Williamson: Vignettes from a Coal Town
By Nidhi Sen, 2015 - 2017, India
Driving around the central part of the Appalachian region in early spring, one is struck by the jagged, rocky hills and the bare-leaved trees. All along the winding roads, I saw old and rusting conveyor belts and mining equipment lying abandoned by the wayside. It was a stark reminder of what used to be considered the heart of a billion dollar coal industry and what sustained an entire culture and way of life for generations. It made me aware of how the burden of history looms large over this landscape and its people—one that even visitors like myself cannot escape from.
Arriving in Williamson a few days ago, I was initially struck by the absence of people on the streets and the lack of human activity. It was strangely new to me, and I fell into the immediate trap of comparing it to small towns in India and with familiar images of urban decay. But a few hours into my stay here and after interacting with the dynamic team of Sustainable Williamson, I realised that underneath its “sleepy” mask was a group of passionate and dedicated individuals who are trying to revive the local economy and revitalize the lives of the local community.
Learning about the challenges confronting Williamson—of declining jobs, a coal economy in terminal decline, depopulation, poor health, and flooding—I found myself grappling with the difficulties of reconciling its prosperous and vibrant past with the strained circumstances of its present. Hearing many elderly residents talk about the heydays of Williamson, I felt a palpable sense of loss and resignation that things will never be the same again. However, while interacting with some of Williamson’s younger residents, I was filled with a sense of hope and optimism that things will eventually look up. In a sense, the town occupies a liminal space as it struggles to reinvent itself in a manner that respects its rich heritage while also being open in its embrace of the future.
At the focal point of efforts to diversify the economy, encourage active and healthy living, regenerate food systems, support entrepreneurial ventures and tourism, restore and re-purpose old buildings, and improve access to quality health services has been the need to build and strengthen community bonds and relationships. “People energy,” as they say here, is the soul of community life and it is what drives the transformational changes in Williamson. Everywhere I went, I encountered remarkable individuals who are bringing about holistic development in a way that is relevant and meaningful to people in the community. The model of community action is a humble, organic, and down-to-earth attempt at fostering self-reliance that captures a “small is beautiful” spirit of reconnecting with the land.
In these past few days in Williamson, I have explored its quaint streets, eaten the local produce, chatted with the townsfolk, participated in community service, and forged new friendships. This full immersion in community life has given me an opportunity to reflect on the values of solidarity, resilience, cross-cultural understanding, and mutual learning in how discourses and practices around sustainable development are shaped and realised on the ground. More importantly, it has reaffirmed my faith in the individual power for social transformation—one that I know will drive Williamson’s recovery and rejuvenation in the years to come.