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Climate One

Monday, May 24 at 2:00 pm

Journey Of A Former Coal Miner

Grassroots activism can take many forms, from protests to letter-writing to citizen science to community organizing. But these often more local forms of activism can get short shrift compared to the more powerful, national players in climate and environmental movements. Today’s Climate One asks the questions: What can grassroots activists do that national organizations can’t? And what can their stories and experiences teach us?

Nick Mullins is a former fifth-generation coal miner from Clintwood, Virginia and creator of the blog, Thoughts of a Coal Miner. Growing up, his father taught him to love the woods that surrounded them.

“He'd take me and my brother to the top of the ridge line, show us the trees. We would play in the streams. I really got really connected to nature that way,” Mullins says.

As a kid, Mullins says he had a lot of pride and respect for his forefathers who supported their family by working in the coal mines. But as he grew older, his views of the industry that employed his family changed. When he was 19 years old, a coal company opened a mine on the mountain above his family home.

“It devastated me,” he said. “They had just obliterated all the oaks and all the poplars and it didn't look like the same place. And then as the months continued, they started stripping away the top soils and it just became, as some people have said, like a moonscape.”

Mullins became an underground coal miner himself, because he says the “mono-economy of coal” meant there were few other options for a steady paycheck and good benefits. But he says that his experience of losing a natural place special to his family was one factor that drove him to leave the mines and become an activist against mountaintop removal.

He says he’s been frustrated by the biases on all sides of the issue, from wealthy and privileged outsider environmentalists and academics who presume to understand the working-class life of a coal miner to the same coal miner who responds to such activism with “anti-environmentalism, anti-intellectualism.”

His advice to the larger environmental groups is to provide money, resources and trust to local grassroots activists.

“Have faith that they can and will make change in their communities if they’re provided the resources,” he says.

Mullins is one of many grassroots activists featured in the book, The World We Need: Stories and Lessons from America's Unsung Environmental Movement.

The book’s editor, Audrea Lim, says the goal was to push against the tide of coverage focused on large environmental groups. Instead, she sought to highlight people often working in their own communities to combat pollution and build toward a cleaner and more equitable society. Lim says those efforts are diverse, from housing and gentrification to local food systems and sustainable businesses.

“The thing about grassroots activism, apart from the stereotype, is that it's really just people in a community who sort of see a problem — whether that’s refineries being built in their neighborhood or a community garden because they don't have access to food — and then they get together on their own and tried to find a solution to it,” Lim says. “It’s really as simple as that.”

Four years ago, James Coleman was a high school senior and climate activist in South San Francisco, an industrial city distinct from its more famous neighbor. Now he’s a city council member finishing up a degree in regenerative biology at Harvard.

He says he continues to see a lot of tension between science and politics, especially during the pandemic.

“I think it's really important that scientists speak out and say that, you know, these are undeniable facts, and these facts need to be taken as facts and not politicized by whatever's happening in the national discourse,” Coleman says.

Coleman says the combination of the racial justice movement in 2020 and the “dismissive” response from current city council to the concerns of him and other young activists motivated him to run for office. Now, somewhat to his surprise, he’s on the other side of the room.

“Growing up I never saw myself as an elected official. I always saw myself as an activist because that’s what I did in high school, that’s the role that I had as a college student. I always saw myself as someone who would be holding elected officials accountable, not necessarily being the one in office being held accountable,” he says.

Climate change is a big part of his platform. He says a lot of people are working to get more young activists into office, even though activists and elected officials play fundamentally different roles:

“A lot of activists can inform elected officials like [me] about the various issues that the community is concerned about,” Coleman says. “It’s their job to be idealistic, to have the vision, and it's my job to implement that vision and make it possible.”


Nick Mullins
Blogger, Former Coal Miner

Audrea Lim
Journalist & Editor

James Coleman
City Councilor

To listen to the audio of “Journey Of A Former Coal Miner”” on Climate One online, please click HERE.