A group of student Fellows pose with PLAN staff Young & Roo while wearing masks. A magenta STOP logo is shown with the text "Fall 2023 Reflections"

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On February 3, we hosted our first student event in the Ohio River Valley at Marshall University, marking a significant milestone in the work taking place in that region. For the past four years, we have worked closely with Marshall through the Students Taking on Oil & Petrochemicals (STOP) Fellowship. Back in 2020, Marshall made history as the first campus in Appalachia to sign the Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) Campus Pledge and commit to ditching single-use plastics. As a region that has been historically extracted from, and continues to be, this was a bold statement.

We organized a Beyond Waste Student Summit on Marshall’s campus. PLAN’s Summits serve as simulations for campaigns, encouraging students to think deeply about their role in systemic change. As a nod to Marshall signing the BFFP Pledge, this Summit had students build a fictional campaign to push their campus to go plastic-free. In addition, Marshall was able to highlight their advancements in sustainability including West Virginia's first Commercial Compost Facility. We were able to bring in students from five different regional campuses, including University of Louisville, Berea College, University of Pittsburgh, and Morehead State.

Choosing West Virginia as the setting for this event was an easy decision to make.  It is the birthplace of petrochemicals and the site of the largest labor uprising in US history, the Battle of Blair Mountain, including several other significant labor movements. Despite the deep organizing history that West Virginia has, this narrative often remains overlooked. We were honored to bring folks from all over the US to share space with us in this state.  

After the summit ended, my Fellowship Coordinator, Roo, and I visited the Ohio River, just two blocks from Marshall University. I was excited because this river can be traced back to my home, in Pittsburgh, where it is formed by the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers coming together. I live less than a half mile from the Monongahela River!  

When we arrived at the river, uncovered coal cargo ships passed by in the muddy waters that had obviously flooded just weeks before. Thick mud left behind by the flooding was filled with animal prints – raccoons, possums, birds, dogs, and more that I couldn’t identify. We share this river with so many living things, and yet the water is becoming unlivable. Growing up, I was told to never swim in the Ohio River, as the pollution makes folks sick. Our rivers feel as if they have turned into highways of extracted resources taken from poor communities to continue to fuel the constant consumption of wealthy communities. I want to be able to swim and create memories in these rivers – but I can’t and never have been able to in my 27 years of living nearby. Roo, from Tennessee, hadn’t seen uncovered cargo ships before – something that is commonplace for me. 

We realized that across the river from where Roo and I were sitting in West Virginia was Ohio.

All of this emphasizes how connected we are. Even if we regulate how we protect our water by state, it all goes to the same place. It still runs throughout our veins regardless of how we protect it – or don’t. 

Young, Plastics Campaign Director, and Roo, STOP Fellowship Coordinator, share a sunny moment beside the Ohio River in Huntington, WV

Our fellows for the STOP program are from all over, but the Ohio River and its tributaries connect all of us. See below each current fellow's honest reflection on their relationship with the Ohio River Basin.

Roo, Fellowship Coordinator and 22’-23’ STOP fellow: “I didn’t begin to name the Ohio River as an important body of water to my experience until I began this fellowship and started learning about how it’s connections to the Tennessee (a tributary to the Ohio) and Mississippi (downstream), two rivers that I have been surrounded by my entire life to the east and west. On a daily basis I interact with smaller creeks and rivers that come from the larger ones, so seeing the huge source rivers always feels awe-inspiring but saddening knowing how polluted they are.” 

Ashley, Bethany College: “The Ohio river was about a 5-10 minute walk from my house at the end of my neighborhood. I grew up going fishing and it may sound gross to some but even swimming in the Ohio River. I also always carry the fun fact around that the state of Ohio was actually named after the river and not the other way around.”

Bria, University of Louisville: “I was interested in the Ohio River as a kid after visiting the Falls of the Ohio. Looking back on it now, learning about its geological history and how it has shifted for ten-thousands of years made me appreciate it from a nature/spiritual kind of view. I do hate how the river is being mistreated and filled with toxic waste. A lot of people, particularly companies, do not understand the dynamism of rivers and how it’s “alive” and have all-encompassing effects on the things around it.”

Shayla, Berea College: “I honestly feel like I don’t have a really in depth relationship with the Ohio River. Growing up in Louisville, it’s just seen as a river that’s really nasty. My dad goes to fish near there sometimes but it wouldn’t be safe for him to eat the fish he would catch if he wanted to because it’s so gross from all of the physical and chemical pollution. It’s really sad that the Ohio river has become a dumping ground for any company that needs somewhere to dump their waste.”

Nailah, University of Pittsburgh: “In order for me to get from home to Pittsburgh, I have to drive on a road called the Ohio River Blvd. It’s basically a straight shot, but you can see the Ohio River the whole way.” 

Seferina, Virginia Tech: “As a kid I was really interested in how water connected land through watersheds but never felt a strong connection to the Ohio River because I don’t live near it. The Ohio River felt distant and a “landing” point for the water at home. I do have a more personal connection with the rivers and streams that I was closer to growing up like the Holston and Tennessee River watershed, which are tributaries to the Ohio River.”

Sofia, University of Tennessee, Knoxville: “The Ohio River honestly feels pretty distant to me — I grew up without much of an awareness of the Ohio River, however I have a stronger connection to the related Tennessee River. Driving past the Tennessee River and taking walks alongside the River were an important part of my childhood, and I always remember looking for herons near the river on car rides or on hikes.”