April 2, 2013—Each year, Georgetown students participate in one of the country’s longest-running alternative spring break trips, Spring Break in Appalachia.
Sponsored through the Center for Social Justice, the Alternative Spring Break Program (ASB) introduces students to underserved communities in weeklong service and immersion trips. George Burton (C’13) and Hopey Fink (C’15) recently led a trip to Harlan, Kentucky. Both students had spent spring break in Appalachia before, and this year chose to play a leadership role by designing the trip and planning activities with local nonprofits and volunteer organizations.
“Hopey and I chose [to work with] Christian Outreach with Appalachian People (COAP), a housing repair and new home construction nonprofit for low-income families, located in Harlan,” Burton said. “After nailing down the logistics with COAP and the Center for Social Justice, we selected our participants, which included Assistant Dean Ed Meyertholen.”
The Center for Social Justice encourages faculty and staff to join ASB groups so students can interact with them in a different environment. “Dean Meyertholen is my academic dean, and I didn’t know him that well before going on the trip. He definitely added a lot to the trip,” Burton said. According to Meyertholen, the trip also offered him the opportunity to explore a new region and community. “It was a great way to meet people. That was the part that I didn’t expect and the part that I think was the best,” Meyertholen said.
In addition to their service projects, Burton and Fink chose to investigate the environmental and economic issues of the region. “I find rural housing, coal, mountaintop removal, and access to clean water the most interesting and pressing issues in central Appalachia. I tried to match a site that could explore those issues,” Burton explained. In Harlan, the group visited the Kentucky Coal Museum, explored a mountaintop removal site, went hiking, and got to know members of a local church.
For Fink, the interaction with the local community changed her views of the coal industry and allowed her to delve into the challenges facing the region. “Initially, I was really excited to work against the coal industry. It’s not healthy for the environment, and it’s not economically sustainable,” Fink said. “Going there, I didn’t expect to get such a rich understanding of how it’s not as simple as that,” she continued.
Most people in Harlan had a positive opinion about the coal industry and were willing to share how their community and economy depends on coal. “We got a lot of information from a [local] miner. He was a college graduate and a teacher, but he decided that he could make more money in the coal mine,” Meyertholen said. “Students got a lot of the other side of what they thought they knew,” he said.
Over the course of the week, the students reflected on the divergent views they heard from anti-coal, environmental groups and the local community. “It makes it difficult because I don’t know what the solution is. But I know the solution isn’t as simple as I thought,” Fink said. Through conversations, Fink discovered that she was missing a key element of this debate: the people in these communities.
Looking back on her experience, Fink is grateful to have gained a more holistic understanding of the coal industry, which she would not have received without working in the Harlan community. For Fink and Burton, the trip also served as a reminder of how much there is to learn outside of the classroom.
“ASB is an amazing way to explore pressing and troubling social justice issues around the country, while meeting and become extremely close to 10–15 people from Georgetown that you would never have been able to know otherwise,” Burton said. “The mission of ASB embodies the ideals Georgetown was founded on, and it’s a must before you graduate.”