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.
As we know, a home is where the heart is, a place where you enjoy returning to time and time again. Nate Siggers, Sustainable Williamson’s Community Development Coordinator and Amizade’s Site Director, sums it up best, “Teamwork is what makes the dream work.” The re-purposed buildings are just one example of how Williamson is merging the old with the new, in order to reinvent its identity and discover the balance between their heritage and their future. Even though the coal industry was a huge part of their past, their soul is being empowered to create new ways in which they can sustainably diversify their economy.
I think we can all learn something from the people of Williamson, and I encourage you to make “the heart of the billion dollar coalfield” a future destination. Come meet the people, embrace the culture, hear their stories, and observe firsthand how a town’s strength creates a ripple effect to revitalize the entire community. I suspect you will be pleasantly surprised, as I was. Perhaps the lessons learned from the people of Williamson will energize you to create change within your own community.
Architect and author of the “A Pattern Language,” Christopher Alexander stated, “This quality in buildings and in towns cannot be made, but only generated, indirectly, by the ordinary actions of the people, just as a flower cannot be made, but only generated from the seed.” I believe Sustainable Williamson’s initiatives are the seeds that are being planted and sown within the grassroots of Appalachia. Just like the life cycle of a plant takes time to reach full bloom, so does change. With the right vision, team, and dedication, I am optimistic that Williamson will return to the vibrant, thriving community it once was.