Digging the Facts

Town in Appalachia

Michael S. Clark

Appalachia mountains

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 1, "Who Owns Appalachia?" Find more from that issue here.

“What is research? Research is digging facts. Digging facts is as hard a job as mining coal. It means blowing them out from underground, cutting them, picking them, shoveling them, loading them, pushing them to the surface, weighing them, and then turning them on to the public for fuel — for light and heat. Facts make afire which cannot be put out. To get coal requires miners. To get facts requires miners, too: fact miners.” — John Brophy, Pennsylvania miner, an advocate of public ownership of resources, 1921


The patterns of knowledge in the Appalachian region are much like the patterns of land ownership. Control of the facts is highly concentrated in the hands of a few government agencies, land speculators and corporations — absentee interests that are affected financially but not otherwise by what they find and how they use it. The vast majority of people normally get little benefit from the “knowledge industry,” but the Appalachian Land Ownership Study was meant to be different.

In the last decade, community groups in the region have tried to battle the numerous ill effects of land ownership patterns, yet there was no movement to deal with the patterns themselves and only limited documentation of the extent to which local problems might be regional or national in scope. People came a step closer to a region-wide effort in 1977, when major floods, worsened by the after effects of strip mining, left thousands homeless. Relief trailers stood empty for lack of land to put them on, yet the government refused to seize corporate land for this purpose. In response to a call from citizens of hard-hit Mingo County, West Virginia, groups from around the region gathered together and formed a coalition, the Appalachian Alliance. They put questions of land ownership high on their agenda for study and action.

Serious obstacles lay ahead. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the multimillion-dollar government agency concerned with Appalachian development, had never in its 12-year history bothered to look at land in its research or its policies. In fact, its strategies actually encouraged the movement of people into towns, leaving still more land free for corporate exploitation. Whenever the Alliance or anyone else confronted the policy makers on this issue, they were told that land-related problems were neither extensive nor severe. Without comprehensive information to back up their argument, community groups were unable to challenge effectively the failures in public policy. The Alliance established a task force - the Task Force on Land - to work on land and taxation issues; it later was joined by a group of scholars from the Appalachian Studies Conference, who shared its interests.

In August, 1978, Task Force members learned that the ARC did plan a study on land. But, in a meeting with ARC representatives, they soon found that the Commission intended to look primarily at “settlement patterns” of people on the land, ignoring the more basic question of how ownership affected their lives. The meeting prompted the Task Force to decide to do its own land study and challenge the ARC’s research priorities. Gathering the information needed by local activist groups was always up front, but, from the beginning, there were other equally important goals. Members of the Task Force would demonstrate that citizens could do their own research, geared to their own local needs, without relying on professional consulting firms whose research was based on the needs and interests of government agencies. They would train local citizens and groups to get the information they need by helping them actually do it, and then help them build a network concerned with land-related issues. Finally, they would use the results of the research to begin educating and mobilizing a broader body of local people to take constructive action in their own communities and at state and regional levels.

This project would obviously cost money, but funding was not on Alliance members’ minds when they met with the ARC Research Committee later in August, 1978. They were there to question the “land settlement” project and push the Commission toward making the fundamental land ownership questions its top research priority.

Citizens’ groups had confronted the ARC in the past about the outcome of its research — the pro-development strategies, legitimated by the research data, always compatible with the regional establishment. But they had never challenged the research process itself. So their questioning came as something of a surprise. The allocation of millions of dollars a year in research funds was an informal backroom affair among compatible technocrats, high-priced consulting firms and politicians, conducted outside the glare of public scrutiny. Broad political questions about who controlled the creation of “legitimate” knowledge about Appalachia had not been raised directly.

At the close of two days of meetings, it was Alliance members’ turn to Photo by Michael S. Clark be surprised. The Research Committee not only agreed in writing to make land ownership research a priority, but also asked the Alliance to submit its own proposal for the study.

After much internal discussion, the Alliance proposed a decentralized, participatory research plan. In each of the six states, a task force of citizens would decide which counties to study, what approaches to take, which issues to concentrate on. Each state’s task force would choose its own coordinator. Funds would be divided equally among the states, except for some money for regional administration and computer analysis. There would also be a regional task force with representatives from each state, its own coordinator, a small research staff and the job of synthesizing local research into a regional analysis.

Surprisingly, the ARC accepted the proposal in January, 1979, and it wasn’t long before the Alliance was recruiting and training field workers. Recruitment was not difficult. The project had already gathered widespread interest among people concerned with community change in the region, and some 60 people joined in to help. By the end of the project, the number had swelled to nearly 100. Many were members of existing groups or individuals interested in land issues. Others were students recruited from Appalachian Studies programs in local colleges, and several were college professors who wanted to apply their knowledge and skills to local problems. Some worked for salaries; others chose to volunteer their time, thus stretching the funds further in their states.

Because most of these field workers had never done any formal research, training was crucial. Before beginning the project, all participants came to the Highlander Center for a three-day workshop; there were periodic follow-up sessions in each state. Concrete skills like where to find data, how to fill in coding forms and how to conduct interviews were taught, but the sessions were also geared toward the study’s other goals of educating local leaders and linking local groups into a broader network to work together after the research stage.

By September, 1979, much of the field work was done, and the workers who had only four months before come for training returned to Highlander to report on their findings. It was soon clear that tremendous amounts of information had been uncovered. And, as they shared findings with one another, the researchers made connections between a wide range of community problems, began to see regional patterns and saw themselves as people faci.ng common issues.

The tasks of analyzing, compiling and writing up the findings still remained, and the sheer volume of data was enormous. Tensions soon developed between the impulse to start using the data to organize local campaigns and the need to produce the formal reports — the regional overview, six state studies, the analytical case studies, the county-by-county statistics, not to mention more popular materials like pamphlets, films and newspaper articles. The writing was to take another year and a half, and one state coordinator complained, “As we got more and more bogged down in writing, we were losing some of the context, some of the overall thing, and the support actions we could get out of it.”

The formal report has had its own impact and uses. Released on April 3, 1981, it sent a wave of publicity cresting through the region. Dozens of local papers ran articles on who owned their counties, and bigger papers like the Louisville Courier-Journal and Charleston Gazette ran series summarizing the overall findings. The final release of the report brought another round of negotiations with the ARC. Though the Commission had approved the methodology, it balked when it saw the findings. The 20 county case studies, where hard statistical data gave way to analysis and interpretations of what the data really meant, were particular sore spots. At the same time, the ARC itself was in trouble; threatened with abolition by the Reagan administration, it was lobbying hard in Congress to stay alive. ARC officials openly admitted that release of a controversial report wouldn’t help their case.

On the other hand, they did not want to be seen as suppressing the research, or to face the anger of citizens all over Appalachia who had worked so hard on it. So they finally agreed to release the report, though not without taking several steps to distance themselves from it. They refused to release the case studies, arguing they weren’t objective. Despite a prior agreement, they refused to make any announcement to the press. They refused to meet the full demand for copies of the study, saying they had no money to print it. And, despite this shortage of money, they hired a blue-ribbon panel of outside academics and consultants to do an experts’ study of the citizens’ study. (That panel has yet to release its findings.)

But the Alliance Task Force was ready with its own strategy for getting the material out. It followed the original agreement that, although the ARC could accept or reject the findings, the Alliance had the right to use the work as it wished after a certain date. The Task Force also had its own press releases and distribution system. Within weeks, it had sold hundreds of copies.

After all is said and done, the people involved have concluded that the way they did the study is fully as important as their findings. They met again at Highlander in July, 1981, to evaluate their work and talk about the process. Said one, “I think this study was important because we learned more than ever about what ‘participatory research’ really is, as something that involves people and overcomes the dichotomy . . . between research and social action and between the academic and the community. I think that’s a process we could apply to a lot of different lands of issues.”

A couple of others felt the split between academics and activists, but, said one person, “This whole project transcended that whole tension.” Another said, “I think that the different elements that went into making up the study were really very valuable. . . . I look back on a couple of those early meetings where we had some real differences, where even the goals we were setting seemed very different. One was a kind of research mechanism and the other was a kind of social action group, but somehow despite those differences a lot happened with the study that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Another person spoke of the study’s importance to local organizing, saying, “This has been very helpful in arguing for community-based thinking, planning, whatever you want to call it — about what our county or area will look like 15 or 20 years down the road. I think people now see they have a means of controlling what happens in their area.”

The participants also value the training and education they got out of it. They say they’ve learned that research itself is a way of educating people and of empowering them for further action. Said one, “I saw kind of a deeper change there that I would identify as development of local leadership. . . . There were a lot of people involved in a lot of different issues, but the study kind of turned the lights on for a lot of local folks, showing them that there really in a sense was one problem, with just several different aspects of that problem. It got people talking together and that has continued on a regular basis. I think the study helped focus that.”

Other people remarked upon the network-building that occurred. “A group of people who maybe were not connected together as an organization to begin with were brought together because of this study. It gave them a fresh start,” said one. And another mentioned the dispelling of an earlier feeling of isolation: “The connection with the group is very important to me. . . . This gave me an out, some kind of connection, some kind of feeling that what I was doing was important.”

Overcoming the distance between research and action had been a goal, and there was much talk about how well they had managed to begin that task. For example: “In Kentucky, I think the study has had some impact. People are starting to talk about this. For a long time in Kentucky the coal industry has always dominated the political spectrum. Even now we are only beginning to cut into that a little, if any, but the coal companies and the coal industry are on the defensive a little bit. It’s the First time the politicians have started talking publicly about taxing the coal industry and making the coal industry pay for some of the wealth that they’ve taken from the mountains.”

And again: ‘A lot of what we were doing in Lincoln County was going on well before the land study. But I think it adds a little clout to the ‘I told you so’ behind some of it. Local people there get lots of different people and volunteer groups coming around and they don’t hear anything after it. They did their little thing, and once again they got used in a survey. And I think this is a chance where local people have done their part and because of all the good press work that has been going on, they are not only seeing it in the county paper and the larger papers, but now on TV, where their input has produced something solid. I think now they can say — a lot of them — ‘This time we made a statement to some people that said they were going to do some good and produce results, and we got it!’”

If the process of the land study has to some degree been a model for citizen-based research, there were still shortcomings — and lessons to be learned from them. Several emerged clearly from the self-evaluation. Worthy of much discussion is the question of government support for this kind of research. On the one hand, the ARC provided money and a measure of legitimacy and served, to some extent, as a unifying antagonist. On the other hand, the Task Force was constantly juggling the demands of a government contract — timetables, methods, bureaucratic requirements — with its own concern for using the data for community change and the empowerment of individuals and groups. While the demands were difficult to balance, the process was probably the stronger for it. As one person said, “We played both ends against the middle.” He continued, “I think that the different elements that went into making up the study really were valuable in the final product — all the way from the top-down ARC involvement to the bottom-up grassroots involvement of people who participated in the local cases, students, the involvement of Highlander, the involvement of the Alliance. All those elements together helped make the study something that it wouldn’t have been otherwise.”

At the same time, the very diversity of the participants raised the question of who was served by the research process. In some areas, the local task forces were well-grounded in the community; in others, the research teams were drawn primarily from colleges. Where the Task Force took the time to recruit people directly affected by land problems, follow-up action occurred more often. Elsewhere, individual researchers learned a great deal, but a new, different base of people had to be pulled together when it came time to organize action. As one state coordinator said: “I wish we had had an opportunity, say six months’ lead time, to go out and make some contacts . . . and try to find places where local people were interested in doing the research and following all the way through the study. . . . I think in the long run it would have been a lot easier to put together some kind of a coalition on land and tax issues if we had been able to start from stage one in that way.”

Many other participants feel that they didn’t do enough to shape a vision of a new future. Said one: “I started making connections with other situations around the country and being ‘brainwashed’ to look at everything in terms of ‘land ownership.’ Whammo! That’s really it! That made me think about larger questions, about notions of land ownership and property, what it is our culture is saying about owning property; what does that mean in the economy of the country as a whole. I was frustrated throughout the editing and talking about this study in the last year that we didn’t really seem to get to any of that.”

Try as they might, the participants were simply unable to bridge the gap between the need for information and action on specific, immediate problems and the need for a broader analysis and vision. One person tried to think this through: “Part of the problem is that we acted most of the time without any serious discussion within the Task Force of a theory. What is it we are trying to do with this land study? What we’ve got is all this documentation about absentee ownership, but how does that move us forward? What does that tell us about change and especially American society? As a result, the change we focused on is taxation. Well, that is good. But that’s treating the symptoms, not treating the disease itself. I don’t think we ever got at an understanding of what all this means. Part of what we have done is add substance to this colonial theory of the outsider — just get rid of these damn outsiders’ ownership and everything will be all right. The problem is much deeper than that.”

He drew this response: “I don’t think we, as a group, really know how to tie the use of information for winning a specific battle and at the same time create a consciousness about longer-range goals. People trying to win pragmatic battles were frustrated because we were trying to be too general and too broad, and it wasn’t useful in the immediate sense. And people who were able to think more broadly were frustrated because we were being too specific and nobody was happy with that. I think that’s a tension that undercuts — lies deeper than the study — that we’ve all got to figure out.”

Since the voicing of this frustration, and partly because of it, the Land Task Force has begun to think further about visions of land reform and to plan workshops where these types of discussions can take place.

Of course, research — even of the participatory ilk — does not a movement make. Yet, as this case study shows, a citizen-based research process can be used to gain information for action and to educate community leaders, link communities facing common problems, help local organizations coalesce and serve as a spark for change. In Appalachia, the “fact diggers” involved in the project are now using the information they have acquired to combat land ownership problems. And, in the process of getting the facts they need, they have gained more strength for the battle.