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ORGANIZING IN DIRECTLY IMPACTED COMMUNITIES: THE SOCM STORY

Maureen O’Connell

Save Our Cumberland Mountains

This presentation is a case study of a particular kind of NGO in the United States that is different from others presented at this conference. First, let me paint you a picture of the situation that existed in rural coalfield communities of Tennessee at the time SOCM was organized.

In 1971 in five rural mountain counties of Tennessee where at that time 90 percent of the coal in the state was mined, conditions were very difficult for the retired underground miners, subsistence farmers, and other low-income and working class people who lived there.

  • Ten large land companies, most of them from out of state and one from London, England, owned 80 percent of the mineral land and paid no taxes on their mineral holdings.

  • Unregulated strip mining on steep mountain slopes brought earth, rock, and trees down the mountains and onto roads, into streams, and onto people’s land. Blasting through rock also blasted and cracked homes and wells, the only available water supply. Filled up streams flooded land of residents.

  • In some places land companies or coal companies legally owned the mineral rights under the surface and the mineral owners’ rights were ruled by courts as superior to those of surface owners.

  • The underground mines, which historically had provided many jobs, were largely closed because there was more money to be made by strip mining; unemployment was very high.

  • These were some of the poorest counties in the state with few basic county services, partly because little revenue was generated for the county from the land and coal companies.



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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop ORGANIZING IN DIRECTLY IMPACTED COMMUNITIES: THE SOCM STORY Maureen O’Connell Save Our Cumberland Mountains This presentation is a case study of a particular kind of NGO in the United States that is different from others presented at this conference. First, let me paint you a picture of the situation that existed in rural coalfield communities of Tennessee at the time SOCM was organized. In 1971 in five rural mountain counties of Tennessee where at that time 90 percent of the coal in the state was mined, conditions were very difficult for the retired underground miners, subsistence farmers, and other low-income and working class people who lived there. Ten large land companies, most of them from out of state and one from London, England, owned 80 percent of the mineral land and paid no taxes on their mineral holdings. Unregulated strip mining on steep mountain slopes brought earth, rock, and trees down the mountains and onto roads, into streams, and onto people’s land. Blasting through rock also blasted and cracked homes and wells, the only available water supply. Filled up streams flooded land of residents. In some places land companies or coal companies legally owned the mineral rights under the surface and the mineral owners’ rights were ruled by courts as superior to those of surface owners. The underground mines, which historically had provided many jobs, were largely closed because there was more money to be made by strip mining; unemployment was very high. These were some of the poorest counties in the state with few basic county services, partly because little revenue was generated for the county from the land and coal companies.

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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop In 1972, after seeing research by some university students about land ownership and taxes paid in the five counties and the fact that the state constitution requires taxes be paid on minerals, 13 citizens filed a legal petition to make the local tax assessors appraise minerals as part of the value of land. They won the petition and, having obtained several hundred supporting signatures, decided to form an organization they called Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM, pronounced “sock-em”). Unregulated strip mining of coal was one of the first issues they decided to take on. From the beginning, SOCM was organized to be membership-based and member-run. People would speak for themselves, not have staff speak for them. SOCM would work on projects members chose to work on. Through the method of community organizing, members in a local community came together to form a group. They listened to each other, told stories about how they were affected by problems in the community, and received strength from being together. As a local group they decided what to work on, who were decision-makers who could do something about their problem and how to influence them. They found scientists who were allies, and they learned science themselves. They always knew, however, that in order to win, they needed to build a strong grassroots base of political power to influence decision-makers and public opinion. They incorporated culture into their meetings, singing old union struggle songs and writing their own songs. Staff did lots of training and leadership development. Members learned how to research issues and how to think through a comprehensive strategy. They developed stronger skills in running their own meetings, talking with the media, recruiting new members, and conducting grassroots fund raising. Members practiced and role-played before taking action, had lots of encouragement, and evaluated activities later for lessons learned. SOCM’s organizing is based on the belief that regular citizens, both those with little formal education and those with more, have great potential to learn, to speak, and to act for themselves, and that participating in public life is what democracy means. For the first several years as SOCM members took action, there was a backlash from the coal companies. Many people received threatening phone calls. Some homes were burned by arsonists, but no one was ever prosecuted. Some members were physically attacked. Because of the principle of multiple leadership, however, coal companies couldn’t destroy SOCM by intimidating any one or several leaders. From the beginning SOCM was multi-issue and multi-county. In local communities members worked to have roads improved and streams cleaned up. They worked together for a severance tax on coal which was passed by the state legislature to bring in revenue to the coal counties for roads and schools. They

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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop worked with others in the state to have a state strip mine law passed and then worked even harder to have it enforced. Over the years (SOCM is now 28 years old) the organization expanded in a number of ways. Geographically it expanded first to Cumberland Plateau counties, called the “southern coalfields of Tennessee,” and then both east and west beyond the mountains. More recently, SOCM has formed new multi-racial chapters in middle Tennessee. It expanded from several hundred to nearly 3,000 members. Currently, there are SOCM members in about two-thirds of Tennessee’s counties. From working primarily on coal-related issues, SOCM members have gone on to address both locally in their communities and state-wide a range of other issues that impact them, including problems related to toxic and hazardous waste, solid waste, oil and gas, other extractive minerals, forestry practices, state tax reform, and abuse of temporary workers. SOCM has helped form and provided leadership for many coalitions and alliances at the state, regional, and national levels. STRUCTURE In a county, members form a local chapter to work on local issues, to build a stronger grassroots base in that area, and to support SOCM’s organization-wide work. Governance at the organization-wide level is provided by a Board made up of representatives elected from each chapter and officers and three at-large delegates elected by the membership as a whole. Issue committees are organized to focus on strategies for broader campaigns to address roots of problems being faced by many local communities. Internal committees, also made up of members, oversee the internal functioning of the organization’s finances, personnel, and long-range planning HIGHLIGHTS OF SOME STRATEGIES USED Highlighted here are some strategies that may be of interest to Russian colleagues. Research We’ve always known in SOCM that we need accurate information and sound research for campaigns. We need access to research that others have done, and in some cases we must do our own. Here are two examples of SOCM research studies to address situations of concern to members. To show that reclamation seldom works when mining in very toxic coal seams (in Tennessee the most toxic is the Sewanee coal seam), SOCM interns field tested water quality coming off areas that enforcement agencies called

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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop “reclaimed mine sites” (where the bond had already been released). They found that over 80 percent of these sites were still leaching acid mine drainage with an average pH equivalent to that of vinegar. That research was used as SOCM pressed for and won precedent-setting rulings about the need for special kinds of toxic material handling plans when mining the Sewanee seam. To show that the state regulatory agency was not enforcing the state strip mine law, SOCM researched hundreds of files of enforcement actions in state agency offices and prepared an “Enforcement Study,” a documented expose of poor enforcement. Partly based on that study, the federal government took over the regulation of strip mining in Tennessee. Help from the Scientific Community SOCM has had wonderful help from volunteer scientists who have given significant amounts of time to review documents and to testify at public hearings along with regular SOCM members. Included in this group are geologists, hydro-geologists, ecologists, soil scientists, biologists, and others. These scientific allies come from universities in Tennessee, from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and from private firms. SOCM is grateful for the important contribution of their thousands of hours of time. Emphasis on Economic as Well as Environmental Aspects of Issues SOCM stresses the economic as well as environmental and human health aspects of issues it works on. Here are two recent examples: In an almost ten-year campaign to force the Department of Interior to declare the watershed of Fall Creek Falls State Park unsuitable for mining (members of a SOCM chapter live in the watershed), an economics professor from the University of Tennessee compiled a study of the impact of the park on the economy of surrounding counties. The study concluded that pollution of the spectacular waterfalls and other water features of the park could result in loss of over 700 jobs and millions of dollars in revenue to nearby counties. SOCM was also able to obtain resolutions of support for our petition from local county governments in those surrounding counties. Last June after years of SOCM’s work, the Department of Interior designated 61,000 acres of the watershed off-limits to mining. A current effort involves obtaining some regulation of giant chip mills that are increasingly locating in the south. In an eight-hour shift a chip mill can grind up 60 acres of forest land. Besides the impact on land and water and the threat of over-harvesting SOCM members stress the loss of value-added jobs that rely on the availability and affordability of hardwoods. A group of hardwood-using businesses are supporting our current effort for state legislation.

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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop Use of the Media SOCM uses the media in campaigns both to help mold public opinion around particular issues and to establish SOCM as a player in the public arena. Here are two examples: In an eight-year successful effort to win the strongest surface owners’ rights law in the country, SOCM members met with editorial boards and received editorial endorsements from every major newspaper in the state. On several occasions SOCM has used a major media campaign strategy which involves an intensive several-month effort to place as many stories in as many media outlets as possible (newspapers, radio, magazines, talk shows, etc.). The campaign culminates in a major event and press conference. In the Fall Creek Falls campaign, a 150-foot banner was lowered next to the park’s spectacular 256-foot waterfall with the message, “Bruce Babbitt, Don’t Let the Falls Down!” In a campaign to highlight the need for forestry legislation, volunteer pilots flew reporters from all over the state over a 1,600-acre clear-cut site, showing filled up streams from erosion on the site, in conjunction with a press conference. Lawsuits as a Strategy of Last Resort When other strategies fail, SOCM has used lawsuits as a strategy. Here are two instances: SOCM forced the state of Tennessee to implement its own water quality law and to set up a division of surface mining Along with another organization, SOCM forced the federal government to collect fines and set up a system to track down violators of the federal surface mining law Grassroots Fundraising From its earliest history when SOCM members “passed the hat” at meetings for money to help pay for expenses of the organization, SOCM has emphasized member involvement (as well as staff) in raising money for the organization’s budget. Money from foundations has been and still is a critically important source of operating funds. However, currently, over 40 percent of the organization’s budget is raised by membership dues, mail appeals, chapter fundraisers, organization-wide fundraisers like walkathons and concerts, house parties, major donor contributions (defined in SOCM as donations of $50 or more), phonathons, and other activities. CONCLUSION Over its 28-year history of organizing, SOCM has learned that it sometimes takes a long time to win and that the wonderful victories are often accompanied by what seem like heart-breaking setbacks along the way. For SOCM members,

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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop losing becomes just another way to learn. SOCM has been determined to stay in the struggle for the long haul. While it’s great to win, it’s just as good to see what happens when ordinary people become more skilled and more confident and their world becomes larger as they learn about the struggles of others in different communities in the state, in the country, and even internationally. Their analysis of the roots of problems sharpens. Care is taken to develop sensitivities and understanding about the race and class barriers that so often divide people who really have much in common. It was vitally important to win the Fall Creek Falls issue. Just as important, however, was seeing Landon Medley, a factory worker from Doyle, Tennessee, and chair of SOCM’s strip mine issue committee, speak eloquently about the power of citizen efforts in bringing about the victory. There are many community organizations like SOCM in the United States in virtually every state and working with virtually every ethnic group and race in the country. My experience is that community organizing, where people themselves are transformed in the process, is both a method to bring about the changes needed for a better environment and a more just society, and a way to truly build a working democracy in our country. Thank you so much for the opportunity to share SOCM’s experiences with you and to learn from you at this workshop.