Advocating for Rural Communities

From early in her career, Shannon Elizabeth Bell (Class of 2005) knew that her research must benefit the people she was studying. Bell recently published Fighting King Coal: The Challenges to Micromobilization in Central Appalachia (MIT Press, 2016). Along with her previous book, the award-winning Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed: Appalachian Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice (University of Illinois Press, 2013), Fighting King Coal brings to light the myriad environmental injustices taking place in the coalfields of Appalachia.
Bell is currently an associate professor at the University of Kentucky. Her books and career build from her Future Generations practicum. Titled West Virginia Photovoice, her practicum bridged activism and the academy through in-depth interviews, participant observation, geospatial viewshed analysis, and document analysis.
One important insight from her graduate work with Future Generations was building from successes. She led fifty-four women in five coal mining communities through an eight month process of “telling the story” of their communities. These stories included the strengths, beauty, and challenges, as well as the participants’ ideas for change. Many ideas became realities thanks to the visibility that Photovoice provided. Roads were repaired, municipal waterlines were built, and a community park and pool were reopened. The project increased participants’ sense of efficacy and empowerment.
To learn more about Shannon Bell’s West Virginia Photovoice project, visit

Bringing Home Fresh Ideas

Kristen Baskin, a Future Generations student based in Athens, Georgia, joined the Appalachian regional residential this past September. Here’s a description of the experience in her own words:
The Future Generations Appalachia residential was interesting, insightful, well-planned, and incredibly helpful for my community in Athens, Georgia. Luke Taylor-Ide [Regional Academic Director for Appalachia] planned a residential that was so organized – meals, lodging and schedule – that we could 100% focus on our learning. I’ve been working in the field of urban gardening for a long time, and eventually started a composting business, Let Us Compost.  If Let Us Compost were a bike, the residential was a living bike shop, oiling the gears, patching the holes in the tires, straightening the bottom bracket, while as I looked back upon Athens, I could see old bike paths I’d ridden a million times, new avenues to ride, and the air all around us that feeds everything.
Future Generations is so applied that I often don’t see a gap between my business, Let Us Compost, and  my graduate school work.  Even though we had to travel for ten days to go on the residential, the alignment with work at home was spectacular, relating mostly to farms, food, community health and public policy. The residential was like a GIS layer placed on top of my community and business – each site visit was a better lens into what we we’re doing, how we could improve, and mostly a lens into the assets we already had – friends, partners, dedicated customers, land to make compost, a steady stream of food scraps, a team of spirited and passionate cyclists, and a governmental landscape that made it possible for us to grow.  It was really new and difficult being away from my daughters, and I know for many people this is a big challenge for the program – but it’s really important to have that separation from your community and even sometimes your family to grow and become better.  Coming home I love my family even more, and am crafting our systems at home to be better for everyone.

The most powerful visit was the trip to Refresh Appalachia, where we learned from a farmer how to use pigs to till the soil, use milk crates for an entire start to finish egg business, and how female animals really run the farms.This particular farmer was working in a coal mine and turning it into remediated, farmable land. He used an egg crate inside his hen house for roosts, the same crates to store empty egg cartons, to haul eggs (they have perfect circles that hold them steady), to wash and dry eggs (perfect drainage system), and finally to stack the full crates of eggs in nice squares for the market.  The crates were free from a dairy and he used them for everything!  With the land and sun he had an incredibly cycle that didn’t cost very much at all. 

We visited the Capitol Market in Charleston where we saw a hand-painted public piano. I loved that it was out for everyone to see, anyone could play it and it spread joy all around. Somehow it was beautifully maintained too, and didn’t get destroyed by the weather.This taught me that if I’m going to get everyone in Athens to compost, I need for my community to understand what we are doing, and why. But more important than that, I need to involve my community more in what we are playing – asking for their input, talking to people who don’t compost and what they need to do so, and digging into the deeper environmental concerns that our community has – rather than just my own. I can set up a beautiful piano of sorts, but everyone needs to play it, the proper person needs to maintain it, and it needs to benefit the public, even if with new songs I’ve never heard. 

Let Us Compost has changed a lot since I came home – we created a knowledge management system on Evernote so that everyone can see the operations manuals and have tools that they need at any time – this was a combination of my organizational management class with Dr. Ruben Puentes and absorbing my classmate Stephanie’s mind for organization. We created better systems for events so that our staff can manage them and interact with the community in new ways. We’ve pitched two stories to the local newspaper and were printed up in both Flagpole Magazine and the Athens Banner Herald – these were pitched by community members and our bike haulers! The interview with Flagpolewas conducted by phone on the residential.  This advice came from Dr. Daniel Taylor, who told me to gather community voices rather than drawing a famous inspirational speaker – that these voices would grow composting more. A video was made about our bike hauling and I didn’t make an appearance or have any input on it which was wonderful!! It was delightful to see “my” company become our community’s company.  
Due to a conflict that occurred with a Let Us Compost staff member while I was away on the residential, I created a template for our composting pilot which allowed our farm manager to give us six months of information about how to compost weird things at a farm. Before having this report, all his information was kept secret, and he felt like he wasn’t listened to or valued. Now he openly shares his ideas and processes, so we can all be a part of it.We launched a new test pilot to pick up CHaRM materials – things that are traditionally hard to recycle, and the only people participating are our clients – so they get all the input. My classmate Ashley inspired putting this into action – hearing about her community’s struggle with recycling made me incredibly grateful for the infrastructure we had – I finally saw it as an asset! Future Generations has really stressed this point – our community voices is what should drive social change – and it can flow through SEED-SCALE‘s process. Within days the lessons from the residential were applied – and it’s been working really well – our team is united, we’re sharing ideas, following process, and repeating systems instead of creating new ones.  Thank you for my education!!

Regional Residentials Expose Students to Community Development Successes

The Class of 2017 just wrapped up regional residential experiences in Nepal, West Virginia, and Ethiopia. Regional residentials are an important component of the Future Generations degree program because they give students the opportunity to meet face to face and explore things that are happening in their regions. Here are some summaries from each of the residentials by people who were on them.
“We visited 7 organizations related to the program outcomes and course objectives for this term. Above all, we learned that success comes through proper planning, community participation, and stakeholder partnerships. Students gained knowledge related to program outcomes, community mobilization, and sustainable development.” Nawang Gurung, Himalaya Regional Academic Director
West Virginia
“The term II residential for the Appalachian cohort was filled with innovative organizations, creative community involvement, and grand examples of partnerships, evidence gathering, and community organization. These shining examples, amid West Virginia’s economic collapse in the coal industry, are proving communities are willing to bind together and work for a common good even if that means finding healthier, more sustainable ways of living and working. These examples stretched across a wide spectrum of organizations and places from community gardens and farmers’ markets in Lewisburg to health groups and church assemblies in Williamson and Charleston. Though they varied in application and focus they were all working towards the same goal – harnessing and expanding human energy in a way that would spark and continue community change beneficial to people, the environment, and the economy. I am glad to see such innovation and drive alive and well in my home state, but I am happier to know that I am able to apply the same skillset I observed in these communities to my own.” Ashley Akers, Class of 2017
“After the great residential program in Ethiopia am just back to the office. This program was very special to me for it exposed us to unique experiences with a selection of relevant institutions and communities. All of us were so active to attend, tirelessly asking questions, and compiling our new learning around the clock. We covered a huge distance during the field visits but it was a learning process all along. With this, I like to express my appreciation to fellow students and I like to say thank you very much for the Graduate School management and faculty for giving us this opportunity. A thank you should also go to all institutions who hosted us and gave us their time generously. But most importantly, I love to recognize Firew Kefyalew [East Africa Regional Academic Director] for his special effort and attention for the great success of the program.” Zerihun Damenu, Class of 2017