back home in the land of burning clay

i’ve been traveling on a slow moving southbound train most of the day–slow moving by mandate of the CSX heat advisory: instead of traveling at 79 mph we’re stuck at 59 mph. and it feels appropriate.  no one rushes in the south, not really.  its too hot, you see.

traveling south again always fills me with a wild set of ambivalent feelings.  there is nostalgia and romanticization that cloud my judgment, but there is also bittersweet and upset.  there’s a lot i love about the south and a lot i cannot stand.  it’s a region of warmth and beauty and ill concealed demons.  all of the forms of oppression that hide insidiously in the shadows in other regions are on full display in this home of the confederacy.  in this land of states rights.  and i know the south is not unique in this, but all the weight of history–both public and private history–presses upon me as i race and race, homeward bound.

just yesterday i responded to an email, asking me to recall the summer i lived and worked in jenkinsville, sc.  and now as i get ready to step onto familiar ground and breathe in air heavy with magnolia and the smell of scorching earth, my stomach ties in knots at the memory of that summer.  each small town we pass through is bigger than jenkinsville, sc.  jenkinsville is a collection of houses and churches along a few miles stretch of two lane highway.  each small town has its own story, its own unique personality, but they all whisper similar truths.  you just cant always hear them, or more likely youre not paying attention.  i went to jenkinsville to hear those truths and stories and that summer has had a powerful effect on how i move in this world today.

i went to jenkinsville to run a listening project, to tease out the community’s relationship with its nuclear power station, VC Summer.  i was not invited there, i didn’t know anyone; i went alone and lived in a small upstairs apartment in the house of a woman riddled by loneliness.  i stepped into a community that i was not from and could not identify with: 96% black, high poverty rates, low high school graduation rates.  when i started knocking on doors warning folks i would be coming around with others to talk to them some, they assumed i was from the very utility i was actively working against.  but i was white and living in jenkinsville and so it made sense to assume i was from the plant.  i was suspect.

i met the locals largely through the senior citizens group at one of the churches.  they let me stay, even though i was too young to be there and they let me play bingo with them, even though i couldnt juggle nearly as many cards as they could.  they teased me in the same breath that they cooed and tutted at me about riding my bike on the small two lane highway between the church and my small home.  they didnt know that many of those days i biked home furiously to fume and color a map of the county mindlessly in front of a box fan.  each day that i got to know the people there the more furious i felt at the utility who was ruining their lives.  the nuclear power industry likes to claim its a clean and healthy energy source, but there is something known as bioaccumulation.  and in a community that lived off of house gardens, fishing in the lake that cooled the nuclear reactor and hunting off of the land, the people of jenkinsville are daily consuming high doses of radiation and the community is full of sickness to prove it.  at one house an old woman who’d lived in the community her whole life pointed to each house on her street giving me the names and ages of the people in each who had died or were living with different cancers.

listening project are unusual and powerful tools and i wish they were being used more.  the idea is that you create a survey of questions which culminate in questions about individuals’ relationships to whatever topic is of interest.  in jenkinsville it was the nuclear power plant.  folks canvas in teams of two: one acting as the empathetic listener who is paying attention to the emotional content of the interviews and asking the questions, judging when to probe and when to move on; and an intellectual listener who is taking notes, trying to capture accurately the content of the interview.  you dont record anything so as to protect anonymity.  often the topics are touchy and sometimes dangerous to challenge.  and the power is in genuinely listening and finally being heard.  by focusing on the voice you remind it of its own strength.

but traditionally you are invited into a community, or you are part of whatever community you’re working in.  i knew i wanted to be working in opposition to the expansion of VC Summer and i knew no movement of resistance would be powerful without the directly impacted community informing the strategy.  but i didnt think about what i was committing to and what archetypal narrative i was stepping into.  i was well meaning, privileged and enthusiastic.  a historically dangerous combination.

i did not consider how lacking any community connection initially would weaken the power of what we were able to do with what we heard, about the possibility of being told–as a paid activist at the time–that this was no longer a priority by my non profit bosses.  i didnt think of becoming just another well meaning white person who would let down a community struggling to challenge forces that could make them pay for their disobedience, while i walked back into my other life.

it wasnt quite like that but it wasnt too far from that either.  in traveling back to this place i travel the roads i did as a young, green climate activist kid.  whenever i think of jenkinsville my whole body aches to go back: to repent maybe, to actually dig in in a way that feels honest, to reconnect to a community that opened itself to me.  and i am still so unsure.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. joyce
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 13:14:52

    powerful stuff….aunt joyce


  2. paxus
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 14:58:46

    Thanks for this post. And i struggle with it. Have there been lots of groups invited to do listening projects anywhere? How would the community know that such a project existed or was possible? How would they know to ask your group to do it?

    It is completely understandable that you would feel guilty as a paid white organizer bringing your issue to their town to talk about. And what you found (from conversations we have had) was that your issue was one of their issues – not the only one certainly, but one that they cared about and were upset about.


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