats and intimidation for speaking out against coalfield injustices, but remains unwavering in her position.
     Arguably, Judy Bonds, along with Larry Gibson, Maria Gunnoe, Ed Wiley and Lorelei Scarbro are some of the most prominent faces of the anti-MTR movement in West Virginia. They are West Virginia natives, with deep historical ties to the Appalachian region. They, along with the other people profiled in this book, have felt the negative impacts of Big Coal firsthand. They also refuse to remain silent while this industry obliterates their communities. Bonds, in particular, takes a firm stand on the issue and believes other people should as well. She argues, “if you do not raise your finger to stop an injustice, you’re the same as that person doing the injustice.” She has been called a “folk celebrity” for her work with the CRMW, a coalfield Erin Brockovich. However, Bonds is quick to say that she is just one of many, “a reflection,” of Big Coal’s impact on Southern West Virginia, and of the numerous people taking stands against the coal industry in this age of mountaintop removal coal mining. She says “I’m just the first one out there because there’s a lot more women that have deeper and bigger and more compelling stories to tell …that’s what makes it so good is that the rest of these women are now telling their stories because one woman had the courage to step out.”

For Judy, who had the courage to "step out."

Joyce M. Barry, Jan 5, 2011.

Excerpt from: Joyce M. Barry. Standing Ground: Gender and Environmental Justice in the Age of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining. Forthcoming from Ohio University Press, 2011.

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