From Fellow to Coordinator: STOP 2023-2024 in Review by Roo Stewart

A year ago at this time I was wrapping up my time as a STOP fellow at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I was about to graduate and had been organizing on campus for years, but had only just truly learned about core organizing principles like setting community agreements, combating white supremacist culture, and organizing an accessible direct action. 

Fast forward, one year later, I’m coordinating the very fellowship that contributed so much to my growth. We have 6 fellows from across the Ohio River Valley and Appalachia, each with unique strengths and stories: Sofia from UTK, Shayla from Berea College, Bria from University of Louisville, Seferina from Virginia Tech, Ashley from Bethany College, and Nailah from University of Pittsburgh. 

We began with weekly zoom calls and advising sessions and eventually grew to be a community — many of us even gathering in person at Marshall University in February (the first time this fellowship has ever been able to meet in person)!

Headshots from our Fellows. Top Row (left to right): Naliah, Sofia, Ashley; Bottom Row: Shayla, Seferina, Bria

During the fall we focused on getting to know one another as the fellows gave their “Story of Self” - a storytelling exercise that centers one’s personal connection with their activism. Nailah and Shayla presented on panels at the Students for Zero Waste Conference in November, and we took a long break in December and January. 

During this winter hibernation we honored our energy flows and realigned ourselves with the season. I personally dealt with my second neurodivergent burnout of the year and was truly debilitated. I was so grateful to work for an organization that honored my limitations and made accommodations. Leaning into a non-familial community was life-changing and helped me come out of my depression. In fact, after Young’s encouragement and support to come to the Beyond Waste Summit at Marshall University, and because I had promised Bria I would drive them to the summit, I challenged myself to put others needs over my own and truly centered those who I was accountable for (another activity we did during an ego death workshop — creating a web of those you are accountable to). 

Traveling to Huntington, WV, and meeting the fellows for the first time was a turning point, and I sought to uplift mental health struggles and make the fellowship a safe space to struggle and ask for help.  

As much as winter was a time for hibernation, spring was a time for rejuvenation. We traveled to West Virginia three times: from Huntington to New River Gorge to Charleston.

In February, we hosted a Beyond Waste Student Summit at Marshall University and got to meet fellows in-person and work through some role-playing exercises. 

In April, Young and I attended Training for Change’s Central Appalachian Training for Trainers. This was fitting seeing as the past month of the fellowship was focused on rotating facilitations — with each fellow facilitating on a topic of their choosing and then scoring themselves. Fellows facilitated on a range of topics including gendered violence in sites of extraction, fair trade, air pollution, mining in Suriname, greenwashing, and the Stop Cop City movement. 

At the Training for Trainers, Young and I learned about new facilitation tactics through experiential learning methods and connected with two of our fellows mentors- Heather from WV Rivers and Tonya from the Center for Coalfield Justice! 

Our ideas and connections were blooming! 

Young and Roo at the Training for Trainers in Fayette County, WV This photo is taken at the New River Gorge National Park which is minutes away from where we stayed.

A few weeks later, we attended the Alliance for Applachia’s member meeting in Charleston, WV. We again met up with mentors, Dee and Joanne, and recruited some other potential mentors for the STOP Fellowship. We participated in elder circles and toxic tours. I had the amazing opportunity to go on a flyover with SouthWings, an organization that connects with pilots to provide public benefit flyover tours. I saw strip mining and chemical corridors from above. We flew from Charleston to the Coal River Mountain Watch and Marsh Fork Elementary School — a powerful symbol in the movement to end mountaintop removal coal mining and the site of the New School. The original Marsh Fork school sat in the shadow of a coal silo and just 400 yards from a massive toxic sludge dam. When children became ill from these MTR operations so close to school, parents and the community rose up to demand children be protected.


Pictures from the flyover, including the John Amos Coal fired Power Plant

Next we flew to Institute and West Virginia State University which neighbors Union Carbide chemical plants. You can follow the exhaust to the neighboring John Amos coal-fired power plant. It was mind boggling to see how close these toxic sites are to a university. The next day we went on a driving tour to the same sites and I saw up close that at WVSU you can’t even break ground to plant a community garden without first doing an environmental impact assessment… 

Alliance for Appalachia Member Meeting in Charleston, WV. Young and Roo are 6th and 7th from the left in the back row. 

New trees planted above ground because the soil is so polluted at West Virginia State

These injustices fuel this fellowship, and we are so proud of our fellows for the work they’re done against extraction. Shayla and Nailah successfully applied for and received Earth Day Action grants to organize actions. Shayla is working on flood relief and Nailah is exposing the community health impacts of the Shell Beaver Cracker Plant. 

The spring semester is structured into self-directed quests including quests to practice facilitation, build political power (meet with mentors), build ideological power (create a blog post or art piece — example: Shayla’s IG post on gasification, pyrolysis , and on recycling false solutions) and build people power (design a direct action).  

All of our fellows have created new work, from zines to Instagram posts. Ashley is graduating from Bethany and Bria got a full time job with the Louisville Public Library!

Left: On my trip to Birmingham for the STAY Project’s Appalachian Love Fest, I spotted one of Sofia’s zines from their work with Crisis Actor!  Right: The winner of our quest challenge was Shayla! Great work!