Black Appalachian Coalition aims to shift narrative on energy

Published 1:14 pm Thursday, January 5, 2023

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By Kathiann Kowalski

100 Days in Appalachia

Appalachia’s people of color have borne greater social and economic burdens, on average, than their White counterparts, but their stories are often left out of policy discussions about energy and other issues in the region.

A new coalition is now seeking to amplify those voices.

The Black Appalachian Coalition is an initiative of Black Women Rising. Bishop Marcia Dinkins, the group’s founder and executive director, recently talked with the Energy News Network about its work to shift from a single story about Appalachia.

Q: Why do we need conversations with Appalachia’s people of color about the effects of fossil fuels, pollution and other problems?

A: “We should be having these conversations because Black people are impacted,” Dinkins said. “And when we look at the inequities with regards to exploitation, extraction and exclusion — historically and presently — it continues to divest from these voices.”

As she sees it, people often have one view of America and a separate view of rural America that is primarily White. By numbers, Black people are a small minority in many parts of Appalachia. “But it does not mean there should be an absence of these rural voices.”

Q: What’s the result of a system that doesn’t seek out and listen to stories from people of color?

A: “It keeps them outside of policymaking. It keeps them outside of being a part of legislation that’s moving to improve the quality of life for others, but not for them,” Dinkins said. “They’re outside the conversation. They’re not at the table.”

Q: Why are energy issues especially relevant for communities in Appalachia?

A: “Fossil fuels have been a contributor or a conduit for allowing systemic racism,” Dinkins said. And energy issues are intricately intertwined with racial disparities. “Black voices need to be in this conversation because they’re the ones who speak best to systemic racism and how fossil fuels have impacted their communities.”

Appalachian states have long been centers for coal mining and various coal-intensive industries. More recently, the combination of fracking and horizontal drilling has accelerated natural gas extraction, along with the range of disruptions it often brings. Black communities are especially affected by those activities and by industries that burn fossil fuels in factories, steel mills and so forth, Dinkins said.

Q: BLAC hosted listening sessions this past fall, where individuals from communities in Central Virginia, Appalachian Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky shared insights. What were you looking to find out?

A: “Our goal for these listening sessions is to hear the voices of people about their lived experiences and to walk alongside them to identify solutions for their community,” Dinkins said. In other words: What are people of color experiencing as a result of pollution, a lack of infrastructure, limited opportunities, disparities in resources and other issues in their areas?

People’s stories have also highlighted disparities that reflect systemic racism. Parks in White areas may get funding and modern restrooms, for example, but not one in a Black neighborhood. Gaps in educational achievement are linked to school funding based on property taxes, and Black people have had less economic wealth, on average, than White people. “We know that all of these things connect,” Dinkins said.