“One of the most vital ways we sustain ourselves is by building communities of resistance, places where we know we are not alone”― bell hooks
At the end of last year’s Students Taking on Oil & Petrochemicals (STOP) fellowship, our team went through a strategic planning process that addressed our concerns about our program’s lack of diversity and the voices of those most affected by the extraction happening in this region. Led by the incredible consultant Felica Teter, our team sat down and searched into Appalachia’s history of oppression that has polluted our culture. There’s a strong history of pitting poor white folks against Black folks in our region as a way for the rich and powerful to stay at the top. We need to continue to work to repair this history, but it will take lots of time and organizing.
Each year of the program, we also request feedback from the fellows themselves, and despite our emphasis on rest last year, feedback told us that students have still felt burnt out and tired. Both of these lines of thought informed a shift this year, focusing very closely on developing each student as a whole person who has obligations beyond their fellowship with PLAN. This important shift has left our fellowship with less “objective” results, because we believe in the long-term investment and commitment to these students―which is what our movement needs now.
Organizing in places that are also directly impacted by waste infrastructure is challenging. We knew this going into the program, which was a big reason we even started it. As a student organizer, I saw how our location in Southwestern Pennsylvania impeded our ability to make sustainable switches on our campus. The ultimate goal of this program is to support students that want to make these shifts anyway. This takes persistence and resilience, something that I know is in the blood of the community in Appalachia. But the results of this persistence doesn’t always look like over 1,000 signatures on a petition or a campus-wide shift from styrofoam to reusables (although we’ve done those things over the three years of this program). Resilience can look as simple as getting out of bed on a morning that is hard. Persistence can be continuing to host club meetings even when student engagement in your club is at its lowest ever.
This past November, Shell officially brought its cracker plant in Beaver County online. You can read about the community’s response here. This was 10 years in the making, with ongoing protests from community members far and wide. This announcement was hard for lots of my comrades and for me. It doesn’t mark a loss by any means, but it does mean that the air quality, which is already bad from the glass factory, steel plant, and numerous other industries, will get worse.
The opening of the Shell plant has reignited our commitment to holding the fellowship in this region and only will bring our community closer together to fight the ongoing build-out of the petrochemical industry. We will continue to build communities of resistance to this toxic industry and know that ultimately in doing this, we have already won.