On this Winter Solstice, I reflect on a time of closure, and a time for planning new beginnings. I have shared my life for the last 15 years with my partner, Tom Jensen as we had adventures to other countries, explored the places of his ancestors, and significant historical places. We found spontaneous dancing happened at any time, especially when we were both working at home. We took on several construction and reconstruction projects – and we laughed a lot…until he fell to a long and valiant battle with cancer. Chronic terminal illness challenges the character and erodes at the very soul of a relationship, but in lucid moments between bouts of delirium and rage, we were as close as ever. I will treasure those few precious times and remember the wonderful experiences we shared, and let the pain and sadness recede slowly into the past. I know I will miss Tom every day of the rest of my own life.
He was always there to cheer me on and encourage my work. It is ironic that my second book came to print the week of his passing. Writing “In the Footsteps of Rachel Carson- Harnessing Earth’s Healing Power” captured my own struggle to recognize my mortality. I am acutely aware that as a four times cancer survivor I am living on borrowed time. So, I make the most of every day.
All of the crises of the world have continued swirling around me as I have been in a cocoon of slow grieving and caregiving as Tom receded into the clutches of the tumors that consumed him over 18 months. I have swatted at them like irritating flies, keeping focus only on the most immediate and pressing needs. Now, I reflect on what is ahead, and set my priorities for this coming year.
Recognizing the amazing accomplishments of our collective action over the last year sets the stage for what comes next. Much of the ReImagine Appalachia Blueprint is now incorporated into law! (See https://reimagineappalachia.org ) Climate action policy, recovery of abandoned mine lands, broadband expansion, assistance for neglected communities, support for regenerative agriculture, requirements for community benefit agreements attached to federal grants, and many more actions now have the force of law. The tools for creating a more just, equitable and sustainable future are at hand. Now comes the challenge of implementing with intent and keeping the goals in the forefront.
The success story of ReImagine Appalachia needs to be celebrated, and documented. This is the subject of my next book, to be published through the Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences. ReImagine Appalachia is quite a testament to the power of the people. It began with 45 listening sessions in which 1,500 people contributed ideas, concerns, life experiences, hopes and dreams – all on zoom because of COVID-19. With only a few paid staff and with amazing leadership from Amanda Woodrum, Stephen Herzenburg, Ted Boetner and Dana Kuhlein, and Natalia Rudiak, teams of working groups sorted the issues and ideas into issue papers, documented policy proposals and case studies illustrating the need for new laws. Visionary leaders like Rev. Marcia Dinkins inspired us to act. Fifty collaborating organizations across four states- Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia – worked together to brief critical members of Congress, and their key staff. We were at the table when the laws were being crafted, when the budgets were being set, and we turned out hundreds of engaged citizens at all stages for comments, support, and intervention when things got sticky. Faith communities, people of color, local government officials came together to press for changes that would heal the land and empower the people.
As I sit in my 76th year of life, I recognize the need to mentor and coach successors in my path as a compelling drive. All of my activities and engagements align to build a better future for the coming generations. The legacy of the Baby Boomers has been a mixed bag, and I feel a responsibility to show a vision forward that corrects some of the mis-steps. I think our civilization is ready for a renaissance of attention to cultural and spiritual values reflected in care for the natural capital of the Earth – fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and the vast diversity of species that constitute the great Web of Life. Restoring our life support system ties so many conflicting factions together. Seeking common ground and shared purpose in building a better future for our children and for their grandchildren allows us to rise above the petty conflicts that impede progress.
I am honored to be drawn in to the efforts of my colleagues and friends in the Mon Valley- Tina Doose, Lisa Franklin-Robinson, Chad FitzGerald, Lori Rue, and Derrick Tillman. Rather than moaning with horrors hidden behind a veil of nostalgia for the “heyday of Steel,” we are working for a new vision for the Mon Valley. Rising from the ashes of the extractive industries of the past, we are creating a future built around renewable resources, non-toxic production systems that are compatible with healthy neighborhoods, and circular supply chains that conserve resources and build local and regional resilience. We are developing major projects with community benefit agreements, and including workforce development pathways to careers that include returning citizens, high school students, and recovered addicts. People will not move to a vacuum. But they will embrace a movement that meets community needs and builds on the endurance, resilience and determination of people long ignored and suppressed. The Mon Valley will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the past and soar to a finer future.
For this New Year of 2023, we step out of the dark shadows and into the light.