What magic occurs to make an invisible person visible—and not just visible, but powerful?
Sure, sometimes it’s spectacular crime or titillating celebrity, but for lasting visibility, for transforming the shadow life that most of us lead into substance, the necessary magic is courage. Moral courage. When an ordinary person plants a simple but abstract idea—like justice, like fairness, like the common good—in her own body and lets it grow, and understands what actions she must perform to nourish that abstract idea into reality, then we witness the birth of an agent of change. We see an idea become a strong narrative because it is embodied. The embodiment becomes a story in which we can all play a part.
A person does not have to have gone to Yale; she can be short and stocky, and a grandmother by the time she’s in her forties, but by an act of moral courage in the name of justice, human and environmental justice, she becomes a teacher for all of us. She becomes very tall, indeed. She demonstrates that she has taken to heart the most profound lesson: that none of the things we cherish in life will be ours unless we act courageously, in Helen Keller’s words, “…to make good our claim on them.”
I’m talking about Judy Bonds. She died of cancer several days ago in West Virginia. She was the divorced waitress who won the international Goldman Prize (informally known as the Green Nobel) in 2003 for her struggles to stop mountaintop removal coal mining—a practice that had driven her from her family home in Marfork Holler, West Virginia. The region of southern West Virginia where Judy lived and worked is what Harry Caudill memorably called a “national sacrifice zone,” a place that those who live elsewhere decide is OK to desecrate and pollute in the name of necessary resource extraction, profit, economic expansion, jobs—or whatever other rationalization we use justify exploitation and destruction. What about the people who live in a national sacrifice zone? Who agrees to make them collateral damage to this economy?
Judy Bonds was targeted to be one of many invisible victims to the profits of Massey Energy and our desire for cheap electricity. But she understood that what was happening in the Appalachians was only a symptom of a bigger problem. She understood that an economy that defines its health by its perpetual growth at the expense of nature is inevitably very sick. Such an economy makes, finally, everywhere and everybody into a national sacrifice zone. Such an economy is at war with nature, with life, and with our ultimate reality.
Before she died, Judy Bonds gave this interview about fighting to save her home from mountaintop removal coal mining.
Judy took her anger and her spunky humor and her little body and her huge courage and threw it all into the gears of that economic machine. It didn’t grind to a halt, but her insistence on her own visibility inspired many others to join her. All the problems that are made visible by mountaintop removal—the buried and polluted waterways, the destroyed habitat, the species extinctions, the sacrifice of the Appalachian forests that cleanse the atmosphere of enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, the destruction of mountain culture, the baffling arrogance that claims the right to blow up ancient mountains for profit—all these issues were brought to the attention of millions of people because of the courage of Judy Bonds. That’s a teacher.
Judy Bonds was part of the sisterhood, the one that includes Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul, Emma Goldman, Rachel Carson, Kathy Kelly, Medea Benjamin, Mother Jones, Diane Wilson, Molly Ivins, Fannie Lou Hamer, Cindy Sheehan, Rachel Corrie, Jennifer Harbury, Cynthia McKinney, Ann Wright, and many, many more—women who refuse to be intimidated by power and humiliation, women who refuse to endure oppression.
My goodness, what a calling to join those ranks! And anyone can do it.
- :: To fight his shame and cynicism, artist Robert Shetterly began painting the courageous Americans whose lives filled him with pride and hope.
- :: Appalachian residents are serious about putting a stop to mountaintop removal coal mining—and building a more sustainable economy to take its place.
- :: Kate Sheppard interviews some of the people on the front lines of climate action.