Recently a group of students and I had the amazing opportunity of visiting the National Press Club for a luncheon with renowned actress and spokesperson Ashley Judd. I am so thankful for the opportunity to travel to DC, study here at Georgetown and take advantage of such awesome opportunities, like Press Club luncheons. From Judd and other events I have learned a lot about myself, the systems at work in our society and my individual role within a broader worldly context.
I am unabashedly Southern. I hold doors, love pastel colors to an excessive degree, grew up on biscuits with grits and have been known to say “hello” or “hey y’all” to the average passersby. But, regardless of what elements of the southern United States’ stereotype I choose to personally identify with, I am most importantly rooted in a sense of place: the south, my home. Ashley Judd and I have this in common.
Experiencing Ashley Judd speak about her Kentucky roots borders on the edge of the intersection between a scene from Steel Magnolias and a summertime front-porch bluegrass concert. The cadence of her speech is eerily reminiscent to the steady plucking of a Kentucky banjo; full of colorful inflection, rhythm, ease and bends. As charming as Judd’s dialect and humorous asides about distilleries and moonshine are, what is most striking about her is both her love of Appalachia and her relentless passionate defense of her homeland from what she says is quickly destroying all she came to love as a child: coal mine mountaintop removal.
According to Judd, this evil is tearing apart Appalachia and leaving natural and human habitats contaminated, deserted and irreversibly tarnished. Every body of water in Kentucky is under the threat of contamination because of the human search and quest for coal, she says. Not only is the dynamiting away of some of the oldest mountains in the world horrific in and of itself, the results are irreversible and are threatening a way of life in a part of the country that, according to Judd, depends on the destruction of their natural world for income.
In many parts of Appalachia, coal mining once existed as an insular industry that kept afloat hundreds of families during the first half of the twentieth century and resulted in relatively thriving mountain communities. All of this changed as our national consumption of coal decreased in return for more readily accessible and or environmentally conscious alternatives.
“The coal mining industry will never be able to sustain the entire region as it once did,” Judd says.
The people of the mountains Judd loves so dearly are caught in an economic catch-22; they are forced to weigh their love for their natural worlds and their families at home who depend on coal mining jobs to bring home food to the table. And, as Judd will tell you, the good people of Appalachia have sided with their families for the last century. Because the coal few alternative industries exist in the regions in which MTR (Mountaintop Removal) is ravaging the natural splendor of the Earth, most livelihoods depend solely on low-paying and extremely dangerous employment with several conglomerate coal companies Judd describes and “ruthless.”
“To speak out against the mines is to be unpatriotic,” Judd says. Judd says that the people of Appalachia not only have little political clout, but also rarely speak out for fear of losing their jobs. This lack of representation and this cause is what Judd has forthrightly committed herself and her spotlight of attention to.
Judd says that she wants to use her fame and spotlight to spread awareness about what is going on in her homeland. She took up this cause recently while attending the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government where, she says, only one other peer there had ever heard of this travesty. She expressed her frustrations in trying to bring awareness to the topic while studying at Harvard and remarked that the corporate leaders of the numerous coal companies that dot the region refused to accept countless invitations to speak at the school and elsewhere.
Judd’s ultimate goal, besides increased dialogue and press attention, is concrete governmental action and investment in new industry throughout the region to provide the nail in the coffin for coal companies: employees with valid options of work elsewhere.
As an aspiring journalist and politician, Judd’s work and words of hope for her home are deeply moving. She is doing what I hope to do in a career in either journalism or political service: give a coherent voice to a people and a story that have no way of spreading their perspective with the world.