Standing Strong

Some years ago I was starting to play with the idea of writing a book and asked some friends for ideas. Several people encouraged me to write about my own experiences as an activist and organizer. They assured me that I had much to teach the world and that many could draw strength from my stories. While I have yet to figure out how to create that book, occasionally a story slips out, usually when a student, a friend, or a fellow organizer/activist needs a little encouragement to keep going or sometimes when we just need a little smile.

It seems time to start telling a few more of these stories and this blog seems the place. Maybe the book will come later, but for now this is the spot.

As my current work is an interim position, I’ve been doing a lot of job interviews lately. Many of the roles that I’ve been looking at are, at least in part, focused on addressing barriers of discrimination and confronting the “isms.” I’m often asked about my philosophy and strategies around dealing with these issues. It never fails to baffle me how people seem to still think that the answers to generations of wrong doing and genocide will be found in a book out outlined in a strategy chart.

This morning, as I pondered this ongoing puzzle, a good friend from my early organizing days in Tennessee came to my mind, Landon Medley. I met Landon in 1998 when I started my first job as a professional community organizer with Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM). Landon was a long-time volunteer with the group and chair of the strip-mining issues committee. This morning’s memory was of an event that happened in June 2000.

We were getting ready for a huge event. The strip-mining issues committee had been leading the fight for over five years to protect the land around Fall Creek Falls, the tallest waterfall east of the Rockies, from strip-mining. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt would be coming to the park the next day to announce the results of our efforts. For the moment we didn’t know whether the thousands of signatures, letters, and presentations would protect the waters from thousands of years of contamination or if all might still be lost.

Landon and I had one more meeting that day. We were meeting with the staff person from Secretary Babbitt’s office to walk through the plans for the next day’s presentation. I don’t remember the young man’s name, but for today I’d just call him “Peter Pettigrew.” He was nothing more than a slimy little rat serving the master. As we met in the park, it became clear to me that “Peter” had no power in his workplace and was seeking any way he could feel powerful. He sought a sort of duel with Landon and myself. His only weapon was standing. Because of illness in his youth, Landon has walked with crutches for much of his life. Young “Peter” was careful in our conversations to stay away from benches and picnic tables. I was fuming, but knew to follow Landon’s lead. We stood and won the day’s fight.

The next day was the big event. Secretary Babbitt joined us along with the media and a beautiful crew of SOCMites and lovers of the waters of Tennessee. SOCM had several speakers lined up including, of course, the long-time leader of the strip-mining issues committee, Landon Medley. As Landon stood at the podium, some of us who knew him could see the slight shake left from the tiredness of standing so much the day before. Quietly, almost invisible, Maureen, “Mo” O’Connell, our Executive Director and a dear friend of Landon’s who’d been working on mining in Tennessee since the 1970’s, got up and stood beside him and took the task of turning pages of his speech.

That’s how we deal with the “isms.” There are no great profound answers in best selling books or new strategies and cool charts. It all comes down to simply showing respect, honoring leadership, and being there to support.

For those who are wondering, we protected over 61,000 acres from strip-mining in that fight. SOCM is continuing to great work today though now they are known as the Statewide Organization for Community eMpowerment.

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