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'Let's Get To Work' - Addressing Inequality And Racism In Appalachia

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Mason Adams
Protesters at a Black Lives Matter March in Marion, Virginia in July 2020.

What are communities in Appalachia doing to address racism? The death of George Floyd and others at the hands of police sparked hundreds of demonstrations over the summer, and a national reckoning on police reform and systemic racism.

Those conversations are happening here in Appalachia, too. Many mountain people organized Black Lives Matter marches in small towns across the region. And they’re taking a hard look at laws and policies that treat people unfairly.

In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we look at a community in Pittsburgh and its struggles with urban renewal. We’ll also hear about a community in West Virginia that is one of the few cities in the nation to establish an independent police review board. We’ll also learn more about how Black Lives Matter marches can turn tense as counter-protesters and marchers face off.

In this episode:

A Broken Promise For Accountability

Robert "Robbie" Lemont Ellison
Photo courtesy of sister Lynn Ellison
Robert "Robbie" Lemont Ellison

A few cities in the country have independent police review boards, which are supposed to help make police more fair and more accountable to the communities they serve. But how well do they work?

Reporter Emily Allen looked into one of West Virginia's only panels for civilian oversight, in the town of Bluefield. After Emily started digging into the situation, city leaders agreed to revamp the review board to improve its transparency and its effectiveness. Emily Allen is a Report for America Fellow.

 

Urban Development

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MELVIN SEIDENBERG PHOTOGRAPHS / DETRE LIBRARY & ARCHIVES, HEINZ HISTORY CENTER
An aerial view of Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood, circa June 1971, looking south. The East Liberty Presbyterian Church between Highland Avenue and Whitfield Street is visible in the foreground.

City planners and urban developers often work together to shape cities. And they often leave poor people out of their plans. More often than not, Black neighborhoods bear the brunt.

In 2015, residents in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood learned they had to leave their homes to make way for a new development. In a podcast series by WESA’s Margaret Krauss, called “Land and Power,” we learn about the struggles in the East Liberty community.

Black Lives Matter Marches

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West Virginia Legislature
Delegate Danielle Walker

West Virginia House of Delegates member Danielle Walker attended a Black Lives Matter march in Kingwood, West Virginia in September and was met with racial name-calling from armed counter-protesters. The event caused her to start wearing body armor after getting death threats.

“The first time I put on body armor was Sept. 12, for the Kingwood, West Virginia Black Lives Matter March,” she said. “It felt like shackles and chains was being placed on my body once again. It breaks my mother's heart when she goes to give me an embrace.”

Report for America corps member Chris Jones reported on the march for the nonprofit newsroom 100 Days in Appalachia.

Editor’s Note: This story contains some offensive language, including racial slurs.

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Mason Adams
There were tense moments between protesters and counter-protesters during a Black Lives Matter march in July 2020, but near the end of the march, protesters began chanting "I love you."

The story originally aired on Reveal, as part of a collaboration between 100 Days in Appalachia and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. It was produced by Jesse Wright and Reveal’s Katharine Mieszkowski.

Co-host Mason Adams closes the show with a story about a Black Lives Matter protest he covered in Marion, Virginia. There were some tense moments between protestors and counter-protestors. Then, towards the end of the march, Black Lives Matter protesters began chanting “I love you.”

“At Inside Appalachia, we embrace the idea of serving all y’all — that’s everyone — and we understand that we have listeners from all backgrounds,” he said. “I’ve spoken with enough Appalachians to know that some of y’all don’t agree that we need to have these tough conversations about racism, police violence, and democracy. But we appreciate you listening all the same.”

Write to us!

Our mailing address is: Inside Appalachia, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, 600 Capitol Street. Charleston West Virginia. 25302.

Our email address is insideappalachia@wvpublic.org. Mason’s Twitter handle is @MasonAtoms. You can find the show on Twitter at @InAppalachia.

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by John Ellison, Kaia Kater, and a special thanks to our friends at Mountain Stage for allowing us to use recordings by Ethel Caffie Austin, Bob Thompson and Rhiannon Giddens.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode.

You can send us an email to InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.

Inside Appalachia is an award-winning production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Mason Adams grew up near the Virginia/West Virginia border in Clifton Forge, Virginia. He’s covered mountain communities and the issues affecting them since 2001. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, Mother Jones, Huffington Post and elsewhere. He lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAtoms.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.