Representatives from The Holler Network spoke to Athens County residents Tuesday during a workshop about organizing against racism in Appalachia.
The workshop, which was hosted by the Ohio University Student Union, encouraged those in Appalachia to resist white supremacist and fascist groups that have organized since President Donald Trump’s election. The network focuses on the groups that have formed in Appalachian states, including Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Matt Walton, a Holler Network representative, said the workshop focused on group discussion to allow residents to come to the conclusions about fascism themselves.
“We’re hoping this overall workshop was for folks that have a great understanding of how white supremacy works in this country and how we can take steps to combat it," Walton said. "Because we can see we’ve had a major rise in it in the past several months.”
The workshop highlighted activist groups in history resisting racist organizations that are not typically taught in schools, including the Coal Creek War in the early 1890s. That “war”
was what Walton said was “one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in all American labor history,” where the Tennessee government leased convicts to work in coal mines for free. The backlash it received caused the government to fail to renew the leases in 1896.
More than a century later, racial disparities persist in Appalachia.
“If you see a name on a resume and it looks ‘ethnic’ it’s turned down,” OU LGBT Center Director delfin bautista said. “There are racial undertones to all of this. It may not impact those who are white in the same way that it impacts those who are people of color. But race is a part of the struggle.”
Holler Network representatives also shed light on the Highlander Research and Education Center, a social justice leadership training school and cultural center in New Market, Tennessee. The representatives said Rosa Parks trained at that school to participate in the civil rights movement prior to being arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.
Community members discussed what “fuels the fire” of white supremacy, including tensions since Trump’s election and the impact of social media. Claire Gysegem, a public relations manager for Hocking Athens Perry Community Action, said social media has given her a way to avoid people who don’t share her beliefs, but there are positives to it as well.
“I feel like I’ve kind of isolated myself in terms of social media, and I know and I have learned so much due to the exposure I’ve received on social media,” Gysegem said. “The people ... that’s where I learned about gender as a spectrum, that’s where I learned about white privilege.”
Gysegem said the spread of those ideas on social media can lead to someone with differing viewpoints to learn about those issues and allow it to resonate within them.
Madeline Ffitch, a graduate student in the department of English, said people who identify as anti-fascist should reach out to young people who are vulnerable and targeted by racists, rather than those who are simply afraid to walk down the street in fear of white supremacists.
Ffitch said people have a hard time deciding the moment to intervene when someone is bullying and enticing fear in Athens residents.
bautista said that the workshop is only the beginning of tackling white supremacy, and hopes OU students organize against those groups.
“(It’s) the beginning of the construction … we need to continue the dialogue,” bautista said.