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.
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.
I’ve only been in Williamson, West Virginia for 48 hours and even though it’s not enough time to have a deep sense of everything that is happening in town, I’ve found a significant contrast between the quiet energy that I feel on the streets and the vitality of the residents who are trying to make improvements to their community.
I have been walking around with my camera capturing signs of a town that has suffered a dramatic decrease in its population–from 10,000 to 3,000 people–and talking with locals, asking them why they chose to stay when the coal industry has slowed down.
Williamson, West Virginia, was once a vibrant mining town with a population of 10,000 people. Since the big coal mines closed, there has been a dramatic decrease in the population. You can feel the absence of those who have left.
Allison Braden, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bangladesh 2013-2014, is a Fulbright U.S. Student Program Alumni participant in the Fulbright Amizade 2016 service-learning activity.
I am, frankly, overwhelmed. In the first day and a half of my experience with Amizade in Appalachia, I’ve been forced to confront a swarm of questions that I don’t have answers to and are perhaps unanswerable, but our asking questions without necessarily arriving at conclusions will give shape to the rest of our week.
Today I saw a barber shop called Cuttin’ Up with Belinda. I loved that. I love Americana, and here, it’s everywhere. There are church steeples, American flags, and main streets. There aren’t very many streetlights. My mind jumps from comparison to comparison: Convenience stores selling a little of everything remind me of Bangladesh. The high school football stadium, an island of bright green in a sea of gravel on top of a mined mountain, made me think of Friday Night Lights on TV. The old pickup trucks and main streets remind me of south Georgia and country songs. Despite how different my own community is from the ones I’m getting to visit here and despite West Virginia’s reputation elsewhere in the country, my associations with small town America are almost universally positive. In fact, I have the tendency to romanticize rural communities.