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The Many Humble Heroes of Appalachia


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View Liz Judge's blog posts
07 June 2012, 4:53 PM
Courage - not capes and superpowers - defines them
Maria Gunnoe in action. Photo by Mark Schmerling.

As we were working on our new campaign ("Mountain Heroes") to stop mountaintop removal coal mining, many of the folks who shared their stories told us they felt bashful about being called "heroes."

In our society today, when we talk about a hero many of us imagine a caped figure flying through the sky, lifting up buses, halting runaway trains, and saving the masses from crushing catastrophes or evil villains.

Rarely does someone swoop in and "save the day," although every once in a while, we hear that incredible story of someone exhibiting sudden and epic heroism. More commonly, our heroes are quietly and doggedly battling for good through the struggles of daily life. Heroes in real life—those who, day after day, give everything of themselves, often thanklessly, to make the world a better place—are so much more inspiring, actually, than the hereos of pop culture.

These are the kind of people we highlight on our new Mountain Heroes campaign website.

Maria Gunnoe is one of these people, and if she is not deserving of the title "hero," then truly no one is. She made national headlines after testifying last week about the human health impacts of mountaintop removal mining. After urging the federal government to protect her people, she was met with the ugly side of American politics.

Maria shares some of her story on our website, mostly leaving out the details of the threats and intimidation she's endured in her fight for clean water protections for Appalachia. Since mountaintop removal mining came to her community in 2000, Maria has dedicated herself to a better future. As Jeff Goodell describes in this Rolling Stone article, aptly named "Big Coal's Sleazy War," Maria's lasting courage and commitment is a stunning inspiration. In 2009, she was awarded the Goldman Prize, and this October she'll receive the prestigious Wallenberg Humanitarian Medal, joining ranks with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, and other bright lights of humanity.

There aren't enough medals for all the brave people in Appalachia who, like Maria, are fighting for justice and rights. There are so many more who are standing up for what's right and facing the threats and injustice with peaceful resistance.

We have some of their stories on our website, but there are so many more whose stories we have yet to tell. Many such heroes were in Washington, D.C., this week lobbying their congressional representatives for protection from this mining practice as a part of the Alliance for Appalachia's annual End Mountaintop Removal Mining Week in Washington. They spent the week pounding the pavement in DC, sitting in Congressional offices and urging for clean water safeguards, presenting research and scientific studies to their elected representatives, and rallying in front of the Capitol.

Many of the heroes whose stories we have yet to tell are women—mothers, grandmothers, and daughters. They joined with leading human rights groups for the recent Central Appalachian's Women's Tribunal on Climate Justice; they stood on the steps of the West Virginia capitol building and shaved their heads in silent demonstration of what they are willing to sacrifice for their families; they rallied, inspired, and protested in D.C. in front of the U.S. Capitol; and still, there are many more whose sacrifices will go uncredited.

Finally, many of these heroes are in Appalachia right now, quietly testing stream water quality, investigating mine permits, building community centers, setting up air quality monitors, writing letters to their elected officials, sending letters to the editors of their local newspapers, filing legal challenges to illegal mine permits, comforting impacted communities, researching renewable energy projects, and doing economic development work to bring healthy, safe jobs to the region. For all of these people and their heroic dedication, we dedicate this Mountain Heroes photo petition, and we continue this work to end mountaintop removal mining.

It doesn't take living in Appalachia to do something heroic to save mountains and communities—it just takes action, no matter how large or small. Please take action now to stand in solidarity with all the mountain heroes and add your photo to this petition, urging President Obama to end mountaintop removal mining once and for all.

Maria Gunnoe. (Chris Jordan-Bloch)

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