Twelve Fulbright Students from around the world gathered in Williamson, WV, to participate in a service-learning program led by Amizade. As our group was warmly welcomed by the local community, I felt an authentic sense of belonging, where conversations flowed freely and friendships ran deep. What impressed me the most was the people of Williamson. Their sense of community, hospitality, pride and unwavering perseverance to succeed, was not only inspiring but contagious. Due to a series of floods, the coal mine collapse, and lack of employment, Mingo County’s population dwindled from 50,000 to 3,000 residents. Despite their misfortune, residents are uniting as a family to breathe not only life but hope back into their community.
This collective passion is what drives a community to become the best version of itself, and encourages others to join in the revolution. In a way, this devastating crisis has presented a blank canvas for Williamson to rebuild the future they desire. Sustainable Williamson has spearheaded this revolution by taking a holistic approach to challenges faced by this Appalachian community. By reimagining what sustainable agriculture, healthcare, education, infrastructure, and tourism paradigms could be, they are transforming a place back into a home.
Oyeniyi Abe (Niyi) is a Fulbright Student from Nigeria conducting his Ph.D. research at Loyola University, Chicago School of Law.
As the world is dealing with the effects of climate change, a visit to Williamson, WV exposed me to a new paradigm on sustainable development and the impact of ‘ruralness’ on the health and well-being of a society. As a participant in the Fulbright Amizade service-learning enrichment activity, this trip to Appalachia showed me how old coal mines are being reclaimed for agricultural use and how community revitalization has created a pathway towards sustainable living and economic growth. Getting close to nature also offered me an opportunity for reflection. Often times we tend to neglect the very small things that matter.
I grew up on a farm in a rural community in south western Nigeria. Coming to a rural community in the United States was, for me, a rare and unique opportunity. I visited many places and met many people but the most exciting aspect of my experience was visiting the community gardens and learning the local style of growing crops. The decline of the coal business has had an effect on the people of Williamson, causing a visible decline in population as evidenced by the abandoned houses. But the general sense I got was one of hope and determination.
Jimmy Mahady is a Fulbright U.S. Student Program alumnus who researched the development of renewable energy in Uruguay in 2013.
Foreword: The musings herein were gleaned from a few days of service-learning through a special Fulbright Enrichment Activity with Amizade in the town of Williamson, WV and its surrounding area. My intuition and meager sample size have yielded this blurry, self-reflective view of what was, is and may be. Thanks for reading.
Six participants from abroad, six from the U.S. – I have come together under the banner of mutual understanding with my fellow fellows to Williamson, WV and we are growing together like a bunch of grapes. I’ve never been to a place like this. Infinite hills – friendly, drawn-out speech and demeanor – a town with its head held high – in spite of unforgiving squalls of global market forces. From far away, current residents’ forefathers arrived here, willing or not, nearly all of whom fought hard to survive. The rich seams of coal presented an obsidian opportunity, but avaricious plutocrats spared no expense to make the people’s sometimes deadly struggle for fair treatment seem Sisyphean. Eventually they prevailed, and fairer wages and better working conditions begot longer hours below with the black particulate that crackled in their chests.
Nidhi Sen is Fulbright Student from India pursuing a joint degree master’s program in gender and sustainable international development at Brandeis University.
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.
Former Mayor of Williamson, Darrin McCormick, from 2005 – 2014 teaches the Fulbright Amizade participants about the community’s history. Photo by Jorge Caraballo Cordovez.
As an architect from the Middle East, I came to United States to pursue a master’s degree. I was invited by Fulbright and Amizade to Williamson, West Virginia, to do community service. Williamson is a small town in Mingo County that recently experienced the impacts of coal mines being shutdown. As a result, the population declined from 10,000 to 3,000 citizens in the past few years. The town was in a critical situation until community heroes tried to find new hope. Through Amizade and Fulbright, I had a chance to meet these leaders and learned from them that it is not impossible to change a community whose livelihood has depended on coal into a sustainable, green one. I learned from these leaders that small actions can have huge impacts on the community. Actions like community farms, health care, building renovations and a CoalFields Got Talent show. It is like throwing small rocks in a calm lake; you start seeing ripples spreading and growing throughout the community.
“I believe we can make Williamson sustainable and green if we believe in it and start involving the community.” Darrin McCormick, Former Mayor of Williamson
Fulbright Amizade participants visiting a community garden in Williamson, WV, built on a mountain top after strip mining. Photo by Khaliungoo Ganbat
When I was informed of my selection to participate in the Fulbright Amizade service-learning program in Williamson, West Virginia, I was very excited to share the news with my friends in the United States. To my surprise, their reaction to what I thought was great news was rather negative. They said that West Virginia is like a U.S. version of the developing world, and told me to get ready to see a completely different face of America than what I had seen since I began my Fulbright grant. Having worked with people from rural areas in Mongolia, who struggled to find drinking water, and Aboriginal Australians, whose livelihoods are almost completely dependent on mining, I wasn’t sure what to expect from West Virginia.
On our second day, we drove to Williamson and enjoyed the beautiful scenery all throughout the trip. When we arrived, it was nothing like my friends had described. It was small, yet well-organized and unbelievably clean. We were welcomed by the former Mayor Darrin McCormick, who showed us around and spoke about how Williamson is rebuilding its economy after their coal production had plummeted. It seemed to me that Williamson is headed in a positive direction and has great potential to diversify its economy.