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Clinchco Circle Confronts Racism, Reaches out to White Community

by Meredith Dean

Clinchco houses an isolated community of Black Appalachians who settled in the coal fields of far southwestern Virginia during the heyday of the railroads and coal companies. Their county, Dickenson, is now the most depressed county in Virginia.

Formed in 1999, the Alliance's first two local Circles (young women and "old" in Clinchco, Virginia) elected baptism by fire when members decided their premiere project would be to organize an anti-racism workshop and rally in Dickenson County, the first- ever in the community's collective memory. As word of the rally spread, the Alliance office received disturbing communications from the Klan. Refusing to be intimidated, Circle members contacted a neighboring police department for protection and proceeded to organize an outstanding event. Out of that experience emerged a singular, yet formidable, goal: dismantle racism in Dickenson County.

Next on the agenda was the county School Board. What Circle members perceived to be an underlying racism in the county's schools reared its ugly head when a school board official actually used the term "nigger in the woodpile" at a public meeting. Galvanized to action, the Circles organized a community response to demand the official's resignation. The result was a public apology and the official's quiet departure in the month's following the incident. In the meantime, the two Circles decided on a long-term campaign to educate both the African American and white communities in Dickenson County about black history and the systematic construction of racism in the United States.

Their first step was to institute an annual Black Her/History Celebration to build pride among African Americans in Clinchco. At the same time the Circles continued to offer dismantling racism training to residents of Clinchco and the surrounding areas. Next they began collecting black history books to place in the schools and public libraries, all the while looking for appropriate ways to reach across color lines to the folks living in the "white camp" adjoining theirs &emdash; a term left over from coal company days. So in August of 2003 the Circle and black community marched through the white camps of Clinchco as part of the Poor People's March for Economic Human Rights, literally extending a hand across the racial divide to work together for decent housing, education, healthcare and wages for all.

In 2004, the Alliance agreed to open a Center in Clinchco and the Clinchco Circle chose to house it at the mouth of Clinchco's white "holler." As one resident described it, "Clinchfield Coal Company stole from the earth, raped our community, and vanished into the night, leaving nothing but a hollow -- in the community and the land. Now, because of the Appalachian Women's Alliance, there is a new vision for the old and the young. We are seeing that we can use our skills and abilities to do things for ourselves, and for the community. The condition of being poor should never make you feel ashamed."


Clinchco Young Women's Circle

by Amy Bradshaw

The Young Women's Alliance at the Clinchco Center is a group of about ten young women from middle school, high school and college who help plan Alliance events in Clinchco, plan events and meetings for themselves, and help organize the logistics of planning for other center events. The group planned the black his/herstory event at the center, and the Caravan event for Clinchco.

Jalisa Gilmore says that being part of this group has helped her become more involved in the community. "We plan, get together, come up with ideas about what to do next, how we can make things better, and how to get people more involved." Jennifer agrees, saying, "We meet, discuss experiences at school, sexism, racism, and we try to figure out what we can do to make things better." One of the endeavors these women planned was distributing books about black history into area schools that didn't have any. The young women are working to make people more aware and to get involved and give back to the community.

In the future, the young women want to see the Center get bigger. Megan also wants to become more involved with the Appalachian Women's Alliance and go around to different areas. Jennifer wants to see the center keep going, and get better. One of the most important things for the young women is that their meetings give them a chance to "be yourself, speak your mind, and meet new people," says Megan.

The members of the Young Women's Circle also write and contribute to the Journal. Jalisa loves to write poetry and focuses on writing about the town and the community. Megan also writes because, "it's fun, good to put your feelings out on paper, and is very moving. Raven also loves to write poetry for the Journal. "I write about myself, how I feel about things, the world, and my part in it." Raven wants to see the center expand. She wants "everybody, from all over America to see it and hear about it and the Alliance."


Black Her/History Celebration

by Amy Bradshaw

During Black History Month, the Center puts together an exciting event that includes food, poetry, performance, and good conversation. The Young Women's Alliance is responsible for a large part of the planning and comes up with new ideas each year to make the event unique, fun, and educational. Megan Williams, a member of the Young Women's Alliance, wrote and read a poem about her grandmother. She also had a friend come and present a black martial arts performance with African roots. The young women put together a quiz for everyone to take about black history "to learn about our history, our people who invented things we use and don't know where they came from, and our culture." Raven Gulley dressed up as Harriet Tubman and read a poem that she had written. Jennifer Mock helped with the event as well. "We wanted to get people in the community more involved so we had everyone write and tell stories about who influenced them within the community." The event brought together both young and old within the community and from a thirty mile radius.


Voter Education Project

by Amy Bradshaw

The center is working to educate the community on the importance of voting and being involved in town council and politics. "We want more women in the political world by starting in their own community. We want women on more committees and in positions, and as many women as possible involved within their community to voice their opinion and make changes." Within the town council of Clinchco, women really have a strong voice and are able to talk about what they want in their community. Frankie Gulley, Viney Brooks, Martha Vineto regularly attends town council meetings. Frankie says that often she feels the town council overlooks her because they have already made up their minds, but she likes a challenge and enjoys challenging them. Frankie has already been working to lower the speed limit in town and build a fence around a large construction company right in the center of town. She is also on the Heritage day Planning Committee where she has been working to make sure everything is fair and all children are treated equally. Frankie is on the Fundraising Committee as well. Her involvement allows "me to voice my opinion and make a difference," says Frankie.

The center spent a lot of time registering and helping people in the Clinchco community vote in last years presidential election. Coraline Norse, 53 years old, voted for the first time and said it felt "real good." The center helped get together the registration forms, helped her fill them out, and took her to the polls and helped her with the voting process. They also transported people without transportation to the polls. It is important to vote not only because it is empowering to the women to voice their opinion, but it gives them a chance to hold those they vote for accountable for their actions. "If we don't vote and we don't get involved, we are being dictated. If we vote, we can find our voice in the political world." Coraline says, "I ain't never did it. I was never interested because they (elected officials) don't do anything noways. Even if you don't get anywhere at least you can say you voted." Coraline will vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election and the center will be working to encourage others to do so as well.


Building Community Capacity by Painting a Wall

by Tauna Gulley

The Appalachian Women's Alliance of Clinchco, Virginia spent the Summerof 2005 promoting community capacity within their community.

Clinchco is a rural coal mining community located in southwest Virginia. Thiscommunity was once a booming town when men worked in the coal mines and children could be seen playing everywhere. Today, adults are facing unemployment and the children are succumbing to a culture of television viewing and video games.

The Alliance created a project that included many of the community residents, adults as well as children. The children painted a mural depicting the history of the community on a rock wall located at the entrance to the community. The goal of the project was to beautify the neighborhood. However, the project became much more than that.

The initial step in building community capacity was creating successful partnerships. The Alliance developed partnerships with parents, the fire department, local government and churches to achieve their vision. Parents agreed to allow the children to participate.

They realized the mural would be a valuable piece of history for the community. The fire department agreed to pressure wash the wall before painting began. The Town Council, Board of Supervisors and local churches provided donations for supplies. Clintwood Lumber provided a substantial discount on supplies and other community residents offered donations of food and drinks for the children while painting.

Numerous positive outcomes became evident as the project progressed. The children gained a sense of accomplishment with completion of the mural. They also developed a higher sense of belonging and verbalized feeling as if they were part of the community.

As one child stated, "I can show my children what I did". "I felt good because I was part of it". Research supports a higher sense of belonging can positively influence one's health and self esteem. It is very important for children and adolescents to achieve these qualities in order to become successful young adults.

The project also gave the residents of the community the opportunity to develop relationships with one another. Effective working relationships is an essential component in building healthier and happier communities.


Clinchco Circle Organizes Computer Class

by Meredith Dean

When women in one small Virginia coaltown get together to talk, what they talk about is computers.

"There was a job that was opening up, but I needed basic typing and computer skills to apply; I wasn't prepared," admits 27 year old Kisha Milgram. "I took typing in high school, but I had forgotten the keyboard."

Another woman, Teresa, had acquired some basic skills, but not the level she needed to apply for a job with Nexus, a company hiring office workers in nearby Clintwood, as well as Charlotte, North Carolina.

So the Clinchco Circle of the Appalachian Women's Alliance went to work. First they enlisted the help of Vincent Vinelli, staff of the Fourth World Movement and a local computer wiz, who agreed to be their teacher.

Next they borrowed four computers from the Department of Social Services to begin their class. Before they knew it, 16 students had signed up for the first six week session of the Appalachian Women's Alliance Computer Class, held at the Clinchco grade school.

Because so many students in the first class didn't have vehicles, the women decided to house the second class closer to home. For more than 20 years, the AME Zion Church has rented a small building in the middle of the black community in Clinchco, two doors down from Alliance organizer, Edna Gulley. The lot was originally the site of an all black grade school housed in a trailer.

When the Church acquired it, they turned it into a recreation center for local youth. Edna remembers playing there when she was little since she was not welcome at the white school's playground, and her daughter went to Bible School there. In recent years, though, the Center has been quiet.

"It was the perfect place for our class," says Edna, "and it was an opportunity to use the building as it was intended, as a Center to help folks right here in our community."

"It was a great experience," says Kisha, "and now that I know something about computers, I'm not so scared to put in an application. Just being able to practice on the keyboard really helps. I can't wait for the next session."

As for Teresa, once graduating from the class she landed a job in Charlotte.

The dream of the Clinchco Women is to broaden the computer classes, as well as the Clinchco Community Center, to serve both black and white folks in Dickenson County.

Afternote: In 2004, the Clinchco Circle fulfilled their dream and opened the Clinchco Center. Their very first project was to offer the computer class to the entire community!

copyright Appalachian Women's Alliance 2006

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