Mother Jones Community Foundation is a non-profit organization (501-c3) dedicated to improving the quality of life in some of the most impoverished and exploited communities in Appalachia. Our mission is to help people forgotten and ignored by the exploitive industries that profited from our natural resources and moved on. We will improve lives by matching means with need.
The People of Appalachia Deserve Better
Photo: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images North America
Founder/Chairwoman Mari-Lynn Evans was 17 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took her grandfather’s farm to create Burnsville Lake. She was hysterical as the family drove away. It was then that her grandmother told her something she’s never forgotten. “She said ‘In this life, you’re going to lose everyone and everything, so you have to find something bigger than self to care about,’” Evans remembers. “I swear to God, I never understood what that meant until 17 years ago [while making] The Appalachians.”
After a career in health care, time as a brand consultant for Proctor and Gamble, and work in television production, she decided someone needed to make a documentary about the history of the Appalachian Mountains and the region’s people. No one was interested, so Evans did it herself. The 2005 four-part documentary was a hit on public broadcasting, where it still runs today.
An interview Evans did with Raleigh County native Judy Bonds for The Appalachians led to her next project: 2009’s Coal Country, about mountaintop removal mining. “I knew the pain she was talking about. I knew what it was like to have everything and everybody you ever loved being taken from you.” Making that documentary led to yet another change in Evans’ career path. “I wasn’t just a documentary filmmaker any more. I was an activist.”
Next she released Blood on the Mountain in 2016, a history of the bloody fight for unionization on Blair Mountain and the landmark’s controversial removal from the National Register of Historic Places. Netflix bought the film, it earned an Emmy nomination, and, best of all, Blair Mountain was put back on the register in June 2018.
Evans is now working with Columbia University, the West Virginia High Technology Foundation, and others on a “social entrepreneurship “ project addressing the threat caused to coal country communities by slurry impoundments. The project will be accompanied, of course, by a multi-part television series.
Thanks to her success, Evans has been able to buy back the last 20 acres of her grandfather’s land that isn’t under water. Being there, she says she isn’t angry for what is lost—but hopeful for what remains. “I swear to God, it smells and sounds just like it did when I was a kid.”
The current plan for this land is to work with many organizations to help make it back into a sustainable food farm including mountain foraged foods. The foods produced from the land will help to benefit the impoverished communities in Braxton Co, WV.
MJCF Director: Maria Gunnoe is a multi-award-winning Community Organizer and world-renowned Activist. Maria is a lifelong resident of Boone County, WV. Her work has been recognized globally. She has worked in preserving and protecting the culture and history of rural West Virginia communities for 25 years. In her role as MJCF Director, Maria works to improve the lives of the people in the communities that have been forgotten.
She works to increase educational advancement opportunities and enhance community safety through awareness of environmental degradation threatening people’s homes and lives. She works to bring community resources to communities that have none. Maria has traveled extensively and has spoken in colleges and universities throughout the country. Her work continues to be broadly influential in curriculum nationally. Maria takes great pride in being an Appalachian. She inspires others throughout Appalachian communities to be proud of who they are and where they are from.
Maria has collaborated with the print media since the late 90’s to stop the destruction of WV’s rural communities. She has been profiled in some of the largest media outlets available including Rolling Stone, the New York Times, LA Times, O Magazine, O’s Guide to Life, People Magazine, Vanity Fair, Elle Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Washington Post, National Geographic Magazine and more. Her work has also been in countless films and books including ‘The People’s Curriculum for the Earth’ which is used in high schools nationally and the Emmy nominated film ‘Blood on the Mountain’. Maria brings her global network and media experience to MJCF.
Maria has testified before Congress on a number of occasions and has built relationships with people in power across the country. Her methodology is being used as a template to help preserve rural communities in Spain and she continues to influence policymakers in the federal and state government to bring opportunity to the Appalachian people in communities that historically depended on coal.
Maria’s awards include:
- The 2012 Raoul Wallenberg Medal from the University of Michigan for her work to protect the basic human rights of the people in Appalachia.
- The David Brower Lifetime Achievement Award.
- The 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize, (The Nobel Peace Prize for environmental work.)
- The 2008 David v/s Goliath Award, (The Rainforest Action Network.)
- The 2006 Joe A. Calloway Award for Civic Courage presented by Ralph Nader.
- The 2005 West Virginia Environmental Courage Award, (The WV Environmental Council.)
Maria Graduated from WV Junior College with a Specialized Associates Degree in Medical Science/ Office Technology.
BOD Member Allen Johnson fell in love with the Appalachian mountains when as a teenager his parents would drop him off on the Potomac River while they visited relatives in Maryland. Contrasted with his living in the cornfield flatlands of northern Indiana, kayaking and camping for several days on the clear river nestled among mountains was intoxicating.
Allen met his wife, Debora, at Manchester College in northeast Indiana. His love for nature drew him to graduate with a major in Biology. Soon after marriage to Debora in 1971 (50th anniversary in 2021), they both got jobs teaching school in southern Wayne County, West Virginia, Allen teaching science at Crum High School. Within a few years they had moved to Pocahontas County, West Virginia, where they have nested on 9 acres adjoining the Monongahela National Forest, raised four sons to successful adulthood, and raise gardens and small livestock.
Allen has worked factory jobs, railroading, teaching, social work, health care administration, and library administration. In 2003, Pocahontas Libraries was one of three libraries in the nation to receive the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ prestigious National Community Service Award at the White House.
Allen has been a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams serving in Haiti and Palestine. In 1993, Allen received the Charles Finney Fellowship to help start up the Evangelical Environmental Network, and completed a Master’s degree in Theology with emphasis on public policy. Coming home, Allen produced Creation Song, a regional radio program on religious environmental advocacy. Allen led numerous religious nature retreats, Opening the Book of Nature. And for 25 years, Allen has been in leadership with the National Religious Partnership on Creation Care. In 2005, Bob Marshall and Allen led a retreat that formed Christians For The Mountains, with special focus on ending mountaintop removal, and produced the “Mountain Mourning” DVD collection. Allen continues to coordinate that organization.
Allen’s organizations have been featured in numerous books, articles, and films, including Newsweek, the Renewal film project, and Bill Moyers’ “Is God Green?”
Allen believes that protecting and enhancing creation and building frameworks for peaceful human flourishing are God’s calling upon his life.
March, 1956-June, 2021
Chuck Nelson: Mother Jones Community Foundation Board Advisor/ Volunteer. Chuck was a retired underground coal miner. He spent nearly 29 years mining coal. For most of those years, he was a UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) member who worked in Union mines. He also worked for the anti-union company, Massey Energy. This gave him a true education of the benefits of working for a Union and the dangers of working for a scab nonunion company that doesn’t care if you live or die. Chuck’s hometown was in Sylvester, in Boone County, WV. He was forced to leave his home by Massey Energy’s bad mining practices in Sylvester. Chuck knows the history of the struggle of miners in these mountains because he was one of them. Chuck’s knowledge of what the coal industry has left in its tracks is invaluable. He has served as a witness to the past 5 decades of mining in WV.
In Chuck’s words, working in the mines, you quickly understand that the union is your best friend. The history of the industry tells us that the coal companies are not your friends. The coal industry has proven that they don’t care time and time again. When they began the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) it was because they don’t care about what they leave behind. Mountaintop removal coal mining is a job-killing method of mining, with deadly effects for the communities in the adjacent valleys. When I realized how widespread mountaintop removal is in Appalachia, it convinced me that there are no limits to what one person can do to another when it comes to profit and power. I have spent most of my retirement exposing the practices of mountaintop removal because it is destroying the people, places, and the culture that I grew up knowing.
Chuck has spent time in the communities with scientists and he knows first hand what the health impacts of MTR are. He has watched as our communities became sicker and sicker near where mountaintop removal was happening. Chuck worked with the National Academy of Science, USGS, and Dr. Michael Hendryx on studies that have now produced 30 peer-reviewed scientific reports. In 2016 The Trump Administration, along with the support of West Virginia’s representatives in Washington DC, stopped the funding for the National Academy of Sciences study and wouldn’t allow it to be completed. As Chuck understood it, what they were finding was not good news. He suspects that the findings were one of the reasons that the studies stopped.
Part of Chuck’s work currently is to get this work refunded and completed in the new administration. Our community members participated in this science and they want answers. Many of our local community members are dying of fatal health disparities and we want to know why. We want the people responsible held accountable. Most importantly we want happy, healthy, communities once again where our people can flourish and live the lives that they each deserve in the mountains where they belong.
2008 WV Environmental Council Laura Foreman Grassroots Activists of the Year
2010 Ohio Citizen Action Enduring Courage Award
Board Historian Wess Harris comes to the MJCF after multiple careers–all in the hell raising/organizing tradition of Mother Jones. After getting his graduate training in sociology at THE Ohio University in Athens and a stint exposing corruption at the Athens County Home, Wess divorced Ohio and moved to West Virginia. A filler job as “wash boy” at the WVU motor pool resulted in the first ever ventilation for the mechanics. Teaching at the local business college, Wess organized a teacher’s union, cut his teeth as an educator, and published ‘CROSS THE POND, an oral history of Appalachians in the Vietnam era military. This work was reprinted sans text edits in 2014 and is currently available at OUR-WV.com.
A student thought Wess needed to be a coal miner and he soon was. Thanks to a certain Union Local V.P., Wess went on to briefly serve as president of LU 1555 and would later be fired for organizing in Preston County. Too much fun!
Next came a career as founder of Appalachian Community Services, inc dedicated to doing what needs done–and not going broke! As the administrator of the Lewis Wetzel Personal Care Home, Wess was elected to chair the WV Behavioral Health Advisory Council. Fun while it lasted. Careful what toes ya step on!
Fast forward to early this century and Wess would locate, digitize, and make available through Radford University more than 60 of the Appalachian Portraits done by friend and mentor Connie West. That project led to Wess meeting William C. Blizzard and life would never be the same. WHEN MINERS MARCH was penned by WCB in 1952-3 and published only as an uncredited serial in the Huntington Labor Daily. Resting in a box for more than half a century, Wess “discovered” it and served as midwife to publication as a book–initially by Appalachian Community Services and later by a major publisher, PM PRESS. Arguably the most important book ever written about West Virginia, this was praised by Howard Zinn as extraordinary and earned Wess the title of WEST VIRGINIA HISTORY HERO. Wess later edited the 2017 work, WRITTEN IN BLOOD, the first book to document the Esau system of institutionalized sexual slavery in the coalfields of the early 20th century. The book deals with not only the system of sexual slavery but many other censored events in our history. Read about the sabotage at Farmington #9, coverup on Buffalo Creek, and the incredible victories that came about from events on Blair Mountain.
“WRITTEN IN BLOOD SHINES A CRITICAL LIGHT ON THE UNTOLD TRUE HISTORY OF THE WEST VIRGINIA MINE WARS”–Mari-Lynn Evans, director, and producer of Emmy Nominated BLOOD ON THE MOUNTAIN.
Wess brings a wealth of information and experience to MJCF. We work together to teach the accurate (not sanitized!) history of our ancestors to the next generation in the hopes we do not repeat the sorrows of the past. Wess donates a portion of the proceeds from his book sales to MJCF to help support the work that we all see as critical to the people and culture that are the intended casualties in the Great Appalachian War of Extraction.
Wess currently curates the WHEN MINERS MARCH TRAVELING MUSEUM, an independent and uncensored look at where we have been and where we can go. He offers complimentary Truth Tours of the State Museum to folks wanting an honest look at our history and how it is distorted by the interests of Big Coal and Big Government. Contact Wess at firstname.lastname@example.org or call or text at 304-532-7771 to schedule a tour or arrange for the WHEN MINERS MARCH TRAVELING MUSEUM to come to your holler!
Board Member Marian Steinert is an artist and photographer living in Northeast Ohio. Her family is from Wales, where they were coal miners; they settled in the coal-mining area of Pennsylvania.
She was a still photographer for the filming process of Mari-Lynn Evans’s “Coal Country” documentary and contributed several images to the accompanying book. She also traveled with the film’s educational tour, photographing for archival purposes.
Marian is honored to be a board member of the Mother Jones Community Foundation and looks forward to supporting its work for the people of Appalachia.
Growing up, Appalachian people knew a life that most could only dream of. We had loving caring families that made up our communities. Those families came together to see to it that each family’s needs were met. This is the truest meaning of community.
Historically, Appalachians have always been our neighbor’s keepers. When the extraction industries failed us, it was these mountains and our unique culture that helped us survive.
Inspired by the strength of our ancestors we work to improve the lives of the people in communities that have been forgotten by the industries and the politicians that promised a better life. There is no better life. Our culture allows us opportunities to sustain ourselves and care for the others around us. There is no freedom like the freedom of being Appalachian.
Learning and teaching the history and culture in these mountains is critical to future generations’ security and true independence.
Mother Jones Community Foundation is a non-profit organization (501-c3) dedicated to improving the quality of life in some of the most impoverished, addicted, and exploited communities in Appalachia.
Our mission is to help improve the lives of the people of our communities through matching resources with needs. Our work requires that the community members take the lead.
Our team brings a tremendous network of skills and knowledge to the table to affect community lead, long-term change. The world owes Appalachia and MJCF doesn’t mind telling them so.
- Establish Black Lung and Silicosis Outreach Programs.
- Help support drug recovery efforts in local communities.
- Help to provide opportunities in places where opportunity doesn’t exist.
- Initiative to address safety issues with abandoned coal waste dams that threaten our local communities.
- Help people protect themselves from unsafe mining practices.
- Re-establish trust in the communities, among neighbors, and help bridge the divide of our people.
- It is our obligation to teach the mountain culture that our ancestors passed down to us.
- Celebrate who we are and how we came to be here.
- Appreciate all that this amazing place has to offer our people in the future by reaching back into the past and recalling who we really are.
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