Sophomore Examines Environmental, Socioeconomic Issues in Appalachia

MARCH 26, 2015 – Human science major Marnie Klein (NHS’17) has recently returned from a Georgetown University-sponsored alternative break trip to Harlan, Ky., a region that has long been economically dependent on the coal mining industry.

The student says she was intrigued by the environmental issues surrounding mountaintop removal practices in the Harlan area and the effects of the coal industry on the population.

“We viewed the environmental and socioeconomic issues through many different lenses and spent substantial time reflecting on the experiences we had,” Klein says.

Serving the Community

In Harlan, the students collaborated with local organizations to work on community service projects. Together with Christian Outreach with Appalachian People, a housing repair and construction non-profit, they helped restore a house for a low-income family in Harlan County.

They also supported the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, a wildlands preservation organization, on building a footbridge to cross a stream in a local nature preserve. Additionally, the students collaborated with Green Forests Work by planting trees on formerly mined lands.

“This experience allowed me to engage in an issue from many different perspectives,” says Klein. “I am excited to see how Harlan will reinvent itself with the decline of the coal industry – hopefully by investing in more sustainable industries.”

Important Lessons

Aside from their service projects, the students talked with environmental activists, media specialists, and local residents to better understand the impact of the declining coal industry in Harlan.

“I learned that Appalachian culture cannot be simply stereotyped,” Klein says. “The people of Harlan all have individual stories, and it is impossible to create a single narrative about their experiences and culture.”

During her immersive experience, Klein also witnessed unfortunate health outcomes and socioeconomic depression in the area.

“As someone interested in public health and human physiology, the Harlan trip gave me great insight into how coal mining has affected the health of individuals in the town,” says the sophomore who will continue her volunteer experience this summer by teaching English in rural Panama, where she also hopes to work with local health clinics.

By Masha Mikey (S’15)